Friday, September 25, 2009

The virtues of a cave d'affinage

Ah, the nuances of cheesemaking and refining. And yes, what is possible in a land where raw milk is the ingredient of choice, pasteurization an option. Isabelle and Paul Pierre spoke at length to me of their cave d'affinage. They built it specifically for the purpose of permitting their cheese to age, mellow, improve. It has terra cotta tiles (on a rather steep pitch to allow for easy hosing down) on the floor. The walls and ceiling are white washed brick. Period. There is an airconditioner to keep the room at 8-10 degrees C, and humidity control, but as the room is ground floor and inside other thick stone walls, the electric machines don't run all the time.

It is very important to build such a room with materials that breath. Plastic panels, stainless steel, these are anethema to the desired result.

The room is never cleaned with anything stronger than water. It is scrubbed down once a year, and hosed occasionally (only the floor, if some of the cheeses drip). During the off season, when the goats are not producing milk and thus there are no new cheeses to put in the cave, it is important to leave a batch or two of aged cheeses (seriously small, hard and blue at this point) in the cave to help the walls imbibe the good bacteria. Then, just before starting up the cheesemaking in the spring, all is hosed down, scrubbed down, and re-white washed. Once the paint is dry, the room is ready to go.

Yes, just in case you were wondering, a room like this is designed to replicate a cave underground. It was precisely in caves (and still is in certain parts of Europe) that cheeses have always aged. These caves harbor and nurture certain bacteria, that act on the cheeses in a good way, encouraging aging, refining, improving.

Isn't it marvelous to remember that excessive hygiene, anti-bacterians, and refrigerators didn't use to exist? and that people survived and in many cases thrived without them?

I don't deny the usefulness of salt and dehydration amongst other tools in keeping food safe for consumption. But that's for another day.

No comments: