I recently shared with you my weekly treat ritual. Well, I have a confession to make: it’s not just once a week. In addition to working with the Edible Schoolyard NYC and interning at Dirt Candy, I’m taking advantage of my summer in the city to volunteer in the classroom at Murray’s Cheese. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should try to soon – it has the most amazing selection of top-tier cheeses from around the world, including so many awesome, little-known ones from right here in the States. They’re one of the oldest and best cheese stores in the city. They even have their own climate-controlled caves in the basement where they age and finish many of the cheeses they stock (a process called affinage) – one producer even entered Murray’s version of their cheese into a competition over their own! You know you’re good when.
In any case, I got to know Sascha, the Education Coordinator, through my friend Chloe who worked at Murray’s last summer (Jordan‘s doing the same right now), and I’ve signed up to help out with a few classes this summer. I set up and clean up (which is fun already) and I get to sit in on the class, taste the cheeses and the beverage pairings (read: free wine and beer), and learn a whole lot about fantastic cheeses from around the world. Oh, and I get to take home the leftovers, of which their are invariably significant amounts from the cutting and portioning.
But this post isn’t about Murray’s (though I’m getting to recounting Cheese Boot Camp that I helped with a few weekends ago). This post is about what I do before Murray’s.
There is always a little time between when I get off work and when I head to the shop to help set up the classroom. And it would be a terrible waste to not use this precious window to explore the west village, would it not?
So you see, my increased treat quota is in fact an exigency of efficient time management.
This past week, I had a class called ‘Secret Cheeses of England’ that I was fervently excited for. A contingent from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, one of the best purveyors of cheese in the world, was visiting Murray’s and bringing with them six delicious cheeses that hardly anyone had heard of and virtually no one had tried. The reason for this is that they may not be distributed in the American market, for they use raw milk and are aged under sixty days. They were incredibly delicious. But more on that another time.
I had been meaning to try the espresso at Porto Rico Importing Co. as part of my city-wide search for the best espresso. It’s on Bleeker just east of 6th ave, and a stone’s throw from Murray’s. I opened the wooden door to the overwhelming smell of dozens of different roasts and terroirs. A quick stop at the coffee bar in the back yielded a small cup of concentrate. I took it outside to the bench to enjoy in the afternoon sun.
There was sesame and peanut oil on the nose – strong but inviting. Then, a sharp, swift body, almost all punch, with brief notes of star anise and burnt palm sugar, and the ghost of dandelion greens on the finish. It was an interesting, complex brew, worth the visit, but not the favourite for this palate.
Luckily I had one more stop to make before all the cheese. The day before, I had also taught a private class at Murray’s on ‘The Mystery of the Caves’, and before that I had visited Victory Garden, a new ice cream place on Carmine that serves goat’s milk ice creams, with a rotating menu of three or four flavours at a time and a host of fabulous, fresh toppings including ground nuts, made-in-house fresh fruit sauces, and exotic specialties like mulberries and maple marshmallows. And they source their milk from a local goat dairy and their herbs and most of their other ingredients from a handful of farms in the area, so how could I not be won over.
The previous day, I had sampled their salted caramel, their signature chocolate, and their orange blossom vanilla, deciding upon the latter two, laced with ground pistachios. The goat’s milk, much less fatty than cow’s milk, provided the most interesting base for an ice cream – it seemed to pair well with anything. For richer flavours, it lent a lovely contrasting lightness and buoyancy; for lighter flavours, it only enhanced their brightness. The chocolate was rich, deep, and intense, moreso than I was expecting (and glad to be surprised), while the orange blossom vanilla was floral, exultant, and seductive. And thanks to my little green friends, there was a gauze of nuttiness to tie them both together.
But alas I was not to receive the full experience that day, for they were in the midst of churning their signature herbal blend and it would not, alas, be ready until the next day. I was faced with no other choice but to return and diligently explore their menu further.
So return I did, and I was not disappointed. The herbal blend was a delight. Profiles of mint, basil, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and anise hyssop all bled together into a softly aromatic reverie held aloft by the light freshness of the goat’s milk. But a sample was just enough for today – I was hankering for something even further off the beaten creamery path.
The answer to my plea took the form of dondurma – a workable ice cream from Turkey that is magically resistant to melting. It is made with salep, a flour ground from the tuber of an indigenous wild orchid, that gives the dessert its distinctive ductility. It also contains mastic, the dried resin of the mastic tree from the Greek island of Chios, that gives it its resinous flavour, and mahlab, a ground aromatic spice made from the seeds of the St. Lucie cherry. I first learned about mastic in my History of Food and Cuisine class, and it was fun to see it in a food item so far from its origins. Mahlab I’d never heard of. I love discoveries of one food through another.
They served the dondurma with a spoonful of sour cherry sauce, house-made from farmers’ market cherries that morning, to reflect the inclusion of mahlab in the ice cream itself. I took my treat to savour by the window.
I’m going to say up front that it was quite possibly the most delicious, most pleasurable ice cream I have ever enjoyed. Actually no that’s a big statement. But it was definitely very very up there. First of all, the texture was just mind-blowing: ice cream that you could stretch? That you could spin like pulled toffee? That gathered in drizzles like butterscotch? It was just too much for this poor lad’s aesthetic sense. And then the aroma hit – a heady, spritzy scent of pine and cedar (a profile I love because it reminds me of home in BC), tempered by a subtle herbaceousness and, as always, the fresh lightness of the goat’s milk. And then put together with the sour cherry in the mouth, it was a phenomenal combination. The ice cream melted much slower than the standard version, slowly releasing its bright woodsy flavour in waves, mixing in with the sourness of the cherries, enhancing its flavour and mouthfeel.
And the more I savoured, the more notes rose slowly to the surface. There was one of violin rosin, which sent me instantly back to my days in junior school playing the violin. My friends and I would compare the colours of our rosins, from amber to chartreuse to molasses, pass them around, smell them. There was another that brought be back to hiking in the interior with my dad on a mountainside covered in pine and fir, or a conifer’d bluff I summitted with my friend Hudson last summer, commanding a view of the inlet and the strait. The combination of the cherry and resin together transported me to summers in my old house, climbing our lichen-covered cherry tree, picking cherries to make into jam up past the second storey, finding sap on our clothes only after coming down, laden with ice cream buckets of pink and yellow jewels. I stayed by that window looking out onto the street for a while, marveling at what lay before me, lost in its layers.
I enjoyed that dondurma down to its last drops of pink ambrosial syrup. I was so taken by it that I had to tell C all about it when I saw him next. He’s a fiend for goat’s cheese, though not so much for ice cream. We returned over the weekend; I ended up sharing a cup of their herbal blend after all.