A lot of the people here who are calling themselves affineurs are working with cheese that’s already been aged. That’s not affinage. It’s cheese care. I’m old school. I resent the abuse of the term affinage.” –Brad Dubé
In the rarefied world of cheese making and mongering, an argument is emerging regarding affinage: the age-old practice of ripening cheese. The New York Times delved into the debate last week, calling affinage, “a topic that inspires both evangelical zeal and scoffing among hard-core fanatics of fromage.” The piece was a rollicking read, filled with drama and tension – things not often associated with cheese. We just thought it was a fun piece that taught us a little something we didn’t know about cheese.
Then we started hearing from our cheese-mongering friends…
Shortly after the story was published, word started trickling in that it had touched a number of raw nerves in the cheese community, so we decided to dig a little deeper into this new-fangled fromage fight.
We chatted with a few Brooklyn-based cheese pros in search of a better understanding of the debate. Turns out, the affinage acrimony seems to be split largely along ‘new-school’ and ‘old-school’ lines – lines along which there’s been growing tension for some time. The conflict seems to stem from something the Times piece doesn’t exactly explicate — that this is really an argument over semantics, not quality.
The Times story begins with a snapshot of one of the new-school disciples of ‘affinage,’ Brian Ralph of Manhattan’s esteemed Murray’s Cheese.
“No one watching Mr. 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.”
On the other side of the fence, Steven Jenkins – the bombastic eminence grise of the artisanal cheese market in the U.S.; author of Cheese Primer, a definitive guide to all things cheese; and the man who made Fairway’s cheese case famous — is decidedly not into the new-school use of the term:
“’This affinage thing is a total crock,’ said Mr. Jenkins,‘…All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense…It has nothing to do with making cheese taste really good…
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. 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…’”
But in the end, it should all come down to taste, right? The Times ran a blind taste test of ‘affinaged’ and ‘non-affinaged’ versions of the same cheese, which seems revealing. The test featured cheeses from Murray’s, Artisanal (both of whom embrace ‘affinage’), and Fairway (which does not). The tasters identified something off about one of the three right away.
“The Époisses 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.”
The strange cheese? From Fairway. The best of the bunch? From the precious caves at Murray’s.
Simple enough, right? Case closed? Not so fast. It turns out that some in the cheese-mongering community felt that the story sensationalized the debate. Others felt it missed the point. The debate over affinage seems to be largely fueled by disagreement over the meaning of ‘affinage’ versus the traditional practice of ‘cheese care,’ and exacerbated by deeper-than-expected fault lines between newcomers to the playing fields of cheese and the grizzled vets.
We spoke with a few Brooklyn-based cheese experts to find out more.
Brad Dubé is the founder and owner of Food Matters Again, a Greenpoint-based distributor specializing in procuring the finest small-producer cheeses. Brad considers himself part of the old-school camp when it comes to cheese – he’s been in the business since the early 90’s.
So Brad, what’s the deal with affinage? Why has the Times piece made such waves in the community?
It’s very complex. It’s hard because the actual point of the debate is kind of obfuscated in the article. It’s a good read and they set it up so there’s a lot of drama, so it’s probably going to get people talking, which is good. But the reality is that, even with all these new cheesemakers and cheeses, being a good cheese monger hasn’t changed, and what an affineur does hasn’t changed.
In America, we need to make sure people know the difference. And that comes down to education. There’s a gap right now in our country between the new people in the business and the old school.
To really boil it down, there’s cheese care and there’s affinage. The difference is big. The distinction is there and it should be made clearer. The lines between affinage and cheese care are starting to be blurred, and that’s a problem.
Cheese care is really important. It’s what a cheese monger has always done. Cheese doesn’t always travel well. The job of the monger has always been to receive the cheese, assess it, and decide what they’re going to do with it to present it best to the consumer. That means that sometimes you have to do what we – the old school – call ‘cheese care.’
If a cheese comes in and it’s not looking happy, as long as you deal with it right away, you’ll be able to restore it within a few days. Sometimes you’ll need to let the cheese dry out, or you’ll need to give it more humidity, or you need to turn it.
For example, at this time of year, the goat milk that our Vermont cheesemakers are using is loaded with proteins and fats. As a result the cheese is loaded with moisture. We’ll see condensation on the inside of the packaging, which doesn’t happen at any other time of year. We just open up the wrapping to let the cheese lose some of that moisture.
It’s really not complicated. It’s about moisture levels, humidity and temperature. Once a cheese has been made, the caring for it is pretty simple.
The new school has taken to calling cheese care ‘affinage,’ but it’s not affinage. Affinage is very different. Real affineurs buy young cheese – cheese that hasn’t yet been aged, and that isn’t ready for consumption – and they age it themselves, to give it a specific set of characteristics that they’re seeking to impart or highlight. Affineurs work directly with producers to select the right wheels of young cheese. They’re not getting cheese that’s already been aged and is ready for the market and then doing something to it.
One of the famous French affineurs is Jean D’Alos. Someone like that buys young cheeses directly from producers. He selects specific wheels of cheese that are perfect for his aging process. He then does things like age those cheeses in a specific wine until it’s ready for market. His process creates a different cheese than you’d get if it had been aged by the producer. It’s an art.
