If you’re a cheese lover, you know that wrapping cheese in wax paper, while the optimal material, isn’t a perfect solution. It’s difficult to buy cheese at just the right time and in just the right amount to enjoy in its prime (and don’t get me started about re-wrapping). After spending seven years as a professional cheesemonger and cheesemaker, Jessica Sennett took it into her own hands to do something about this problem. Enter: the Cheese Grotto.
“It’s kind of a shrine to cheese,” she says. “What we’ve come to is something that’s ultimately form and function. It’s a design piece, an aesthetic display for the cheeses that also has a [preservative] function.”
Sennett began designing the product in her Brooklyn apartment, making elaborate preliminary sketches. “I love those renderings, but they’re sort of impossible products, like a whole dome of glass cut with holes. That’s actually nearly impossible to do for a lot of glass manufacturers.” She then reached out to a Parsons student to create the first prototype, and while that model was close to the aesthetic she had in mind, the product lacked the structural integrity and effectiveness she was searching for. Sennett later worked with an industrial designer to improve the prototype. And then, in a stroke of luck, the owner of 61 Local, where she was working part-time, had industrial production equipment and became interested in helping Sennett with the Cheese Grotto. After a lot more work and testing, the Cheese Grotto was officially complete.
Manufactured in the US, the Cheese Grotto is made of glass and bamboo ply, and contains a hand-fired brick that maintains humidity in the unit. The two shelves are removable and can be used for cheese plating. In the future, Sennett plans to work with restaurants and retailers to create more models for commercial use. We sat down with her to ask her a few questions about the product:
culture: What inspired you to design the Cheese Grotto?
Jessica Sennett: I’m a cheesemaker and cheesemonger, and I’d been doing that for about seven years when I had the idea. I’ve worked in various cheese shops, and a lot of customers would come up and ask, “How should I store my cheese?” It’s one of those continual questions that you get.
You’ll find a lot of times customers purchase wedges and wheels and then they have to throw away half of it. That was the initial inspiration. I worked as a cheesemaker, I worked as a cheesemonger, and how can I translate a lot of this knowledge into a product that also by interacting with it educates and informs the customer to become more of a cheese aficionado that they would want to become?
A lot of times when I hear this question, it makes me think about the fact that people and customers in general still don’t know everything there is to know what makes a cheese thrive and what makes it eventually have that unique flavor profile and texture when you enjoy it.
culture: How long can cheese be stored for in the Grotto?
JS: We’ve tested various styles in the cheese grotto. I’ve had to develop the protocol for this myself, because there’s no set protocol for doing this kind of testing on natural styles. So what we did is a comparative test with robiola cheese, which is a higher-moisture style, a light bloomy rind. And because of that we can see more of a quick relative turnaround for the style and see how it performed.
The robiola lasted for two months in the grotto, which was four times longer than plastic wrap and tupperware, and three times longer than the cheese paper. We all know plastic wrap is not good; if you’re into cheese, it’s one of those things that it suffocates the cheese itself and proliferates unwanted molds on the outside, and it becomes ammoliated, especially with something high-moisture like a robiola—it becomes a ball of mush when it can’t breathe. And then tupperware, you have some issues with condensation buildup, because there’s no airflow at all. And the cheese paper’s definitely a better solution, [but] the one challenge with that is—literally because it’s wrapped still in the paper—the paper gets stuck to it… Whereas in the grotto, because you’re not wrapping the wheel in anything, it just sits on the shelf, it has some breathability all around it, and the humidity level, it’s not susceptible for that kind of rind deformation in the same way.
That’s one round of testings that we’ve done. I’d ;say for the blue and the washed-rind styles tested by Max McCalman, after about two months, they started to get more oxidized, and that’s when they started to look a little tired. They hadn’t gone bad, they just weren’t optimal at that phase. The goal over time with this is to create a chart looking at different styles and looking at the exact shelf life for each one: when it’s optimal, when it starts to turn. That’s not to say that cheese isn’t salvageable at almost any phase, but that there is this window, as part of the experience of storing and ripening your own styles, when it should be enjoyed.
culture: Can you store multiple styles of cheese at one time?
JS: In testing the Grotto, I’ve worked the most closely with [cheese expert] Max McCalman. He’s tested different styles of cheese being stored in the Grotto at the same time, seeing if there’s any translation of flavor profile or if there’s any cross-contamination of flavors or molds. The interesting thing is that we’ve found, and this is consistent with a lot of cheese ripening methodology, is that this doesn’t happen. Once a cheese has created a certain microbiological climate for itself, called an ambiance in France, it does not take on other cheeses’ flavor profiles at that point. It’s already cultivated its cheese identity. When we did comparative testing, storing for example a wedge of blue and a wedge of a washed-rind style in the Grotto, on separate shelves, over a two-month time frame, there was no cross-contamination at all and it held up better than wrapping it in the plastic wrap.
culture: Can you tell me about the materials and manufacturers you’re using?
I’m producing the product with the supplier of my materials. I’m proud to be able to say we’re making this in the States, we’re making it with materials that are green, and we’re making it with people who understand integrity of the material that they’re working with. It guarantees that you’re going to have a product that will have a very long life. The goal is to reflect the integrity of specialty cheese in the product.
culture: Do you recommend putting the Cheese Grotto in the fridge or on the counter?
JS: For the rustic foodie, and for all the cooler months of the year, you can leave it out on the counter. I leave mine out on the counter. If you’ve been to Europe, and you’ve seen the way a lot of people enjoy cheese there, it’s still popular today to do that. It was a trend before there was refrigeration. If you’re looking for the longest shelf life that you could possible have, the fridge temperature control helps it perform well. I would say that for long-term storage, it’s best to store it in the fridge, and to cover our bases I’d recommend it. I think it’s up to the end consumer how they want to use it. It is some fridge retail space. We designed it to be about the size of a milk jug that went all the way back in the fridge. Just consider it that your cheese drawer would be used for something else.
We are looking into an electric model as well, but that’s not something that will probably be released for another year or two. I think for a lot of people there’s an appeal to not having an electric item for storage as well.
culture: When is the Cheese Grotto available for purchase?
JS: Pre-orders for the Cheese Grotto begin on Nov. 2 at a special price of $350. The first customers in this limited run will receive the option to engrave initials of their choice on the brick in their Grotto. Orders will be shipped within four weeks of pre-order.