Friday, April 14, 2006

Affinage - the "real" cheese underground

I hear a small group of Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers who specialize in affinage (the art of aging cheese) are occasionally meeting to share ideas on how they can work together to make even BETTER aged artisan cheeses.

These folks are the real "cheese underground." Some are aging their cheeses in natural caves while others are using state-of-the-art temperature and humidity-controlled rooms. As Wisconsin's artisan cheese industry matures, it seems more cheesemakers are studying and mastering affinage - it's another way for them to put their own signature on a piece of cheese and add a little to their bottom line along the way. Once a cheese is aged for 6 months, a year or three years, it carries more taste, becomes more valuable and people like me are willing to pay more for it.

A good example of someone pushing the affinage envelope is Willi Lehner,
Bleu Mont Dairy, near Blue Mounds. He's been selling his cheese at the Dane County Farmer's Market on the Capital Square in Madison since 1988 (pictured above) and has a cult following of cheese connoisseurs. This guy has a straw bale "cave" on his farm - and he's started making bandaged cheddars and aging them until the rinds resemble a piece of art. The last time I walked into his aging room, a co-worker - and I am not making this up - literally squealed in delight at the sight of Willi's cheese's blooming molds. I've got to admint that it's not something you see every day.

That experience made me realize that not only are Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers crafting amazing-tasting cheese, they're molding a product that routinely makes people gasp at its beauty. Could there be anything better?

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