The Earth Is the Finishing Touch
By MARIAN BURROS
NYT. October 4, 2006
BY going underground, Mary and David Falk have stayed on top of most artisanal cheesemakers in this country.
For 10 years, at their Love Tree Farmstead in Grantsburg, Wis., they have been aging cheeses in caves dug into a hillside, their concrete walls painted with pictographs. The Falks say it’s the only way to produce deeply flavored, nuanced, natural-rind tommes and wheels like those of European cheesemakers.
“We believe in fresh-air aging, pollens, molds, humidity,” Ms. Falk said. “And we’ve positioned our cave so that it is surrounded by a wildlife refuge. It’s really a head trip to see semis pull up in the woods to get the cheese. It’s like from ‘The Twilight Zone.’ We wanted something that worked on the natural rhythm of the area. We took the microflora from what was there; we get humidity from the springs.”
Over the past few years, the Falks have been joined by a number of other cheesemakers, particularly on the East Coast, who want a more natural way of aging to give each cheese its own character. Stepping away from above-ground hermetic aging rooms with artificially controlled temperature and humidity and from ripening cheese wrapped in Cryovac or sealed in wax, these cheesemakers have started a little construction boom in caves and cellars, getting a bit closer to the way cheese was aged for centuries.
Jeff Roberts, a co-founder of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, who is just finishing the first “Atlas of American Artisan Cheese,” to be published by Chelsea Green next June, said there are at least 35 caves and cellars in the United States, with seven more under construction. As cheesemaking and the appreciation of good cheese have matured in the United States in the past few years, American cheesemakers have begun to better understand the place of microflora — bacteria, yeast, molds — in the process of aging cheese. In these new caves and cellars, cheeses are exposed to an array of the tiny organisms local to the area.
“Caves are not only great in terms of maintaining temperature and humidity but they also reflect the unique microflora communities,” Mr. Roberts said. “The microflora interacts with cheese; the cheese obtains a certain level of quality and so does the microflora. The cheese evolves over time and you can’t regulate it. It has a powerful connection to place.”
Ms. Falk describes the mold that forms on cheese as “a miniature flower garden, with the flowers sucking air into the cheese and pulling out the gas, and every little mold having its own little flavor profile.”
What may be the biggest aging cave in this country is under construction at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt. There, Mateo Kehler; his wife, Angela; his brother, Andy; and Andy’s wife, Victoria, are already aging 30,000 pounds of their own cheeses and those of several other Vermont cheesemakers in the cellar beneath their house.
Under construction on the property is an 18,000-square-foot series of seven stone-floored caves that will be able to hold one million pounds of cheese when it is completed in the spring. The Kehlers will mature and distribute their own cheeses, including Constant Bliss, Winnemere and Bayley Hazen blue, and those from other cheesemakers, like a cloth-bound Cheddar from Cabot Creamery.
Mateo Kehler is the affineur, the person responsible for the proper maturation of the cheese. The Falks in Wisconsin are already aging cheese for others in two rooms with conical ceilings, dug eight feet underground.
In caves or in aging rooms, the affineur’s job includes testing for salt, acidity and moisture, but most of the time-consuming, labor-intensive work is more art than science. After the cheeses have been made, salted and molded, they go off to the cave, where they are coddled like newborns.
Within the caves there are drying rooms where some cheeses start, and warm rooms and cold rooms for aging different varieties. Each variety, whether bloomy rinds covered with mold, blue cheese, cloth-bound Cheddar-type cheeses, natural-rind tommes or washed rinds, requires a different level of temperature and humidity.
Figuring out when to move the cheese is one of the decisions the affineur must make. “We touch it, we look at it, we smell it,” Mr. Kehler explained.
Depending on the stage of aging, the cheeses are flipped as often as once a day; as seldom as every four or five days.
Between one and four times a week the rinds of certain cheeses are washed, some with beer, some with brine. Cheeses like Cheddar are brushed as a way to manage the molds. The particular mold in the Jasper Hill cellar imparts a wonderful nutty character.
