Father Raphael Mary Salzillo came with four priests-in-training because they had “heard about the cheese.” The five live a few blocks away at St. Albert’s Priory, a seminary and residence for Dominican Friars, and their white habits made them stand out in the crowd gathered on Shafter Avenue in Rockridge.
In what has become an annual tradition that attracts East Bay cheese connoisseurs and Italophiles, on Oct. 14 Market Hall celebrated the arrival of Rifugio Crucolo, a fresh, cows’ milk cheese from northern Italy, by parading a 350-pound wheel of it down the street.
Salzillo, who noted that he’s one-quarter Italian, and his crew of prospective priests had not been expected to attend the event, but his blessing prior to the first cut was welcomed nonetheless. It also added to the growing pomp and circumstance around this fall affair.
“May this cheese bring joy to the hearts of those who eat it and not make them too unhealthy,” Salzillo said, his hands raised above the giant cheese, before Juliana Uruburu, Market Hall’s retail director, cut into it.
“Market Hall is one of only two retailers in the country who get the giant wheel,” Uruburu said. “So, it’s a big deal.”
Commonly referred to as simply “Crucolo,” the Purin family has produced the feted fromage, along with other cheese varieties and cured meats, in the Trentino region of the Italian Alps since 1782.
Uruburu described it as similar to a fresh Asiago, with “open eyes and a tender, fruity texture.” It’s equally delicious eaten raw, accompanied by a glass of wine or melted, as on a pizza, she said.
According to Bay Area cheese expert Janet Fletcher, the idea to create such a large wheel came to the family when they won a Guinness World Record for longest salame in the 1990s. But even the 600-kilo wheel of cheese (1,300 pounds) they made then didn’t win them the world record. (A regular-sized wheel of the cheese is 30 pounds.)
The giant wheel requires months of aging, as opposed to the smaller versions, which only require weeks.
The idea for the Rockridge celebration came from Market Hall’s senior cheese buyer, Alma Avalos. She met the importers of the cheese at The Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show in New York some years ago, where a large wheel was on display, and told them, “I want one of those.”
Once they confirmed they could make one for her, she wondered how to make an event out of its arrival. Market Hall representatives believe that the giant wheel first came to Rockridge in 2016, but that 2018 was the first time a parade was held. A modified version of it was held in 2020 due to Covid.
“How can you not parade it around?” Uruburu said. “With something this big, you want to make a party out of it. We want people to be part of the celebration with us. The amount of work that the cheesemakers go through to create something as large as this wheel, it takes all of our storytelling. The cheese speaks for itself.”
Uruburu said attendance at the parade has grown each year, and Market Hall usually sells a third of the giant wheel within the first two to three hours after it is cut.
The Concord Cheese Shop, in Concord, Mass., also does an annual parade. Because Concord is such a small town, the event is a huge production, with the mayor’s involvement, a horse-drawn carriage and more.
This year, the Market Hall cheese parade was part of a “Taste of Italy” event, offering samples of other Italian products like prosciutto and balsamic vinegars outside the store, as well as two book signings by “Italy By Ingredient” author Viola Buitoni and Shelly Lindgren, author of “Italian Wine” with Kate Leahy.
Avalos said the giant wheel was carried across the Atlantic from Italy to New York by ship, and then loaded into a refrigerated truck for its journey to Oakland.
As customers awaited the first appearance of the cheese, comments like “I don’t see the cheese” and “We’re waiting for the big cheese” could be overheard.
Finally, three men in chef’s coats appeared surrounding the giant wheel, its bottom draped in red fabric. They slowly proceeded from the parking area, with the cheese on a wheeled table, turning onto Shafter Avenue, while security officers held back traffic. Market Hall staffers wore red and white Crucolo branded sashes and green aprons, while customers waved Italian flags.
Avalos and Market Hall cheesemonger Ahmad Allen, both in Italian folk dress of black, red, green and white, shook tambourines along to an accordion player, as the cheese was wheeled down Shafter Avenue to the corner of College Avenue. In front of the entrance to ACRE Kitchen & Bar, Avalos and Allen danced together in celebration.
Finally, the cheese was brought back to a stand on Shafter near the cheese counter entrance, where it took a good amount of time for Uruburu, using all her strength, to dislodge the first chunk. She held a pointed cheese knife with both hands, pushing all her weight into it. When the chunk came loose, she held it aloft to cheers.
Some have become parade regulars, like Lucas Ahlstrand, who used to work at Market Hall. He loves the way a fresh cheese tastes right after the wheel is “cracked.” But many more at the parade had never tried it before, drawn by the Italian-themed day and fanfare for a wheel of cheese.
While standing in line to buy some, Frances Miller said she had never tried Crucolo before, though she had traveled quite a bit in Italy,
“Who doesn’t love a parade?” she asked.
But Pietro Carbone, who guessed he was probably the only honest Italian-American there, had come to buy Buitoni’s book. He wasn’t familiar with Crucolo, and after trying a sample, he declared it “softer and less salty than Parmigiano Reggiano, but smoother and creamier than Pecorino Romano.” Rather than buying some, he got a Robiola instead.
Meanwhile, Brother Michael Thomas declared, “I could eat this all day.”
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