Whey cool: inside Cheese Boutique’s jam-packed, million-dollar cheese vault
Cheese Boutique, the 10,000-square-foot gourmet food store on the edge of Etobicoke, is not your standard grocer. Even more impressive than its selection of specialty goods (and that Google Street View has been inside) is its in-store, open-to-the-public cheese vault that stocks $1-million worth of dairy products. Afrim Pristine, co-owner and one of six maîtres fromager in Canada, showed us what’s hiding where.
The temperature in the climate-controlled room sits between five and nine degrees Celsius, with the humidity set at 65%. The floor of the vault is flooded nightly and the cheese acts like a sponge, absorbing any moisture it can get. Shelves are made from pine or oak (because of their subtle scents). They’re scrubbed and soaked monthly and kept fully stocked—Pristine buys 300 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano twice a year to replace those that are taken out. Whether they weigh 10 kilograms or 260, every one of them is hand-lifted into place.
Each wheel that a customer purchases is tagged with its commission date and estimated date of peak ripeness. Says Pristine: “My job as an affineur [someone who ages cheese] is to age it, maintain it and give it love and care so that the evolution keeps going. A full wheel of cheese can age for 4,000 years—it needs time to change and evolve to knock your socks off. Just like when you take the cork out of a bottle of wine, when you cut into cheese, the aging process stops.”
Italy’s Auricchio family custom-makes Cheese Boutique’s provolone. (This one’s six feet long.) To check provolone’s ripeness, Pristine “probes” it, then uses butter as a natural Band-Aid to reseal the hole that’s been made.
A number of the wheels have been reserved by restaurants around the city, like Splendido, Langdon Hall and Pizzeria Libretto. Real Sports is currently storing a 10-foot log of provolone (it’s one of the world’s largest), and Via Allegro commissioned some parm in 2003 (it’s now one of the world’s oldest). “It’s kind of like the Mona Lisa,” says Pristine of the 12-year old parm. Others are for private collections, including those of Barenaked Ladies’ Tyler Stewart and chef Chuck Hughes. “In Italy, people would rather invest in cheese than in banks,” Pristine says. “A wheel of cheese is only going to appreciate in value and, more importantly, in flavour.”
The public is allowed to walk through the 300-square-foot space, but they have to keep their hands to themselves, and so do most of the store’s 70 employees—only three of them are allowed to touch the goods.
The freezer here doesn’t do much freezing. It’s kept at the same temperature as the vault, but its air-tight seal keeps things at 100% humidity and is used to house cheeses that thrive in a moist environment, including those from the Ottawa Valley’s Back Forty fromagerie.
It’s not just cheese in the cheese vault: here is where truffles, tuna and mullet roe, and barrels of 10- and 15-year-old balsamic vinegar are kept.
And rows of vacuum-sealed prosciuttos are stored up here until they’re taken out and air-dried from the store’s rafters.
Blue cheeses, like these stacks of clothbound English Stilton, do best in air that’s cold, wet and draughty. Because they’re the smallest cheeses in the vault, the blues get squeezed onto the top shelves.
Standard blocks of Boerenkaas Gouda made in Holland run from 9 to 12 kilograms. These 30- and 60-kilogram slabs were custom-made for the shop—only 10 wheels of each size were cast, and afterwards, Pristine had the moulds destroyed. “In October, Alain Ducasse was here—a very proud moment for me and my family. We each cut one. I’d never cut one before,” he says. “I gambled—I had the best chef ever in my store, but I wanted to do it. It was awesome.”
One rack is filled with three-kilogram loaves of aging Glengarry Lankaaster, a hard cheese that made international headlines in 2013 when it was crowned Global Supreme Champion (no, seriously) at the Global Cheese Awards. Pristine knows his cheese: he had been stockpiling and aging the gouda-style stuff for years before the announcement.
Cheese Boutique, 45 Ripley Avenue, 416-762-6292, cheeseboutique.com