By Jeff Gordinier
The New York Times
Rob Kaufelt and Brian Ralph were standing in a cool underground bunker below Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, giving a visitor a tour of five temperature-and-humidity-controlled cheese caves. The man-made chambers, they said, prevent many of the things that can go wrong with cheese when it is not handled properly.
Take slipskin. If a mold-ripened cheese is stored in a place that is too humid or warm, the mold that coats the outside can “grow very aggressively,” said Ralph, 26, the cave manager at Murray’s. “It gets thicker and thicker and it peels away from the paste.”
Or if cheddar is ripened carelessly, he said, “sometimes it can turn sulfuric, kind of rotten-eggy.”
Kaufelt, who has owned Murray’s since 1991, said, “If it’s too dry, it can crack.”
On the surface, the conversation might seem like a mere collection of scary stories about good cheese gone bad. But underneath it all, the two men were offering a glimpse into a topic that inspires both evangelical zeal and scoffing among hard-core fanatics of fromage.
They were talking about affinage.
Affinage is the careful practice of ripening cheese, but it’s about much more than simply letting a few stinky wheels sit until some magical buzzer goes off. For those who believe the affinage gospel, it is about a series of tedious, ritualized procedures (washing, flipping, brushing, patting, spritzing) that are meant to inch each wheel and wedge toward an apex of delectability.
But if the affineur has become the cheese world’s version of the mixologist – a lab-coat-clad expert with a seemingly bottomless appetite for arcana – there are those who strongly resist drinking his small-batch Kool-Aid. To say that Steven Jenkins is a skeptic, for instance, would be an understatement.
“This affinage thing is a total crock,” said Jenkins, the cheese monger at Fairway and the author of the pivotal 1996 book “Cheese Primer.” “All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense.”
Jenkins, a New York retail pioneer, argues that affinage is ultimately about marketplace savvy. Long ago in places like France and Belgium, the affineur first stepped in to extract profits by acting as the middleman.
“It has nothing to do with making cheese taste really good,” he said. “It has to do with getting paid. And it’s morphed into a typical ‘French things are cool’ thing that Americans have bought hook, line and sinker. They all think, ‘I can even turn this into a marketing tool, so people will see how devoted I am to my craft.”’
No one watching Ralph at work is likely to question his devotion. A Colorado native who operates with a kind of cowboy taciturnity, he spends much of each day at Murray’s flipping wheels of cheese (so that they don’t become lopsided and develop “elephant feet”), washing their rinds, monitoring their moisture and watching their progress to determine when they are nearing their peak. He will not let anyone enter the caves without a hairnet, lab coat and protective booties that prevent shoes from carrying rogue germs into the sanctuary.
“He’s the gatekeeper,” Kaufelt said. “He’s yelled at me more than once, that’s for sure.”
When Kaufelt had the caves built below Bleecker Street in 2004, his intention was to give his cheese a way station between the creamery and the customer. “The original idea was just to store it better, so it was not sitting in an ice-cold refrigerator,” he said.
But over the course of seven years, he began to learn more about the mysterious practice of affinage, and he gradually determined that Murray’s needed to join the monastic fold. This month, with a series of tasting events and cave tours, Murray’s is starting its first “cave-aged” program, which marks the store’s new emphasis on full-fledged, in-house affinage.
Kaufelt and his crew plan to acquire a greater proportion of cheese when it is young, often from new American cheese makers who do not always have the time, money or wherewithal to ripen it properly. Murray’s will take an active role in ushering the cheese, whether it arrives young or months old, to a different, elevated state.
“I realized if I was going to be as serious as I claimed to be, I was going to need to do it,” Kaufelt said.
Many have reached this conclusion. The Whole Foods chain is so smitten with the notion that it has tapped cheese-aging specialists around the world – Herve Mons in France, Neal’s Yard Dairy in England, Guffanti in Italy – to curate its cheeses.
There is affinage afoot in Brooklyn, where Saxelby Cheesemongers recently acquired a cave, and in Hell’s Kitchen, thanks to Max McCalman, who shot to local fame in the 1990s as the cheese priest at Picholine and has gone on to write several books, including “Mastering Cheese.” These days, as the dean of curriculum and maitre fromager for Artisanal Premium Cheese, he oversees five caves that were built a block away from the Javits Center in 2003.
“I like to think of our facility here as a day school for cheese,” McCalman said. “As soon as the obstetrician is OK with releasing the baby cheese into our care, then we’ll put it through day school here, and we’ll nurture the cheese until it’s ready to go out into the real world.”
In Wisconsin, Mary and David Falk of Love Tree Farmstead Cheese have carved their own affinage warren into a hillside. Fresh air from a wildlife refuge floats into the caves. Moisture trickles in from artesian springs. They let their cheese ripen in the caves “to capture the flavor of this environment,” Mary Falk said.
“When you taste it, you go, ‘Whoa,”’ she added. “That’s what the cave does. The affinage radically changes the cheese.”
In Vermont, brothers named Mateo and Andy Kehler realized that there was a boom in regional cheese making, but a shortage of places where that jejune cheese could come for the “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” treatment.
They now run the Cellars at Jasper Hill, where 14 local cheeses are brought soon after their creation. The Kehlers buy the cheese young, giving the creameries a jolt of cash flow, ripen it in their caves and then sell it to small cheese mongers and one large one, Whole Foods.
“The fact of the matter is that a cheese that isn’t properly ripened doesn’t have any value,” Mateo Kehler said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t become cheese until it’s ripened.”
