Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What's Hiding in Murray's Cheese Caves? (Apparently, The Longest Post You've Ever Seen)

Dear Boo,

I have found my new calling. I've decided to become an affineur. I hope you'll respect my decision and support me in my new life. I can promise you there will be lots of perks in the form of camembert, tallegio, and goat cheeses old and young. Don't you worry, I will hoard all the bleu cheeses you so despise to myself.

It all started a few weeks ago when the Aunt had an extra ticket to a cheese class at the famous NY institution, Murray's Cheese, called "The Mystery of the Caves". Doesn't the name just make you tingle with excitement? CAVES?! Where??! And what happens there??? And what does it all have to do with cheese??? And how much will I get to eat?? A Mystery, indeed.

We blew in from the cold and were directed upstairs to the classroom where tables were laid with our class packets, glasses of red and prosecco, plates of nuts and dried fruit, baskets of bread, and of course, this cheese spread (see below). I got the idea I should wait before digging in. Our delightfully spunky teacher, Zoe Brickley, arrived and introduced herself as Murray's Affineur. An Affineur, despite being such an obscure job that wikipedia doesn't even have an entry for it, is someone who specializes in finishing cheeses--ie, aging and ripening cheeses from their nascent milky stages to the finished and desired product. The name, of course, comes from the French for to 'end' or 'finish', (but I don't need to tell you that, I'm guessing, since I forced you to be our spokesperson the entire time we were in Paris). All I could think was how enjoyable it would be to put that occupation down on my tax return.

Our friendly Affineur, Zoe, drinking on the job. Clearly this is my calling.

Zoe passed out some lovely lunch lady shower caps which we were instructed to put on before we could descend into the caves. Incidentally, the Boyfriend has tried making a case for me wearing these around the house or at least while I cook, and while it is true that I shed, I fear he might have some freaky cafeteria fetish going on. Anyway, naturally, I looked fetching in mine. We grabbed our glasses of wine and headed down the employees only staircase, past the cold storage room and the guys unpacking the day's arrivals, to...da da daahhhh....THE CAVES.

I'll be honest. I'm not sure what I was expecting. When I was abroad for my junior year, I traveled to quite a few Eastern European villages, and pretty much everywhere I went there were caves, and a cave tour. And every time, we were like, oooh, we have to go take the cave tour! It's like, a natural phenomenon, people, we must see it. And okay, maybe I'm a bad person but I was always a little bored. I mean, don't get me wrong--caves are cool. They're cold, and dark, and wet, and sometimes there are crystals and stalgtites or stalagmites and underground lakes, and I'm sure it was REALLY amazing for the person who discovered them on a little after dinner stroll through the mountains. But for me, after the first 15 minutes I was ready to head back through the gift shop, buy me a little stone gnome, order a latte and hitch a ride back to town. In short.... meh. Anyway, getting back. Murray's caves, despite what I imagined of winding tunnels and low stone ceilings, turned out to be three small underground rooms built into the cedar block walls, with large wooden doors. Visually, less impressive than their natural counterparts, but with dare I say, a far more exciting bounty inside.

These goat cheeses have a hot date.

The idea behind these caves, and really behind affinage in general, is to replicate what happened accidentally, naturally, back in the old country when people first started to make and keep their own cheese to feed their family. For instance, back in France, wives on the farm might milk the family cow, or goat, make their cheese, and then store it in the cold damp cellar where the natural molds or bacteria in the air would create a rind on the cheese, or blue moldy veins, in the way we now expect a brie or bleu to look and taste. Essentially, the kind of cheese people made depended entirely on the animals they kept and their natural environment. Now, like so many things in the New World, Murray's has invested time, energy, and I'm sure a whole lotta money, to study and recreate the precise conditions necessary for aging different cheeses. Many of these cheeses come from abroad and are shipped (mostly fedex) in their pre-aged stages, when it's easier for them to travel, which allows for the aging process to happen on site, developing cheeses that can be eaten at the height of their maturity and delectability.

Blah blah blah. If you want the science of it, I recommend getting it from Zoe who makes it all as exciting as mold growing on cheese can possibly be (which is QUITE, if you're wondering). She took us on a tour of the different caves which vary in their level of humidity, temperature, and of course, type of cheese. One cave is dominated by goat cheeses in different stages of ripening. Some were just covered with a layer of black ash, harkening back to the days when farm wives in France would pat their cheese down with soot from the hearth to keep the flies away. Some had a soft white down on them like teenagers just starting to sport a little peach fuzz under their noses, and some had veritable milky white rinds already. All of these cheeses have to be cradled, patted, and turned regularly, like babes in a nursery, as they develop their rind. In the other cave, mainly for stinky cheeses, rounds get bathed and scrubbed every couple of days to help the bacteria ripen and keep their orange rinds looking purty. It's good to be a cheese.

