Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The New Age of American Aging Cellars

Photo by Uriah Carpenter
Eight years ago at a Wisconsin cheese industry meeting, a presenter who had studied cheesemaking in Europe used the word "affinage." No one around the table, including me, knew what the word meant. Today, not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers recognize the term, they're putting an innovative twist on an Old World tradition by building modern aging cellars and creating American Originals to rival the best cheeses coming out of traditional European aging caves.

The term affinage - the art of ripening cheese - officially entered the modern American lexicon with a crack of the whip via a 2011 story in The New York Times about Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, where five man-made temperature-and-humidity-controlled cheese caves drew the ire of American cheese cop Steven Jenkins, who called "this affinage thing" a "total crock."

Never one to shy away from the opportunity to be fantastically quoted in a major media outlet, Jenkins argued that American affinage was merely a way to "drastically inflate the cost of cheeses" using "faux-alchemical nonsense.” I disagreed then, and I disagree now. All one has to do is talk to a Wisconsin cheesemaker and taste a cheese that's been aged in a humidity and temperature-controlled room to realize the art of affinage is exactly that - an art. These days, American cheesemaking doesn't begin and end in the make room. It continues into the aging room and is responsible for producing some of the most beautiful and delicious cheeses in the world.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter
The latest Wisconsin cheesemaker to enter the modern age of affinage is Chris Roelli at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg. With the company's original aging room at capacity, and with  orders stacking up for his cellar-aged Dunbarton Blue, Red Rock, Marigold and new Alpine cheese  Little Mountain, Chris decided to build his own affinage center. Construction crews arrived the second week in August, and by November 1, the first cheeses were moved in. After three years of planning, the cellars will allow Roelli to make two vats of cheese five days a week and easily double production. In essence, all the cheese he makes in a year will fit into his new curing rooms.

Built into bedrock with 10-foot concrete walls, the modern Roelli Aging Cellars are 60-by-45-ft and 90 percent below grade. The cellar is made up of three distinct curing rooms, each designed for Chris' different masterpieces. The temperature naturally hovers around the ideal temperature of 50 degrees, with help from modern radiator pipes. Chris controls the humidity in each room via adding water on the floor. A magical maintenance room with all kinds of gadgets contains state-of-the art equipment for controlling the temperature in each room. It sends him an email three times a day with each aging room's temperature and will even send an alarm if the temperature is too high or too low.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter
While all that sounds much more hi-tech than a standard 200-year-old French cheese aging cave beneath your average urban cheese shop, Chris, in his humble way, manages to describe his curing rooms in a remarkably American style: "More than 500 loads of dirt and rock later, we've got ourselves a nice little aging facility."

Congratulations to Roelli Cheese on your new American aging cellars. We can't wait to see what cheeses they produce next.

Friday, November 16, 2012

La-Von Farmhouse Brie

Photo by Uriah Carpenter
A former Wisconsin dairy goat producer, yogurt maker and specialty cheesemaker is in the process of reinventing himself as one of the state's best farmhouse brie makers.

Todd Jaskolski, of Caprine Supreme in Black Creek, Wisconsin, debuted his La-Von Farmhouse Brie last week at the Fourth Annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival. Named for his mother and available in both goat and cow's milk, the brie is one of the first authentic farmhouse bries made in the state.

Made in 8-ounce rounds, the artisan cheese - made in mini batches, by hand - is not a commercial brie and, therefore, does not sport the perfect velvety half-inch thick white rind most Americans are used to seeing on tasteless mass-made, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-it-will-bounce-off brie. Instead, Jaskolski is using quality milk and real Geotrichum candidum to create a thin, tasty rind that is white with natural orange and sometimes even red mold dotting the outside. It's the kind of brie you're more likely to find in the French countryside than in an America cheese shop. Jaskolski makes it to order, so a three-week lead time is necessary. The cheese is made to be eaten between 3-6 weeks of age.

Once a dairy goat farmer and maker of the popular Caprine Supreme flavored goat milk yogurts, Jaskolski and his wife, Sheryl, had to sell their goat herd and retool the farmstead dairy plant after Todd suffered from a debilitating genetic disease that is essentially eating away his shoulders. After surgery on both, he can only lift his arms high enough to steer a car (think John McCain), and has remodeled the factory to lower all valves and tools so he can reach them. He carries a stool with him most of the time.

"We were bottling milk, making yogurt, making cheddar, milking goats twice a day and killing ourselves," Jaskolski told me back in August when he brought one of his first test wheels to me to try. "I could sit at home and collect disability and get fat, or I could keep making cheese. I'd rather make cheese."

Wisconsin is lucky Jaskolski decided to reinvent his farmstead dairy plant into an artisan brie creamery. While the cheese is just hitting markets, you can find it right now at Fromagination in Madison and in the coming weeks at Metcalfe's Market. Be sure and ask your favorite cheese store to carry it.