Annual cheese event wheels into downtown

It is the fourth year Damon and Colby Burke have held the Parmigiano Reggiano Wheel Cutting at Salumiere Cesario.

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Damon Burke works to cut an 80-pound wheel of cheese at the annual Parmigiano Reggiano Wheel Cutting at Salumiere Cesario on Saturday.

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Damon Burke begins to cut into an 80-pound wheel of cheese at the annual Parmigiano Reggiano Wheel Cutting at Salumiere Cesario on Saturday.

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Half of an 80-pound wheel of cheese is shown here at the annual Parmigiano Reggiano Wheel Cutting at Salumiere Cesario on Saturday.

WALLA WALLA - What started more than 5,000 miles away and 1,000 days ago as a 100-pound round mold of solidified raw milk from dairy cows fed on mountain pastures in Parma, Italy, ended Saturday in a highly celebrated cheesemonger event known as the annual Parmigiano Reggiano Wheel Cutting at Salumiere Cesario.

"The idea is to get people in the door and boost the product and get people interested in the event," co-owner Damon Burke said, only minutes before the wheel of cheese was to be cut.

Burke proudly carried and laid out the 80-pound wheel of cheese, which had lost about 20 pounds of moisture over three years of aging.

"I would rather have cheese than dessert," he said.

It was the fourth year that downtown-based gourmet grocers Damon and Colby Burke have held the event at the specialty shop, which not only features gourmet cheeses, but other specialty items like imported gourmet table salts, or an imported gourmet olive oil bar where you bring your own empty bottle and fill it up. There are the more traditional items, such as gourmet deli meats, condiments and wines. And they even make a few items not normally associated with gourmet foods, such as ketchup and peanut butter.

But it was all about the big cheese on Saturday, as close to 30 customers seemed to almost drool at the chance to buy a chunk of the wheel that was slightly larger than most microwave ovens.

"I read about it in the paper. And I like eating all kinds of cheese ... I like it real sharp," Mike Boozer said.

But he would have to wait, because cutting through the large wheel was a chore that took Burke about a half hour.

First Burke used a handful of small sharp knives to score and cut a one-inch grove along the flat top and then down the sides of the wheel. As he cut, he inserted a dozen tablespoons to pry apart the wheel.

Finally, when the two halves came apart, one half of the coveted cheese was stored away in Burke's special walk-in, temperature- and humidity-controlled cheese storage room.

Next, the cheesemonger took what looked like a piano wire with two wooden handles on each end, and sliced the half-wheel horizontally.

As Burke worked, the crowed asked questions about the cheese. How was it made? How is it stored? How should it be eaten?

As far as eating a chunk of 36-month-aged Parmigiano Reggiano, Burke said it wasn't made for grating and sprinkling on top of sauces and salads. Though he added those are acceptable uses.

Instead, he encouraged the crowd to eat it the way they do in Europe, served on the table with dinner.

"We should be (eating it with dinner), but we have gotten away from the old way of doing this," Burke said, as he continued to work the wheel.

As Burke cut, Richard and Nancy Monacelli watched for the fourth year straight.

"Can you leave it out or do you have to refrigerate it?" Nancy Monacelli asked.

By the look on Burke's face, it was obviously a loaded question.

The food purveyor admitted he didn't want to go against common health practices in the United States, but he also wanted to point out that perhaps the people who made the cheese know best how to keep it.

"What would they do in Europe? They would leave it out," he said.

But he also noted that since it was regularly served alongside dinner in Italy, it would most likely be consumed in a few days.

Then he added, "You run more of a risk eating at a fast food restaurant than by leaving your cheese out every night."

Finally, the wire was through the half wheel.

"That is the first time we have never broken a wire," Burke said.

It was now time to start taking orders. Two pounds. Four pounds. And for the Monacellis, 10 pounds. Though they noted that three pounds were for a family member.

It turns out the Monacellis are epicureans when it comes to cheese. They recalled a few years back, while traveling and eating in Italy, the couple was treated by a deli owner to a chance to taste what so far has proven to be the best cheese they have ever had, a cheese that had been aged five years in a cave.

"He said, ‘Let me show you my special secret.' It was old enough to have flavor crystals in it. It was so nutty and sweet," he said.

Burke said he and his wife often travel to Seattle to buy gourmet cheeses. He added that when it comes to Parmigiano Reggiano sold in the Pacific Northwest, he said, "It (Salumiere Cesario's 36-month wheel) is the best that we have been able to find."

Salumiere Cesario co-owner Colby Burke said that in years past, the wheel of cheese is usually gone in about two weeks. And by 4 p.m. Saturday, 45 pounds had been sold.

It sells for $25 per pound, though participants at the cutting event were treated to a special price of $18 per pound.

Burke said most of the remaining half will be purchased by local wineries that will serve it during next weekend's Holiday Barrel Tasting events.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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