Zoe demonstrates cheese washing with a little pedicure scrub brush. No joke.

Once we headed back up to the classroom, the ammonia scent clinging to our clothes, we pulled off our swim caps and settled in to satisfy my now salivating taste buds. Working clockwise from the top of the plate we ate our way slowly around the half pound or so of cheese.

Clockwise from top: Young Selles St. Mare, Aged Selles-Sur-Cher, Tomme Crayeuse, Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson, Pecorino Foja De Noce, Bergkase, and Valdeon.

First we tasted the fresh goat cheese alongside the aged version, detecting the variations in texture and complexity as one does with wine. My favorite of the night was next, the Tomme Crayeuse, a cheese dubbed by the Murray's folks as Tom Cruise, for it's star status and complex taste. Like the man himself, it was unapologetic, very rich, smooth, but with a wacky bite. Then it jumped on a couch and told me I could solve my post-partum depression with vitamins and exercise. I spread it on some toast and sent it on its way with a prosecco chaser.

Zoe passed around a bonus cheese that she had wanted to try and that was on the verge of overripening. You know I love me some stinky cheese but even this was beyond my threshold. My eyes burned. My throat itched. My sinuses cleared. I felt like someone had stuffed my mouth full of dirty socks and mushrooms soaked in ammonia. It wasn't half bad.

After some more cheese trivia and pleasant wine-soaked banter, we rolled ourselves down to the store and out into the street. We'd planned on dinner after but had obviously underestimated what a half pound or so of serious cheese can do to you. Or, rather, I'd underestimated what I could do to a half pound of cheese.

On my way home, I thought about the events of the night with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was AWESOME. Zoe was a fantastic teacher and the cheese was unbelievably good, and the caves were better than Europe, but I couldn't help but feel a teensy guilty, what with all the talk lately about eating locally for the planet and our economy. All the fedexing and shipping halfway around the world, and the--i'm sure staggering--electricity bills for maintaining these caves, just to produce what happens courtesy of mother nature elsewhere in the world, left me with a little bourgeouise guilt. But then I realized what was really irking me. The next morning, I'd be getting up and dragging my butt to work, while those cheeses, those stinking cheeses, those lazy goodfornothing cheeses lie around all day, just waiting to be coddled and massaged, thinking they're hot shit. "Well, Cheese," I thought, as I headed up Bleecker, "anyone ever tell you you're COVERED IN MOLD, geniuses?? And that that mold, and YOU, will sooner or later end up in MY BELLY?? Who's got the last laugh now, hotshots? Yeah, I thought so."


The Mouse

P.S. If you made it to the end of this post, I realize you may never want to hear another thing about cheese, from me or anyone else. But I'd still urge you to take a class at Murray's, or at the very least, go and chat up the counter staff for some free cheese knowledge. Makes a great present, too. My birthday's coming up. April 14. Ahem.


whatever wendy said...

"In short.... meh" LOL.
lots of this post is so crazy funny. and i learned stuff. i like your writing persona. i mean, i like your real (what is real?) one too. but, honestly, me likie. i could read this woman do anything. you know what i mean. today, megan goes to au bon pain. and pain quotidien. and any store with pain in it. i would read that!

AbbyHH said...

that post was really cheesy.
ok, that comment was really cheesy. I heart cheese.

Erin said...

I happened to be minorly obsessed with cheese. This is udder greatness. And I made it to the end.

Arlene said...

Well...I tried to post a comment yesterday, but you know that computers have it 'out' for us baby boomers (just ask D-B-S). Anyway - this was a great evening and it was an added bonus that you were able to join us (sorry Bec, you weren't available). Let's definitely do it again - BUT - my favorite part was when Zoe told us how hard it was for her to tell her mid-west parents that she had a job as a..."What? What's an Affineur, and do you get health insurance?"...Ahhhh, aren't Mother's the best?
Love you lots,
The Tante.

Max said...

I never thought I'd say "I want Tom Cruise!" ymmmm.
what a great read - this is an "article"...did you send this to them? you ladies should have a television show...no kidding!!

Luisa said...

Interesting! I've always wanted to take a class there, but have not yet done so.

Recipe man said...

very interesting.
looks yum!


Nitin Day said...

Just read thru this and realized that its pretty darn old. Its good reading, thanks.
I happened to chance across this as I was finalizing designs for my aging room in the Indian Himalayas
(its sort of a cave).