Sunday, November 1, 2009

For Earth Day, Lets Go Back to the Caves.

Originally posted on April 22nd, 2007 in Cooking Fire

During the last three months, I have spent a lot of time underground, washing, patting, brushing, and doing a lot of heavy lifting. I spent two days out of every week damp and cold, breathing spores, with no natural light. My job was to clean, but not disinfect. I “grew” mold, swept away mites, and farmed yeast. I was training to be a cheese-affineur.

My days were divided between tending over forty cheeses in the four caves that Murray’s keeps under the streets of Greenwich Village, and unloading, unpacking and arranging about a thousand pounds of cheeses that pass monthly through these caves.

Murray’s Cheese in New York City has an incredible (and highly competitive) training program to learn the art of cheese affinage. I was lucky enough to be allowed into the caves and learn about new American treasures, as well as good old French, Spanish and Swiss staples.

I learned the optimal temperatures, humidity levels necessary to prevent cheeses from breaking; I grew to sense the moment for turning cheeses and the smell of a well-ventilated cave. This all helps me now to better choose from the counters and appreciate the hard work behind a $16/lbs Appenzeller. It also helps me to appreciate the flavor developed through meticulous care from the cheesemaker and affineur, as opposed to the chemical punch of plasticky orange cheddar. Without sounding like a snob–and to encourage people to try more cheeses, different pairings, and consume it all the time–I’ll tell you something about my interest in cheese.

My interest in cheese started back in Boston. Since then, this passion has taken me to a rural goat farm off the interstate in Queretaro, Mexico — and to the once dangerous border of counties Cavan and Fermanagh in Ireland.

Cheese making, affinage, and mongering were once as important trades, as were curing meats, oyster pickling, or making marmalade. All now seem like elite food fabrication methods, in an era of Kraft singles, Smuckers and Oscar Meyer baloney. Cheese at its most basic principle started as a way to save excess milk from the spring and summer months, for consumption during the fall and winter. As conservation of food products, it helped ensure survival of families during the cold months, and could even be used as a kind of currency to trade for other services and products.

The increasing demand for food products in the industrialized world has lead into the commoditization of production methods to yield the greatest amount of product in the smallest amount of time, all in factories with high-energy usage. All this sacrifices flavor and obscures the hardships of those involved in the production process. Further distancing urbanites from rural places, the process is now starting to seem unsustainable.

It is now believed that due to climate change the Swiss Alpine glaciers will disappear in the next 20 to 30 years. This in turn affects the lush pastures of the Schachen region, threatening the future production of Emmentaler. So, eat cheese, make bread, and at the same time, you’ll care more for our shared environment.

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