Today is one of those days. In describing the climate of the day, an old friend of mine called it â€œcheddar weatherâ€ meaning it is damp, cool, and overcast, with very light breezes. These are the conditions for maturing cheddar, as well as many other cheese types. It is also the kind of weather that can stimulate your appetite for cheese, cheddar included. The cool, damp, and lightly ventilated atmosphere is the type of atmosphere that we maintain in our cheese caves here at the Artisanal Cheese Center. The cheeses mature gracefully in these cave-like conditions.
When you see a label indicating that a cheese has been â€œcave-agedâ€ it probably does not mean that the cheese has been aged in an actual cave; it more likely means that it has been cured in a room that maintains those atmospheric conditions. Cheese â€œcavesâ€ are becoming a more frequent fixture of restaurants and hotels. The conditions they should offer are appropriate for aging most cheeses so it would be almost a given that the cheese had spent some time in a â€œcave.â€
I was invited to assess a cheese cave in a restaurant yesterday. I would rather not say what restaurant it was. The attractive â€œcaveâ€ unit had been recently installed and was shiny and new, with wooden shelves inside, atop which several cheeses were placed. When you opened the caveâ€™s see-through glass French doors, any cool moist air that might have resided within it would be lost almost immediately. Granted, the cave did not have much moisture within it to begin with.
The cut cheeses inside were cracking and drying out; this was not a happy sight. The cheeses may have retained most of their flavor but the textures were brittle. The cool temperature helps maintain the cheeses for an extended period, but without sufficient moisture that period can be shortened. Instead of â€œcheddar weatherâ€ the environment within that cave was more â€œSahara weather.â€ Some cheeses can benefit from a little drying, especially the younger ones, but the drying stage is a usually a short one for cheese maturing.
One of the problems with that cave was that it was simply far too large for the amount of cheese that might go through that restaurant. Had it been a smaller unit with more cheese it would have worked better. This is a frequent problem with the design of cheese caves: though they look nice, they are often too large and cannot maintain the humidity levels to prevent cheeses from drying out. And again, those French doors were part of the problem.
The restaurantâ€™s plan was to have an attractive cheese cave in the small private dining room where wines were also cellared, and again, not in ideal conditions. Too often, architects and designers think of the aesthetics without considering the â€œcheddar weatherâ€ that is preferred for storing cheeses. I suggested that the FromagÃ¨re fill up the unit with several sturdy aged cheeses such as Goudas, Alpine types, and pressed sheep cheeses. I recommended that she use the unit for display of whole wheels only, and that she keep all the cheeses that she needed for actual service in a smaller box within her least cold refrigerator. It is far easier to achieve that â€œcheddar weatherâ€ in a smaller â€œcave.â€
Granted, cheese can put up with a lot of abuse. It holds up much better if you give it a little TLC. I recommend that you order less but order often; leave the storage to the pros. One way to make sure that your cheeses arrive and remain in good form is to order Maxâ€™s Picks on a weekly basis. I go through the caves and select cheeses that I would have on my own plate that day.
Max McCalmanPosted by Artisanal Cheese