A lot of the people here who are calling themselves affineurs are working with cheese that’s already been aged. That’s not affinage. It’s cheese care. I’m old school. I resent the abuse of the term affinage. Artisanal used to have meaning. It doesn’t anymore. Now these new cheese mongers have ruined the word affinage. It doesn’t have any real meaning anymore, because it’s been misused so much.
In the old school, we were taught that there was a way things were done. And they’d been done that way for a long time. But now you have so much growth in cheese that you have a lot of green people running counters or in distribution and sales positions – you have the blind leading the blind, and a lot of people in that vacuum of knowledge say whatever they want to say.
“Oh yeah! We’re an affineur! This is our cave aged…whatever!”
I know the New York Times wants to sell papers. The sad thing is that now there might be a whole new school of retailers in the United States who read that article who are now going to say, “Oh, affinage, we should start doing that!”
That’s why we need more education and truth and honesty about stuff.
Think about the edification of wine. For centuries it’s been considered an esteemed, noble thing. For cheese people, we see that cheese doesn’t have the codification and rigorous standards to define expertise in cheese. There’s a need perhaps to establish that – because there are a lot of people in the business right now who don’t know a whole lot about cheese.
Luke Johnson, formerly the cheese buyer and cave manager at Carroll Gardens’ beloved cheese monger Stinky Bklyn, now works full-time as the cheese caretaker at Food Matters Again, spending hours caring for the cheese in a frigid, humidity-controlled walk-in cooler piled to the rafters with some of finest cheeses the planet has to offer.
Luke, tell us about your take on the affinage acrimony.
What a lot of people are calling affinage should be called cheese care. ‘Affinage’ suggests that you’re aging the cheese yourself and impacting its character. Once you get an aged cheese from the producer, you don’t want to be changing that cheese. You shouldn’t be washing it in wine or something to give it a new flavor. You should just be taking care of it.
I admit — back in the day I wanted to do crazy stuff to cheese. I wanted to soak cheeses in my own concoctions, to come up with my own takes on it. But I would talk to cheesemakers. I’d tell them, “Oh, I took your cheese and I did this to it.” And they’d say, “Why would you do that? I make my cheese the way I want to make it. The cheese I give you is exactly the way I want it to taste.”
That kind of put me in my place. It’s kind of like taking someone else’s wines and blending them on your own or something. It’s not your place as the cheese monger to mess with a cheese made by someone else. They send it out into the world because it’s a product they’ve put their heart into, that they really love.
Properly storing and caring for cheese is critical. It’s always been done by cheese mongers. But Steve Jenkins mentioned that we’re starting to see more people kind of glorify cheese care to add cost to the product, and I think that’s a really valid concern.
From talking to other people who’ve been in the industry for longer than I have…there’s this perspective that there are a lot of young kids coming into the industry, that have just started, who think they know everything but don’t. And there’s a sense that there’s a lack of appreciation and respect for people like Steve Jenkins who laid the groundwork for the artisanal cheese industry – who created a market that allowed people like me to have a career in this business.
Beth Lewand owns Eastern District, a Greenpoint-based cheese and craft beer shop, with her husband Chris. Beth handles the cheese, and points out that at small cheese shops like hers, they buy perfectly aged cheese and go through inventory so quickly that affinage is beside the point.
So Beth, what was your reaction to the Times piece on affinage?
I think the Times reporter was trying to create a controversy where none really exists. Affinage is inarguably a real and important part of cheesemaking. Steven Jenkins even wrote about it in his book — he just called it something less pretentious, like aging or ripening. It’s a key part of what gives each cheese its own unique flavor and character.
Ironically, as Chris was reading portions of this article to me, I was opening up a piece of Grayson that had just been shipped to us, via UPS(!), from Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia, and I was noting how perfectly aged it was. Affinage can happen on the farm. It usually does. It doesn’t require a middleman or full-time affineur.
The defects that the critics noted in the blind taste test in the cheese that supposedly hadn’t been ‘affinaged’ were not necessarily examples of poor affinage, but of poor handling after the aging period. Some large markets and distributors will buy more cheese than they need at one time, to save money. Then they let the cheese sit around for too long. Or they cut it up into small portions and smother it in plastic for a few weeks before it’s sold. A perfectly ripened wheel of cheese can quickly become gross under the wrong conditions.
Murray’s cave program is smart — they can still purchase large quantities of cheese and benefit from bulk discounts, while guaranteeing that their stock is handled properly while awaiting its appearance on their retail shelves.
Smaller stores like ours and other independent cheese shops, don’t have the space or manpower for this kind of production. But we do have the passion and the intelligence to care for smaller quantities of properly-aged cheese, and to bring it to you at the peak of ripeness. I bet that if the Times were to do a taste test of cheese from Brooklyn cheese shops, they would find that we come out ahead of Fairway and Artisanal. By miles.
So yes, affinage is a legitimate and necessary part of cheese production. And yes, Murray’s is taking good care of their cheese and using it as a marketing tool. They’re a big, successful business, so that’s what they do. And even though they’re doing a great job at it, I guess I’m rambling on because I want to reassure everyone that the little guys like us still deliver great, impeccably-aged cheeses, at the peak of their ripeness. We don’t need to do affinage or a whole lot of complicated cheese care because we don’t have a whole lot sitting around.
Any other cheese makers, mongers, or fanatics out there want to weigh in on affinage or the old school vs. new school battles in the world of cheese? Tell us in the comments.