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`Urban cave’ offers a taste of exquisitely ripened cheese

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Ihsan Gurdal lifted a moldy linen and stabbed a curved knife into a 60-pound block of rare English cheddar cheese.

Gently extracting a core sample, he handed a piece to master chef Julia Child. She took time to savor the delicacy, which sells for $17.50 a pound."That's more expensive than a prime steak," she said. "But it's good."

To be sure, it was no ordinary cheese, and it came off no ordinary shelf. It was one of many blocks and wheels stored in one of the nation's first "cheese caves" - a cool, humidified room for aging cheese to perfection.

Its European counterparts are true caves. But Gurdal designed and built this one himself in his store's basement, complete with a colorful trickling fountain that keeps the humidity up to 95 percent.

It took him seven years to research and build the refrigerated room, chilled to 50 degrees and lined with thick redwood and spruce shelves.

"It's more like an urban cave," said Gurdal, a native of Turkey and board member of the American Cheese Society. "We're trying to duplicate the conditions of natural cellars in Europe. That's why it took a while to make it."

Child was among two dozen gourmet cooks and restaurateurs who showed up Tuesday for the opening, ducking under cellar pipes and beams to get to the little room.

Martha Holmberg, editor of the bimonthly international culinary magazine Fine Cooking, said she hopes it's a sign that the art of cheese ripening is on the upswing in the United States.

"I don't think people know how delicious cheese is when it's made by an artisan," she said.

Just as with wine, each cheese has its own character and season, Gurdal explained. And each has a time when it's ripe for serving - a nuance that is lost on many people.

"Often what happens in the U.S. is a good product gets ruined because it gets wrapped in plastic and sits on a shelf for months," he said.

While adults "oohed" and "aahed" at wheels of Stilton, Double Gloucesters and Tomme de Savoies, 4-year-old Lauren Sampson turned back at the first ripe whiff of the cellar.

"It's too smelly," she said, leaving her mother, Sally, behind.

Cambridge Vice Mayor Kathy Born presented a proclamation honoring Gurdal's shop, the Formaggio Kitchen, for building the cheese cave.

"We want to be able to say we are The Cheese here in Cambridge," she said.

Upstairs, Child indulged in samples of creamy French brie and tangy goat cheese.

"Some people are not that exposed to unusual cheeses and European tastes," she said. "But they usually love them when they taste them."