Nov 15, 2009

This entry brought to you by guest blogger, Artie Zan, Good For You Market's 'Cheese Wiz.'

Mary Chapin Carpenter sang, “Grow old with me, the best is yet to come.” I say, “Old age, great if you’re a cheese, else not so much.” Mrs Zan and I spent this past Sunday cleaning out the spare room. This detoured us down memory lane to the days when we used to await the mailman for our holiday snaps, not uploading onto our computer. You see we couldn’t resist that box – the 100lb one containing decades of fading photographs that always derails cleaning out the spare room. While Mrs Zan was getting misty-eyed over past vacations, me, myself, I, well, let’s just say I spent an hour becoming re-acquainted with another long-lost relative: my hair! This got me thinking about aging; how it’s good on cheeses but tough on us carbon-based life forms with joints and tendons, and hair. While I reach for the glucosamine, read on.

It’s always interesting to give a sample of the same cheese at different ages: youth, middle, and old age, persuading customers, or dinner guests that it’s the same cheese they’re enjoying.

We have to thank those brave companies who carry the cost of inventory while storing cheeses for aging, since it’s a case of, buy now, get paid later! Cheese is aged by storing under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity in a ‘cave’ (these days a room), giving a consistent quality of flavor and texture. The process, part-science, part-art, is known as, “Affinage,” overseen by a skilled artisan, the, “Affineur.” His/her job is to ensure strict, traditional standards are applied, so that each cheese earns the classification assuring us of the quality and experience typical to that style of cheese.

What changes in the taste, texture, appearance, and aroma does the Affineur monitor? Aging in cheese is interchangeable with the stages of ‘ripening.’ Ripening starts at the point that the cheese begins to ‘age?’ Huh? Things that make you go, “Yum!” Cheese begins to age as soon as the milk is heated and the starter culture introduced. The resulting curds are then cut, drained of fermented whey, salted, and placed into molds that are pressed to extract more whey. No whey! Yes whey! Then the cheeses are ready to begin the formal ‘affinage’ process of aging/ripening.

When it comes to cheese aging, it really is a case of, "What goes around becomes a rind!" The outside egde of the cheese (the rind) develops with age. Rinds can be natural, bloomy, or washed. Natural means no stimulus (mold, wash, or Federal!) applied to precipitate a rind. Most semi-firm/ hard cheeses such as Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Pecorino-Romano have natural rinds. Bloomy rinds develop by spraying the cheese’s exterior with spores of Penicillium candidum (a harmless mold), prior to ripening. This also affects flavor. Examples of Bloomy-rind cheeses are Brie, Camembert, and some Chevres. Washed rind means the outside of the cheese is washed with brine, oil, brandy, red wine (for example, Drunken Goat), or even pear cider (for example, Stinking Bishop). Washing ensures a moist rind, encouraging the growth of harmless bacteria. This bacteria are scraped off and discarded, turned back into the cheese, or left on the cheese to further define the rind. Taleggio (Italy’s answer to Brie) is a good example of a washed rind cheese. In Taleggio’s case, the bath is in brine. Mrs Zan prefers lavender oil!

The longer the cheese is stored in the cave, then the more the rind changes, the cheese dries (controlled by the room’s humidity), lactic acids in the cheese crystallize (forming the white crunchy spots in harder cheeses), and the cheese thus ‘ripens.’ Cheese wheels are stored on wooden racks, being turned regularly to ensure even ripening. The cooler the cave, then the slower the aging, producing greater flavor complexity. The wheels may be wrapped in leaves, laid on beds of straw or rye, bound by spruce, or even rolled in oak wood ash, such as the great Chevres of France’s Loire Valley.

Some cheeses are ripened as little as a few days. Brillat-Savarin, for example, is ripe after just a week, Mild Cheddar as little as 3 months. Younger cheeses are soft and creamy, with subtle taste and aroma. For example, Ricotta, Mozzarella, some Chevres, or Quest Blanco. Aged cheeses can have soft rinds with spicy pastes as deep as the center (for example, Mountain Gorgonzola), through semi-firm and somewhat moist, such as three year aged Old Quebec Cheddar, up to hard, flaky and dry such as Five Year Vintage Gouda. Asiago is aged up to two years, Parmigiano-Reggiano four years, and Gouda up to five years. Younger cheeses need the right technique, beer or wine pairing to tease out their presence. More ‘mature’ cheeses just need to sit at room temperature for an hour and you know they’re there! Incidentally, a good cheesemonger lights up with enthusiasm, letting you taste before you buy. If they don’t, trust your gut and move on!

Later, dudes, Artie Zan, G4U Market’s ‘Cheese Wiz’ over and out to lunch.

Thank you Artie for whetting our appetites to learn more about cheese aging. I think you've also taught us to cherish youth, evaluate middle age, and respect old age! For those readers who say, “Andy, you’re still a baby!” Let me tell you my experience this week interviewing prospective staff who:

  1. Looked at my head and not me the entire interview, their expression betraying their thoughts that you always had so much skin on your head (and that they will always have so much hair on theirs).
  2. Asked if we always play, “Vintage Madonna” in the store!
  3. Were born in the 1990s, when you I was already pulling all-nighters at work, telling Faithful Spouse I wanted to re-tile the master bathroom for my birthday, instead of that weekend in South Beach.
  4. Don’t have a dodgy knee that makes climbing to the stock room touch and go, or more accurately, touch and no-go.
  5. Their parents aren’t telling them how wonderful retirement is.
Cheers: I raise my glass of 1998 Cote du Rhone, savor aged Gouda, and ice my dodgy knee, while listening to “Vintage Madonna.”
Andy and Artie, for Good For You Market.


Post a Comment

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More