By Rachel Monahan
One tiny puff of gray mold on a Valencay, a pyramid-shaped goat cheese from the Loire Valley, was outgrowing the other mold. Alex Garcia--a specialist in affinage--determined that it was time to pat it down to size.
Affinage is the part art, part science of cheese aging. Each day Garcia, cave manager of Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in Manhattan, and his staff tend to about 150 kinds of cheese, which can be quite tricky.
“Each cheese has different needs,” Garcia said. “And the needs of each cheese sometimes conflict with the needs of another cheese.”
The Valencay rests in a specially designed urban cheese cave in New York City. The caves in Artisanal’s second-floor offices descend from the natural geological formations traditionally used for cheese aging, though they look nothing like caves. They’re small rooms lined with shelves in which temperature and humidity can be controlled within a tenth of a degree and a tenth of a percentage.
In the United States, makers of fine cheese generally age their own creations. In Europe, affineurs set up shop to tend to the cheese of a group of makers.
Two American cheese retailers, Artisanal and Murray’s Cheese Shop, also in New York, stake a claim to the beginnings of this craft in America. It’s part of an effort to import the European appreciation of cheese to the United States.
“You see, in a lot of ways, the United States of America doesn’t really have a culture of eating cheese, no matter how much pizza we eat, no matter how many cheeseburgers we eat,” Garcia said.
When he talks of cheese culture, Garcia means the daily savoring of the world’s best cheeses. In 2003 the average American consumed 31 pounds of cheese, triple the amount in 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mozzarella and cheddar are the most popular, but there has also been a growing market for fine cheese. The number of cheese makers who are members of the American Cheese Society, a fine-cheese group, has increased by two-thirds since 2001.
To provide good cheese, affineurs at Artisanal and Murray’s make sure that cheeses ripen in ideal conditions. Each cheese is flipped over at least once a week, so that its salt, minerals and amino acids are distributed.
The cheeses with natural rinds get brushed. Cheeses with external mold--the bloomy rinds--are patted down. The wash rinds--cheeses that are being treated with wine, beer, liquor, brine or water--are bathed.
Care must be taken, because everything makes a difference in the way cheese tastes, beginning with the land where the animal grazes and including, Garcia said, the animal’s mood when the milk was produced. Cultures added to cheese and the temperature and humidity at which the cheese is aged are the factors under human control.
The affineurs embrace cheese's sensitivity to the environment and the differences it creates.
“To search for a cheese that is going to taste the same every time is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do here,” Garcia said.
The care in the caves means that customers can expect cheeses at peak ripeness and in better condition than if they had come straight from the maker. The goat cheese, for example, becomes more delicate once its rind is formed, so aging in the same place the cheese is sold means better cheese.
Some cheese aficionados aren’t convinced American practitioners are living up to the high standards of European affinage.
Ihsan Gurdal, the owner of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., was among the first to build an urban cheese cave in the United States 10 years ago. The cheeses he was buying in Europe didn’t always taste the same when he served them in the United States until he built his caves.
He said the care he and his New York competitors take in aging cheese makes a big difference but shouldn’t be considered affinage.
“They put age to [the cheeses]. That’s not really affinage,” he said. “When they use the word I smirk.”
To his thinking, even in France only a half dozen masters are worthy of the title affineur. And only when American cheese makers trust affineurs to age their cheese better than they can themselves will the craft truly have arrived, though he does think that day will come.
Artisanal has, in fact, begun working with more American cheese makers. When it opened in 2003, less than 10 percent of the store's cheese came from the United States. Now about 30 percent does. And Artisanal has begun to age American cheese to its own taste and sell it under its own label.
“As the Artisanal Premium Cheese evolved,” Garcia said, “it turned more into supporting American cheese makers, to refine or define their own personalities.”
Sasha Davies, affineur at Murray’s, said that she, too, hopes to someday offer cheeses under Murray’s own label. Murray’s caves opened only in the beginning of 2005.
Cheese molds at the very least are taking hold in America.
Murray’s caves have a passing resemblance to geological formations. They are in the basement and have arched ceilings. Last fall white mold was spotted on one of the concrete walls. An orange yeast has been growing, too.
Elsewhere, mold is something to be scrubbed away. But here it was cause for celebration that the climate was clearly hospitable to cheese aging.
“We were joking that I should spend more time staring at the wall,” Davies said.