How long a cheese is aged depends on the variety and the individual cheese.
“If it were just plain hard work we wouldn’t need an affineur,” Mr. Kehler said, “we’d just need a laborer. It’s a lot of repetitive, monotonous work, but it’s purposeful. Being in a cellar is complex and challenging. You have to pay a lot of attention. If you don’t do it you will never have a cheese that reaches its potential.”
There is a certain romantic notion to cave-aged cheese, perhaps because the process taking place deep underground seems so mysterious. But Mr. Kehler has a different perspective: “If you think that slogging it out for 10 to 12 hours a day in a dark, damp, cold environment is romantic, this may the job of your dreams.”
Cave-aging is already paying off. In a tasting of English and Vermont Cheddars last month at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, a cloth-bound Cabot Cheddar, aged in the Jasper Hill cellar, stole the show. It had already been named best in show at the American Cheese Society meeting earlier in the summer.
Interest in sophisticated American cheeses, with their layers of flavor, began in the 1980’s with simple little fresh goat cheeses that require no aging. Little by little the land of Velveeta-ized taste buds has been turning into the home of finely tuned palates, and the fresh cheeses have been joined, and often replaced, by those that have much more character from aging.
It was not always this way. Sitting on an overturned farm sink, just outside the door to the little cheese cave she built on her farm in Westfield, Vt., nine years ago, Laini Fondiller, who is known for making new cheeses every year with new names (this year’s tomme is called Tomme DeLay), reminisced about the early days of trying to sell her aged Lazy Lady goat cheeses.
With their bloomy rinds, which ripen from the outside in, she said, “people would get freaked out when they saw my cheese with the mold on it.”
“They thought cheese should either be white or vacuum-packed,” she added.
Jonathan White, owner of Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, N.J., remembers someone writing in the mid-90’s that a certain cheese was potentially lethal because it was being aged in a cellar. It’s been quite a leap, he said, “from the idea of it being horrifying to ‘look, we’re doing it.’ ”
Whether cheese ages best in an above-ground, climate-controlled aging room or in a cave or cellar, is a matter of some dispute. For me, though, the dispute was settled at a tasting of a Cheddar from Shelburne Farms that Mr. Kehler is cellar-aging against the same cheese being aged in an above-ground cold room at Shelburne.
Though both cheeses were too acid, the cellar-aged version was much less so and had more depth of flavor. (The rinds on both tasted somewhat moldy, but Mr. Kehler is helping Shelburne fix that problem.)
The differences are even greater when comparing cave-aged cheese to cheese that has been sealed in wax or Cryovac before aging. I sampled four Vermont cheeses available waxed and aged, including the Cabot and cheese from Orb Weaver Farm. In three of the four the waxed cheeses were pleasant but without complexity; the flavors of the cave-aged were much more intriguing.
The bitterness and funkiness of the fourth, waxed and cave-aged, brought to mind what Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor of food science at the University of Vermont and the co-author of “American Farmstead Cheese” (Chelsea Green, 2005), said about cheesemaking. “Whatever cheese becomes when it grows up will be established in the vat,” he said. “All the affinage cannot change it.”
Some cheese shops, including Murray’s in New York and Cow Girl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, Calif., which also has shops in San Francisco and Washington, have built cellars or aging rooms, although most of the cheeses are mature when they arrive at the store.
“We don’t pretend to be affineurs,” said Sue Conley, the co-owner of Cow Girl Creamery, “but we think we do a pretty good job of keeping cheese in really good condition and presenting it at its peak.”
Cave-aging already has enough cachet that some less-reputable producers of cheeses are taking advantage of it, Ms. Falk said. “I know people who take the Cryovac or wax off, and cave-age them for a couple of months to get a rind,” she said. “Then they market them as cave-aged.”
But, she added, those producers don’t last very long.
Real cave-aging is more demanding, and American artisanal cheesemakers still have a lot to learn about ripening cheese.
“We may not know it all now,” Mateo Kehler said, “but we will.”