You think of cheese caves and what might come instantly to mind is an Alpine redoubt, with an affineur dutifully flipping, brushing, patting, washing and spritzing his ripening product. Though the same care goes into the cheese, the latest trend in preferred location for cheese ripening is a bit more more urban than that.
Although for centuries, cheese care has taken place at or near the creamery, in some cases, retailers take these matters into their own hands as a means of quality control. In New York’s Greenwich Village, Murray’s Cheese Shop boasts no fewer than five underground caves and hundreds of cave-aged cheeses, all managed by Brian Ralph, the shop’s caves manager, or affineur. Built in 2004, each cave has a separate temperature and humidity setting specific to what’s stored inside.
Affinage, which in French literally means, “ripening,” is perhaps the most crucial step in cheese making. During this period rinds, textures and flavors all develop. The chemistry of a cheese, namely, the levels of moisture, acidity and bacteria within the curds, determines the speed of the aging process, which can be slowed or accelerated based on the temperature and humidity of the surrounding environment.
“I wanted to take a cheese and really watch it progress,” says Ralph. “It’s really about flavor, and age is a function of that.” Ralph, who tastes the cheeses regularly to determine when they reach peak ripeness—a process that can take anywhere from 10 days to a year—also cares for them, in some cases washing them regularly in wine, beer or spirits. Wheels of Époisses, for example, are bathed weekly in marc de Bourgogne.
Murray’s isn’t the only retailer to age cheeses in-house; other New York institutions, including Artisanal, practice cave-aging. Nowadays, however, one of the more interesting developments in affinage has been the transformation of affineur from cellar master to what some might call a sort of cheese mixologist.
Launched in 2011, Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve consists entirely of new cheeses unique to the store. Most recently, the line has included Hudson Flower, a sheep’s milk cheese coated in lemon, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, hop flowers and elderberries, and Little Big Apple, a soft, triple cream cow’s milk cheese from New York State, wrapped in brandy-soaked apple leaves, all sourced locally.
Though typically, these cheeses are only available seasonally, the Murray’s team is always experimenting, so don’t be surprised to find a cheese flavored with hard cider, stout or even chocolate, emerging from the caves in the near future.
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