Guest Blog Post by Jessica Sennett (see her bio at the end of the article). Today Jessica explores the history of the Cheese Grotto from the time of ancient Rome to modern times.
Photo: an Italian cheese aging cave
What is the Meaning of Grotto?
As an aging space for cheese, the word Cheese Grotto is often used interchangeably with the word Cheese Cave. As cheesemonger Tom Perry once stated, “One [cheese]maker’s grotto is another maker’s wookey hole.” Historically, however, the term Grotto has been used in multiple ways throughout history that makes it a distinct term from Cave.
Grotto has been used to describe a man-made enclave and religious shrine. Its linguistic Latin derivative is from the word cropta, a corruption of the word crypta, meaning “vault, cavern, or hidden place.” The Italians adopted the word as grotto in 1610.
The word also derives from the French term grotesque, related to a style of art with unusual designs and combinations of figures of animals, humans, and plants, more specifically, the strange cave paintings in ancient Rome. In the English language, grotto describes an underground cave with unique rock formations.
Then, there is a mysticism and visual value to the word Grotto, that makes it more picturesque than your standard cave. In the book, Milk: A Local and Global History, author Deborah M. Valenze states that the 18th century creation of ornamental dairies in aristocratic homes are descendants of the Italian Renaissance grotto gardens as “another imaginative recreation of a site of intense encounters with nature. The dairy promised to transport its visitors in a sensual world of pristine nature in what amounted to a temple dedicated to milk.”
So, what is not a Cheese Grotto?
Although the term Grotto has multiple applications, it is safe to say that an above ground aging room, made completely of man-made materials, such as plastic and stainless steel, would not be called a Grotto. A Cheese Grotto is an imaginative aging room, born out of a natural enclave, and transformed into a space with cheese ripening purpose.
Where can we Find Cheese Grottoes?
Cheese Grottoes can be found all over Europe.
The Swiss Alpine Grotto
In the Gstaad region of Switzerland, the Cheese Grotto has been called the monument to cheese. They have beautifully displayed 3,000 wheels of Berner Alpkäse AOC as well as relics from the region. The underground water reservoir mimics a cathedral in its design. To learn more, you can watch this video inside the Grotto.
The Italian Grotto
In Italy, the word grotta translates as cave, and so the term has become more standard across the board. Traditionally, cheese in Italy is aged in natural rock caves or underground inlets that have been transformed into aging cellars. Because of this, the term Grotto has been applied to aging rooms of the more natural and rustic variety, for cheeses rooted in tradition. For example, Fontina Val D’Aosta, is aged in tunnels and underground military bunkers, two versions of a Grotto.
The French Roquefort Grotto
According to European law, only cheeses aged in the Combalou grottoes of Roquefort-sur-Souizon can be sold bearing the Roquefort name. The natural microbial climate of the caves is a direct contributor to the final wheels’ flavor, texture, and characteristic blue veining.
English Cheddar Wookey Hole
The Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset, England are called caves, but resemble Grottoes in shape, form, and location. Their natural humidity and temperature control make them an ideal place to age their historic cheddar. They have also become a tourist attraction, a place of mysticism.
Go Forth, Explore the Cheese Grottoes of the World
And so, I invite you to explore and identify all the Cheese Grottoes of the world. The Cheese Grotto represents an inventive partnership between humans, nature, and traditional cheese aging practices.
Post Article Note: The Modern Cheese Grotto
You can buy it on her website here: Cheese Grotto.