The flavor gamut of great cheese routinely runs from musty to earthy to salty-caramel to tangy all the way to meaty, but recently famed cheesemonger Anne Saxelby was going through an assortment of new cheese at her Red Hook cave when she was struck by something more unique. As she tasted a ripening paper-wrapped piece of cheese called Sea Change, Saxelby says she was shocked by the clarity of the buttery-sweet-briny flavor: “I tasted it first and thought, Whoa, this is like the uni of cheese,” she says. “I’m not even a huge fan, but this is uni I could get behind.”
Sea Change is the second-ever release from Connecticut-based Mystic Cheese Company and has been available mostly at Connecticut farmers’ markets, where it routinely sells out. Mystic owner Brian Civitello bases his cheeses on stracchino, a small family of Italian alpine cheeses generally characterized by their tanginess, smooth body, and lack of rind. He says his company’s main advantage over other farmstead operations is the freshness of his milk. “I collect it myself in milk pails warm from the cows,” he tells Grub. “So as I’m still gathering the milk, we’re already starting to get the first of it up to pasteurization temperature.” Whereas others producers use milk that’s been sitting around for 48 hours or more, Civitello’s outfit is down to just 30 minutes. “It’s absurd, really,” he says. The speedy turnaround time is thanks to Civitello’s proprietary system known as the “cheese pod,” a repurposed shipping container, which resides right on the farm where Citivello buys his milk on the spot — a novel innovation other cheesemakers have actually asked about purchasing. “This has never really been done before,” he says, and it’s true: No one else has parked a giant steel container on someone else’s land to set out to make farmstead cheese and age it in one operation that processes 600 gallons of milk at a clip.
But all that doesn’t really explain Sea Change’s slightly nautical flavor profile. A very small part of that is thanks to the brief saltwater soak that the rounds get before the week-plus ripening, but the cheese’s prominent saline tang is a literal product of the wild yeast Civitello cultivated from the area surrounding Mystic’s rural property. “I’ve been propagating it all along, and the collection of microorganisms is really what changes the way the cheese comes together,” he says.
His previous big release, a rindless specimen called Melville (“It started off as a kind joke because we had this white fresh cheese with a blubbery texture,” Civitello says of the name), was a sleeper hit for Saxelby, and also appeared on the “Fennel Fantasy” pizza at Roberta’s, so everyone involved has hopes for this new product as well. Starting tomorrow, it will finally be available in the city — at Saxelby Cheesemongers, for $7 per four-ounce piece. And just as uni is a versatile luxury, Civitello says the same applies to Sea Change, thanks to its mild flavor — put it on pizza, or maybe alongside some steak. “This is more about session cheeses you can eat and pair with other foods,” Civitello says. Having a good meal, in his opinion, is infinitely better than “putting the cheese up on a pedestal and selling a crumb of it for 25 bucks.”