When Tripp E. Nichols ushers you into the cave, he tells you to watch your head, and step carefully. You must watch your head because the concrete ceiling hangs low, and step carefully because shallow puddles of water cover the floor. When you have positioned yourself between the narrow shelf-lined walls, Nichols directs your attention toward the cheese.
Above ground, it’s a busy Saturday afternoon at Formaggio Kitchen on Huron Avenue. Dozens of customers squeeze through the gourmet shop’s aisles, carrying plastic baskets and wooden toothpicks. (Today’s samples include an aged comté from the Jura mountains, a buttery, milder cheddar from the same region, and latte vecchio from the Lessini mountains outside of Verona.) A woman nudges her husband as he reaches for his fourth bite-sized cube. The air’s pungent.
The cheese on display makes up only a small fraction of Formaggio's stock. The rest is stored in a temperature -and humidity-controlled cellar beneath the shop. There, dense, giant yellow wheels line the walls. Cylindrical blocks of Montgomery Cheddar from South Somerset, England, look like tree stumps, and wheels of Italian parmesan weigh over 80 pounds. Wheels of mimolette resemble crater-filled moon rocks and feel like bowling balls in your arms. They shed orange dust.
“Cheese mites,” Nichols explains. “Kind of gross, right?” Nichols, the store’s general manager and cheese buyer, wears corduroy maroon pants and a light blue polo shirt. His round, bearded face lights up when he talks about his job—which involves traveling to Europe to meet with producers (mostly local farmers) and affineurs, or agers.
To demonstrate the work of an affineur, Nichols pulls out a small, t-shaped metal tool called a cheese iron. “It’s for listening to cheeses,” he explains. Nichols reaches for the 70-pound comté and taps it six or seven times. A skilled affineur can detect subtle variations in vibrations and thereby locate the inner cracks that indicate a cheese needs to be cut up and sold. Nichols works with a Parisian affineur named Jean-Claude, who’s been in the business for 35 years and can measure the exact depth of these cracks based on sound alone.
How does one obtain such expertise? “You just start from the bottom and have a good palette,” Nichols says. (Later, on the subject of his own ambitions, Nichols—who started as a cashier at Formaggio’s—only reveals that he’d like to stay in the industry for a long time, and maybe bring in some new cheeses from California.)
The cheese iron has another purpose. Its hollow end fits into a wheel of cheese and carves out a sample-sized cylinder. Nichols grinds the iron into the comté and offers me half of the cylinder (he plugs the other half back into the cheese, to close the air hole). The sharp, salty cheddar has a slight crunch.
“This is just unheard of in the United States,” Nichols says. He obtained the three-year old wheels only after making multiple trips to the Jura, and building trust with producers there. Comté, a French cheese made from unpasteurized milk, is considered one of the finest in the world. French ACO regulations require 20 inspectors to grade each wheel, and those that score under 12 marks must be sold as Gruyere. The FDA, however, prohibits shipping dairy products made with raw milk into the U.S.
Nichols has had cheeses confiscated and destroyed, and held at customs until they’ve become too moldy and horrible to sell. Most of the time, Nichols avoids the risk of purchasing from blacklisted producers. When it comes to certain cheeses, though, like the comté and Robiola-style blends of cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk, “it’s totally worth it.”
(For the most part, the job’s not too stressful. Nichols ends days reading articles on his laptop while snacking on a thin sliver of cheese.)
One such illicit brand sits in the cave’s inner chamber, where four walls of shelves surround a humidifying machine made out of turned-over clay pots. The treasure among the soft cheeses stored here, Nichols says, is the ekiola arda gasna fermier, from a sheep farm in the Basque region of the Pyrenees. Like the comté, it’s made from raw milk prohibited by the FDA—so Formaggio has it shipped under a different name.
“But it has these,” Nichols says, holding up a wheel of ekiola under the light. He indicates a cow skull engraved on its rind. For those in the know, the skull marks the cheese’s identity.
When asked whether smuggling such cheeses is illegal, Nichols demurs: “They don’t have all the certifications that they need.”
Another illicit product hides on a shelf deep in Formaggio’s labyrinth-like stockrooms, where Nichols escapes the humidity of the cheese cave. It’s a small container of meat rub that lacks the nutrition labeling required by the FDA. Nichols purchased it from an Italian butcher named Dario Cecchini who famously sings in his shop and offers customers a taste of raw meat from a bowl behind the counter.
Perched on a short stool tucked behind the salt shelf, Nichols says that he tracks down such products because he’s determined to please his most particular customers. Though some connoisseurs ask for products Formaggio’s can’t stock—like pule, a Serbian cheese made from donkey’s milk, whose entire supply has been bought up by tennis player Novak Djokavic, or casu marzu, an Italian cheese that contains live insect larvae—he can usually meet demands. (Formaggio’s stocks, among its rarest products, a sheep’s milk cheese coated in sheep’s wool.)
According to Nichols, Formaggio’s success depends on care to both cheese and customers. To the former end, Nichols and his staff arrive at the shop two hours before opening to gently scrape off the light layer of fat that forms over cheese rinds overnight. To the latter end, Nichols claims that he has a special knack.
“I have a good sense of reading people and reading what [cheeses] people want,” he says. “I can tell off the bat whether they love it or like it or if it’s just fine.”
At this point, a woman enters the cellar and calls for Nichols.
“You have an Adam.”
Nichols stares at her blankly.
“A tall guy?”
“Oh!” Nichols exclaims in recognition. “Knifemaker Adam!”
Upstairs, while Nichols meets with knifemaker Adam, there are samples to taste and baked goods to browse. After the meeting ends, Nichols steps behind the counter to demonstrate his cheese-choosing abilities. He offers a goat cheese, a blue cheese, and a soft Swiss to taste. When it comes time for the final purchase, he can tell which has made the strongest impression.
Smuggled cheeses go for high prices, so just a small sliver has to do. Later, at a small gathering in Quincy House, it’s devoured to the rind. A pleased guest calls it “the meat of the gods.”