CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (
) -- When asked what makes some hunks of cheese more
than others, Kurt Gurdal says it starts with the animals.
"The type of milk is big," says Gurdal, cheese buyer and manager at
, a family-run cheese store in Cambridge, Mass., that's renowned for its underground cheese-aging cave, dedication to regional farms and legendary customer, Julia Child. "Different types of milk will have a lower yield."
Aged for up to 3 years in an old French munitions depot, Comte Marcel Petite sells for up to $32 per pound.
Sheep (whose milk is sweet and gamey) and goats (who give tangy milk) produce less milk than cows, mainly because farmers milk them only in the spring, summer and early fall. Cows are milked year-round, Gurdal says. This explains why Brebis Pardou, a sheep's milk cheese from Aquitaine, France, costs $36.95 per pound at the store, and Bleu du Bocage, a goat cheese from the country's Vendée region, costs $38.95.
And milk yield helps to explain why the cheese from Algens Hus, a small farm in Bjurholm, Sweden, costs around $420 per pound. The cheese, generally thought to be the most expensive cheese in the world, comes from the milk of tamed moose. There are several moose at Algens Hus, but farmers Christer and Ulla Johansson milk only three of them: Juna, Halga and Gullan.
Moose are moody, and the slightest disturbance will make a moose cow temporarily dry up, according to the Algens Hus Web site. It takes up to two hours of complete silence to milk a moose, with each milking yielding no more than two liters of liquid.
The Swedish farmers work with fruitieres (a fancy French word for people who turn milk into cheese) in nearby dairies to create a tiny production of 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of cheese per year. A handful of Scandinavian markets and restaurants sell Algens Hus cheese. At Vild-Hasse in Malung, Sweden, you can buy 50 grams (1.76 ounces) for 32 euros ($46).
To keep pricing and production in perspective, bear in mind that total cheese production in the U.S. last year was a whopping 9.93 billion pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- and that's excluding cottage cheese. More than 25% of the cheese hailed from Wisconsin.
American dairy farmers have suffered in the past year as prices drop for cow's milk and commodity cheddar cheese. In the past month, cheese barrel prices were hovering around $1.26 per pound on the
Chicago Mercantile Exchange
.) The USDA last week bolstered its Dairy Product Price Support Program -- which is part of the 2008 Farm Bill -- by temporarily boosting cheddar prices from $1.13 to $1.31 per pound in blocks and from $1.10 to $1.28 in barrels through the end of October.
Still, specialty cow's milk cheese can command a pretty penny -- not as pretty as moose cheese, but still pretty.
sells Abbaye de Tamie, made by French monks, out of milk they collect from 14 small farms in the Tamie Vallon, for $35 per pound.
Murray's Cheese Shop
in New York charges $43.99 per pound for
Cato Corner Farm
Hooligan cheese, which hails from a family farm in Colchester, Conn. And Formaggio Kitchen charges up to $31.95 for the best of its Comte Marcel Petite, which is aged for up to three years inside a former munitions fort in the Jura region of France.
Despite the state of the dairy industry, the affineurs (cheese agers) at Marcel Petite are serious enough about their product that they carefully choose the shops that sell it.
"You have to fight to be a customer," Gurdal says. "If they like you, you move up a notch." France likes Formaggio Kitchen; Gurdal's father, store owner Ihsan Gurdal, received the title of "Chevalier of the Ordre du Merite Agricole" ("knight of agricultural valor") from the French government last year.
As for cheese from other animals you don't usually find in a barnyard? Well, there was much buzz about a soft camel's milk cheese from Mauritania after the
New York Times
ran an article about its New York arrival in March of last year. It was supposed to sell for about $30 per pound. But the buzz was all for naught: the cheese was recalled within a week of hitting the shelves, says Mike Spano, a store manager at
., a specialty food store in New York.
And then there's a French
claiming to sell a cheese called "Le Petit Singly," made from "the mother's milk of a woman." We're pretty sure that one is a hoax, and the Museum of Hoaxes
agrees with us
. But apparently there is some demand for it:
"A customer came into our old store in New York once and asked, 'Have you ever gotten this breast milk cheese?'" Gurdal says.
-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston