The Cheese Grotto: A Home Aging Cave

Some of my favorite moments in this world have been inside cheese caves — like Willi Lehner’s hobbit-like cave built into a Wisconsin hillside at Bleu Mont Dairy or the labyrinthine Cellars of the Fort Saint Antoine in France, otherwise known as the “catherdral of Comté.” So, just imagine my delight when I learned that a Brooklyn cheesemonger named Jessica Sennett had invented an in-home Cheese Grotto.

Sennett has been handling cheese for years — as a Cave Manager at Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and as an educator at Bedford Cheese Shop. She also studied cheesemaking in France. In 2014, she caught the cheese world’s attention with her Kickstarter campaign for the Cheese Grotto. Her idea? To create an optimal storage unit that would mimic a cheese cave, for home use. Think: steady temperature and humidity. (Refrigerators tend to be drying.)

For the last six weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of test-driving the Cheese Grotto. I’ve chronicled the project on Istagram (@mmefromage), and now I’m here for some cave reckoning.

How the Cheese Grotto Works

What it’s made of: PlyBoo (plywood made of bamboo), glass panels, air vents

What it comes with: a clay brick for moisture control, an instruction booklet, food-grade mineral oil

How it works: You can store the Cheese Grotto in your refrigerator or in a cool place, even on your counter as long as your kitchen is less than 70 degrees fahrenheit. To get started, you soak the clay brick in water for two minutes, insert it in the bottom of the cave, then place your cheeses onto the bamboo shelves, and close the Grotto’s door. You can age up to 6 pounds of cheese at a time. Check your cheese daily and adjust the air vents in the back of the Grotto if the cheeses look too dry or too moist. To clean the Grotto, you hand-wash it with soap or vinegar water, and oil it monthly.

Which cheeses to age: the Grotto’s booklet includes a preservation guide with a list of styles and aging times. A goat cheese log, for example, can age for 2-3 weeks in a refrigerated grotto or up to 8 days if the grotto is on the counter at an ambient temperature of less than 70 degrees.

The Value of a Cheese Grotto

First, the Grotto is adorable. Aesthetically, it’s a brilliant conversation piece.

If you’re starting to make cheese at home — particularly bloomy cheeses or washed-rind cheeses — the Grotto would be an ideal home cave for your small batches. Could you find a less expensive alternative? Probably. With its $350 price tag, the Grotto is splurge-y, but there is something so pleasing about peering into it every morning. It catches every visitor’s eye when they enter my kitchen, especially my wee neighbor Dera, age 5.

Does it actually work? Yes, I experimented with storing both hard cheeses and bloomy (Brie-like) cheeses, like Doe Run’s Damselfly. Hard cheeses retain humidity in the Grotto, which is great. You don’t have to stifle them in plastic wrap or tinfoil, so you can keep them fresher longer. Cheeses with downy surface molds actually continue to ripen, so you can get a slightly underripe cheese to develop a runny center over a few days.

It was so gratifying to experiment with the Cheese Grotto, I decided to purchase the one that Jessica Sennet loaned me. I didn’t expect to bond with it, but it’s kind of like a toaster oven or a rice cooker — other “novelties” I didn’t think I wanted until I tried them. Now, I can’t imagine a Grotto-less existence.

Fund Jessica Sennett’s Next Grotto Project

This month, Jessica is running a campaign on Women You Should Fund to create a smaller, less expensive grotto, for the metropolitan cheese lover. It’s also made from slightly different materials. Take a look at her “Al Fresco” Cheese Grotto Campaign.

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Up next: It’s Vacherin season! In Philadelphia, Chef Peter Woolsey of Bistrot La Minette had the brilliant idea to celebrate this cheese all month with Vacherin Mont d’Or dinners. You book a 4-top, and you get to enjoy an entire wheel of warm, gooey Vacherin with accompaniments and wine. Brilliant!

 

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