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Primer: Cave Man | Cheese Basics

Exalted chefs rely on Bernard Antony, an artisan who ages cheeses into magnificent maturity in his caves. Here's a look at his craft and a crash course on cheese basics.

In cheese-obsessed France, the role of the affineur, or cheese ager, is as essential as that of the cheesemaker. "To put it at its most basic, the cheesemaker makes the cheese, while the affineur gives it taste," says Bernard Antony, the cherubic affineur for such Michelin three-star chefs as Alain Passard, Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Senderens and Alain Ducasse.

The work of an affineur largely happens in the cave, or aging cellar. Antony himself owns four aging cellars in the Alsatian town of Vieux-Ferrette, with various temperatures and humidity levels. (Soft cheeses require more humidity than hard cheeses.) The affineur stores newly made sheep, goat and cow cheeses in the cave, carefully monitoring the growth of flavor-producing molds on their surfaces. Depending on the type of cheese, he may brush the rind with salt or wash it—with brine (as with Munster), brandy (as with the odoriferous Epoisses) or wine. One of the affineur's most important tasks is to keep turning the cheese on its wooden plank or bed of straw; this distributes the butterfat throughout the cheese, and in the case of soft cow's and goat's cheeses, allows the damp parts on the bottom to dry.

Though it's unusual in a country where artisans often follow in a family tradition, Antony was not born into the business. As a young man, he managed a small general store in Vieux-Ferrette, where he sold vitamins, sundries, food staples and ladies' foundation garments. He also carried a few cheeses. One day, a customer who was a dairy farmer, François Semdlin, offered to introduce Antony to "the Pope" of affinage in Paris, Pierre Androuët, the man who had made the job of affineur into a revered profession. Androuët turned the 35-year-old Antony on to the world of artisanal cheeses and the secrets of aging.

Today Antony has his own disciples. Recently, he and Pascal Vittu, cheese steward at Manhattan's Daniel, prepared a cheese tasting and answered some basic questions.

Cheese - 7 things you need to know

1. Every Cheese Has Its Season

The raw material for cheese is, of course, milk. "Cheese is seasonal, just like most agricultural products," Antony explains. "The best cheeses come from cows that graze on the first grass of spring and the last grass of fall. Winter milk from stabled, hay-fed animals makes for less flavorful cheese. The most delicious exception is Vacherin Mont d'Or, which is at its peak in January and February." To ensure quality, the French government has passed laws regulating the months during which certain kinds of cheese can be made. For instance, producers can make Salers, a huge semifirm cow's-milk cheese, only from May until late September, when the milk tastes of the mountain flowers that grow in the Massif Central.

2. Class Consciousness

There's no legal classification for cheeses, but affineur Pierre Androuët helped educate his clients by grouping cheeses into families. Fresh cheeses are simply uncooked and unaged curd that may be molded into shapes (for example, fresh goat cheese) or left loose (cottage cheese). Having been sprayed with or exposed to mold, bloomy-rind cheeses are white and velvety on the outside and ripen from the rind inward (Camembert). Washed-rind cheeses have been washed or rubbed and are often strong, with an orangey crust (Reblochon). Natural-rind cheeses have not been sprayed with mold or washed (Morbier). Blue cheeses are marbled with blue or green mold (Roquefort). Uncooked, pressed cheeses are made from curd that has been pressed in molds to expel the whey (Mimolette). Cooked, pressed cheeses are made from curd that has been heated, then pressed (Gruyère).

3. Caring For Cheese

Even to a novice, the difference between affineur-aged and industrial cheeses is readily apparent in a comparison between two kinds of Reblochon—both month-old cow's-milk cheeses. Made by a small cooperative in the Savoie, a region in the Alps on the Swiss border, the affineur-aged variety has a thick rind, a bright orange color and a firm consistency. In contrast, the industrial version has a thinner rind, a faded color and a softer consistency—indeed, it's caved in like a fallen soufflé. Most likely it hasn't been meticulously aged or, to be more specific, turned regularly. Turning helps a cheese keep its shape.

4. Age Matters

How long do you age a cheese? "Until it is ready," Pascal Vittu says. This is one of the areas where the expertise of the affineur comes into play. The affineur will know exactly when a cheese is at the peak of its flavor and texture and is ready to consume. For example, at twelve months Mimolette, a firm, Edam-like cow's-milk cheese from the north of France, is an unassuming little cheese, perfect as a salad garnish. Allow it to age for 24 months, however, and it develops a caramel-like richness and texture, with all the complexity to stand up to an equally complex red wine. A Brie or a Camembert, on the other hand, might be as good as it will ever be after one or two months.

5. The Perfect Cheese Plate

The traditional cheese plate contains a cross section of types, from mild to sharp and simple to complex, including cow, sheep and goat varieties. Vittu typically selects four or five cheeses from Pierre Androuët's major families. For one plate, he starts with Selles-sur-Cher, a young goat's cheese; then Fleur du Maquis, an herb-coated sheep's cheese from Corsica; next, Livarot, a stronger, soft cheese with a washed rind; then a hard two-year-old Gruyère; and, finally, a powerful blue-veined Bleu d'Auvergne. Antony takes a contrarian view: "The essential point is perfect maturation and the order in which the cheeses are eaten," he says. "It is possible to serve a single cheese or a selection of cheeses from the same family——at different ages, perhaps, or from different producers."

6. Out To Pasteurize

Few things horrify an affineur more than the FDA's ban on imported cheeses made from raw (unpasteurized) milk. In order to avoid the possibility of harmful bacteria, no raw cheese aged for less than 60 days may be shipped to the United States. In a matchup between raw milk and pasteurized cheese, however, everyone agrees that the raw-milk kind tastes superior. Antony wrinkles his nose at what pasteurization does to milk——to him, it amounts to flavor murder. "Pasteurized milk," he says, "is, in effect, milk that has been killed. It lacks the subtle qualities that will satisfy a cheese connoisseur. Also, its complete lack of bacteria leaves it unable to fend off contamination." Antony can be so confident about the safety of his cheeses because he has visited the impeccably clean farms of his small-scale producers and seen their animals, and he knows their milk is treated hygienically. But not every cheese buyer knows his suppliers, so Antony understands the American finickiness.

7. Wine Pairing

When it comes to matching wine with cheese, the rule used to be that if you were going to serve one bottle, it should be a full-bodied red. Pascal Vittu, who makes pairing suggestions thousands of times a year, agrees that for the strongest and most pungent cheeses, red is often the best choice. But the tannins in red wine can overwhelm many cheeses. "Most of the time, a white wine goes better," Vittu says. "The freshness of a Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, is nice with a simple, gentle-tasting cheese, like a chèvre."

Published December 2002
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