NEW YORK – Devotees of Brian Keyser’s Casellula this month packed in cheek-by-(curd-filled)-jowl to celebrate the wine-and-cheese cafe’s fifth anniversary. Casellula has been a Glittersnipe favorite for all those years, and we were there to gorge ourselves for the celebration. We also spoke with Dimitri Saad about his top five favorite cheeses and how he came to Casellula.
What is your exact title?
Fromager. It can be a confusing or misleading title. It is a French word that comes with different interpretations depending on the context or the qualifying words that follow. Most French people would assume that I was a cheese maker. Since the position did not really exist as such before Casellula, to my knowledge, there was no existing title. “Cheesemonger” is more accurate for a retail operation. I’m not sure how “Fromager” was chosen, but I describe my job as being like a sommelier for cheese.
Are there any cheeses that you dream of serving that can’t get past customs – legally?
Absolutely! All of the raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days that are produced in Europe. Also, although they aren’t illegal, the existing trade barriers make it almost impossible to get Canadian and Mexican cheeses. I would love to have those cheeses on our menu.
Do you have a least-favorite cheese?
I just really don’t like poorly made or processed cheeses.
I don’t really like flavored cheeses too much either, although there are always exceptions.
What cheese makes you cringe when you see it at the grocery store?
Président Brie and Camembert.
What is the most expensive cheese?
To my knowledge, the Stilton with gold leaf, and I think it’s clear why it’s so expensive. The most expensive cheese we have carried at Casellula is probably the Buffel Truffel, a Swiss, water-buffalo milk cheese with truffles made by the cheese maker Willi Schmid in Toggenburg. Water-buffalo milk is rare and expensive, as they are difficult animals to raise and milk. The truffles also drive up the price, especially since there are large strands of truffles, and not the little specks you normally see in other truffle-laced cheeses.
What is your first memory of cheese?
One of my first memories of cheese is linked to my first time seeing snow at the age of four. My family had planned a ski trip to Cervinia, in the Italian Alps. We arrived in the evening. It was already dark. The roads were icy. I remember my father had to help push the car up to the entrance of the restaurant. We were bustled in from the cold into the cellar of an old building with stone walls, arched ceilings, and long communal tables with wooden benches. As soon after we sat down, a small candle was set down in front of each of us, and an earthen bowl with the most delicious cheese soup I have ever had was placed on top of the candle. It was thick and rich, creamy and also a little gritty from the crystals in the cheese. It seemed to me at the time that it was melted Parmigiano, but recent research has led me to believe it was made primarily with Fontina.
How did you get involved in fromageries?
I had been working at a computer and behind a desk for several years. I was exhausted, stressed out, and derived no satisfaction at all from the work I was doing. I would stop by Bedford Cheese Shop in Williamsburg on my way home every day, and realized that the time I spent in there — perusing the cheese case, talking to the mongers, tasting and buying cheese — was the best part of my day.
I wanted to learn more about cheese, so I went in to Murray’s on Bleecker Street to see what I could do to expand my knowledge of cheese. The people at Murray’s were very helpful and gave me a couple of options. They weren’t hiring at the time, so I volunteered in the classroom and applied for an internship in the caves. A week later, I left my job and volunteered for every class at Murray’s that I could. I went into it with no expectations or realistic hope of finding a new career. I thought I would learn a little about cheese and have some fun before trying to decide what to do next in my life. Everyone I met at Murray’s and through the classes there was so encouraging and helpful, that things just fell into place, one after another.
And without further ado, here are Dimitri’s current top five cheeses
1.Brebis Blanche from 3-Corner Field, Shushan, New York – pasteurized sheep – rich, tangy, fresh — paired with passion fruit caramel and a Dragon Fruit chip
2. Blanc Bleu Tambour from Pays de la Loire, France – raw goat – clean, complex, Earthy — paired with orange confit
3. Fleur de la Vallée from Baetje Farms, Bloomingdale, Missouri – pasteurized goat – silky, floral, smooth — paired with pink peppercorn meringues
4. Maggie’s Round from Cricket Creek Farm, Williamstown Massachusetts – raw cow – toasty, nutty — paired with spicy brown ale mustard
5. Blauer Büffel from Toggenburg, Switzerland – raw water buffalo – luscious, slightly peppery — paired with preserved walnuts
Casellula Wine and Cheese Cafe is located in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen – 401 West 52nd Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues