Mr. 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 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.
“He’s the gatekeeper,” Mr. Kaufelt said. “He’s yelled at me more than once, that’s for sure.”
When Mr. 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.
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 maître 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,” Mr. McCalman said. “As soon as the obstetrician is O.K. 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,” Ms. 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.”
Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery is quoted as being suspicious of the affinage process, and describes some pseudo affinage places as just hype. But, she loves Murrays. Mr Jenkins of Fairway notes that cheese ripened in a different level of humidity will taste the same as cheese made at the same time but ripened elsewhere.
The NYT's own taste test didn't support that argument, the three testers didn't care for Fairway's examples at all.
Comments on the Fairway examples
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. Take the Valencay: “This is a cheese that’s never been moved, so everything is sinking to the bottom,” Ms. Keenan said. The Fourme d’Ambert had been cut in a slice, instead of a wedge, and had a stunted rind formation.