But just as mixology can be perilous in the wrong 23-year-old bartender’s hands, there is fear among some curd masters that a burgeoning vogue for affinage could lead to unfortunate experiments. In other words, beware of Frankencheese.
“I hear about that from a variety of cheese mongers, and usually I wince,” said Andy Hatch, the cheese maker and general manager at Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin. “I wince because so few people are set up to do it properly. So you’ve got cheese mongers all over the country doing crazy little experiments in walk-in coolers.”
Peggy Smith, who has been making and selling cheese since the 1990s as a founder of the Cowgirl Creamery in Northern California, said she has seen “pseudo-affinage setups that are hype.”
“They’re changing what the cheese is,” she continued, “and in my opinion, not for the better.”
Few people in the business become as passionately riled up on the topic of affinage as Jenkins of Fairway. “If you’re a good cheese monger, you know how to put your cheese away like I’ve done since ‘75. How to take the plastic away from it, how to isolate it into a separate box, how to shroud it with very flimsy bakery paper, and then allow time and the temperature in your cold room, and the humidity in there, to do its thing,” he said. “And if my humidity is 35 percent different from yours, my cheese is going to taste just as good as yours. It may have a different color of mold on it, but it’ll taste just as good. And yours is going to be twice as expensive, and you’re a highway robber. And you’re contributing to the preciousness and folly of Americans trying to emulate something in France that has nothing to do with quality. It has to do with expedience. Are you getting me here?”
Norbert Wabnig, who has owned the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills since 1978, agrees with Jenkins that in-house affinage represents an over-the-top extravagance in the retail sphere. “What I think is more important is to buy the cheese at the right time,” he said.
He keeps his shop cool and leaves the cheese in two walk-ins (“Let’s call them a cave,” he joked), as well as several cases throughout the store. “It’s not something you need a biosphere for,” he said. “I don’t worry about the exact temperature you store a cheese at. You kind of know.”
In some respects, he said, affinage has become “more of a gimmick than anything else.”
Then again, just because something provides a lovely marketing message does not mean it is invalid. “Affinage is the recipe,” said Terrance Brennan, the chef and restaurateur, whose Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro is arguably the most cheese-centric dining spot in Manhattan. “It’s what makes the cheese. It’s what develops the flavor and texture.” As for those who claim it is bogus, he said, “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
After catching wind of the criticism of affinage from Jenkins, whom he calls “one of my oldest and dearest pals,” Kaufelt responded with an email. He wrote, “In the case of cheese mongers like Murray’s, it is clear that in order to supply the best cheese, which Fairway did once but has not done for a very long time (I blame it on the sale of the company to the private equity boys), we needed to do just what I told you.”
This included: buying the cheese straight from the farms, using special temperature-and-humidity-controlled trucks to make sure the cheese travels without spoiling and taking care of “the affinage closer to the point of sale.”
“Most people don’t bother with this at all,” Kaufelt went on. “Most people are lazy. Most people are not obsessed with quality. The others would rather obfuscate the issue rather than spend a nickel doing what they need to do.” The proof, he wrote, “is in the eating, which I leave to you.”
The cave management at Murray’s has won praise from Adeline Druart, the cheese maker at the Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, which now sells Murray’s some of its rindless young crottins for a quick rumspringa in Greenwich Village.
“They know cheese so well,” she said. “Those green cheeses are our little babies. We wouldn’t give them to someone who’d put it in a cellar where the cheese would turn blue and go rancid.”
Smith, of Cowgirl Creamery, is another admirer. “That is a really great operation they have,” she said. “They have the different atmospheres and temperatures, and it’s well done.”
Kaufelt’s passion about affinage is contagious enough that it might not be long before some of his comrades start to catch cave fever. Smith, for one, grows wistful at the prospect of building special affinage chambers close to the sea air and fog.
“We dream of doing that, as well,” she said. “We have all these beautiful bunkers that overlook the San Francisco Bay. They’re nestled in the hillside, and we think, wouldn’t that make the perfect environment for aging cheese?” She sighed and said, “One day, maybe.”
A TASTE TEST OF CHEESE FROM THREE STORES
Right from the start of the blind taste test of three varieties of cheeses from three New York stores, things turned sour for Epoisses No.3.
“You should never buy a cheese that looks like that,” said Tia Keenan, a New York cheese specialist and restaurateur.
“That’s the equivalent of a bulging can in a supermarket,” Julia Moskin said.
Her New York Times colleague Florence Fabricant squinted in piercing silence.
The Epoisses had odd, dark striations across the top. The aroma was off. The flavor made the panelists wince. In fact, nearly everything on plate No.3 struck them as problematic.
Take the Valencay: “This is a cheese that’s never been moved, so everything is sinking to the bottom,” Keenan said. The Fourme d’Ambert had been cut in a slice, instead of a wedge, and had a stunted rind formation.
Meanwhile, the same three cheeses on plates No. 1 and No. 2 won approving nods and notes. The favorite, by a nose, seemed to be No. 2. Of its Valencay, Keenan said: “You can just tell that it’s had so much more attention paid to it. I’m going to guess this is from Murray’s.”
She was right. The cheeses on plate No. 2 came from Murray’s Cheese in Grand Central Terminal, No. 1 came from Artisanal in Manhattan, and No. 3 from Fairway stores on the Upper East and Upper West Sides.
— JEFF GORDINIER
By Jeff Gordinier