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Is "affinage" just a marketing gimmick?


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#1 Rail Paul

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 02:24 AM

The NY Times has an article today about the disputes in the cheese world over affinage, which they define as the ripening, care, and development of cheese in the period after its creation and before its sale. The development of elaborate caves by Murray's cheese has raised some hackles in the high end cheese community. Steve Jenkins, for example, sees the practice as a marketing technique to jack up profits.

(Fairway's)

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.

(snip)

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.


Cheese

“Jazz musicians just get better and better as the years go by. I think chefs are the same way. You know who you are.”

 

...Jonathan Waxman


#2 Steven Dilley

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 03:15 AM

When you sell as much ammoniated Epoisses as Jenkins, affinage doesn't matter.

Someone should let B Antony know.
Say what you will about the ten commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.

--H.L.Mencken


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#3 FoodDabbler

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 03:51 AM

I don't know Fairway at all, but I've bought cheese many times over the years
from Murray's and Artisanal. Does Fairway have real people serving you cheese
from a properly controlled environment, or hunks of prepackaged stuff sitting
around wrapped in plastic?

#4 plattetude

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 02:09 PM

"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,” he said. “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. It has to do with expedience. Are you getting me here?"


The goofy thing is how Jenkins fully cops to how you have to treat cheese well -- how to wrap it, keep in a cool and humid environment, etc -- so the only thing he seems to object to is the degree of fetishizing the treatment (and charging for it). But really, if the results bear out (which it sure seems to), how can you argue it? I mean, if there's a difference between slicing and slapping in saran wrap versus isolating, shrouding, allowing time and temperature, etc, etc, then what the hell is he arguing? And does he not see that one is labor intensive and the other not?

Christopher

#5 g.johnson

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 02:54 PM

"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,” he said. “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. It has to do with expedience. Are you getting me here?"


The goofy thing is how Jenkins fully cops to how you have to treat cheese well -- how to wrap it, keep in a cool and humid environment, etc -- so the only thing he seems to object to is the degree of fetishizing the treatment (and charging for it). But really, if the results bear out (which it sure seems to), how can you argue it? I mean, if there's a difference between slicing and slapping in saran wrap versus isolating, shrouding, allowing time and temperature, etc, etc, then what the hell is he arguing? And does he not see that one is labor intensive and the other not?

Christopher

Quite.
The Obnoxious Glyn Johnson

#6 nuxvomica

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 04:37 PM

When you sell as much ammoniated Epoisses as Jenkins, affinage doesn't matter.

yup
“Eat me,’’ it says. “Eat me and die.’’ -- Jonathan Gold

Everything is always OK in the end. If it's not OK, then it's not the end.

#7 Anthony Bonner

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 04:46 PM

comparing Murray's "Affinage" to Fairway is like comparing Beringer White Zin to E&J Hearty Burgundy.


Murray's makes a living selling under or over ripe cheese to people who don't know any better.
Why not mayo?

#8 Wilfrid

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 05:18 PM

I'm surprised you say that. Have you visited Murray's caves? If that's all they're doing, they're actually throwing a lot of money away pretending to do the job properly.

#9 Anthony Bonner

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 05:35 PM

I'm surprised you say that. Have you visited Murray's caves? If that's all they're doing, they're actually throwing a lot of money away pretending to do the job properly.


I think we've actually had the exact same series of posts - me complaining you saying "They've got caves"

Caves or not they constantly attempt to sell me cheese that is suboptimal on both sides of the ripeness continuum. Like 50%+ of the time.

When I go into a place and say I would like "X" style of cheese, what's on today - and they give me something that is totally an infant or reeks of ammonia there is a problem there.

I only use Murray's when time is an issue and I can't get over to Essex St. Market or its a Sunday and I forgot to do the marketing.
Why not mayo?

#10 Wilfrid

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 05:37 PM

I just haven't had that experience. I bought cheese in Murray's on Sunday, and everything's fine.

#11 Stone

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 05:43 PM

Wine.
Cheese.
Hamburgers.

I'm so lucky that I don't understand any of this and can enjoy life.

And she was.


#12 Anthony Bonner

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 05:48 PM

I just haven't had that experience. I bought cheese in Murray's on Sunday, and everything's fine.

what kind of cheese do you generally buy? I mostly buy soft cheeses.
Why not mayo?

#13 Wilfrid

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 06:19 PM

I buy all kinds of cheese.

#14 Anthony Bonner

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 06:25 PM

whelp I guess you are just luckier than I.
Why not mayo?

#15 splinky

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Posted 05 October 2011 - 06:34 PM

Posted Image

cheese fight!

“One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. 'Oh, no!', I said, 'Disneyland burned down.' He cried and cried, but I think that deep down he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late.”
~Jack Handey

*proud descendant of cheese eating surrender monkeys*