America’s connoisseurship is on the rise. Unfortunately the temperature at which cheese is being stored is on the decline.
Temperature abuse is one of the gravest ills that can befall cheese. It is usually the too-warm temperatures at which cheese is stored when cheeses suffer most. The bacterial activity speeds up and this can lead to over-ripening. A cheese expected to reach its peak a week or two later rushes through its usual ripening schedule to the over-the-hill stage. A rise in temperature is usually okay for a short period but extended phases of warmth increase microbiological activities that lead to secondary fermentations and off-flavors. Once a softer cheese has sustained that elevated temperature and the bacteria have started to procreate (both the good and the bad bacteria) there is little that the affineur can do to reverse damage.
The world’s greatest affineurs know that cheese maintenance is the foundation of their jobs. It is impossible to turn back the clock on aging cheese, just as it is impossible to make a great cheese out of inferior milk.
A few years ago a well-known Chicago chef called me to ask what could be done to rescue his cheese program. The local health department insisted that his cheeses be stored at 38° F until the guests ordered the cheese course. The health inspector was simply following the local regulations: dairy products must be stored cold. The only suggestion I could make was that the captain take the cheese order at the beginning, along with all the other courses. The cheese could be served after the main course, after it had a chance to come to room temperature.
Here again we have an instance where all dairy products are lumped together, as though they and all their shelf-lives are all the same. I would prefer to have my pasteurized milk (sic) stored cold as it is especially perishable, but my Parmigiano Reggiano?
As most of you probably know: a cheese served cold is not very tasty, that it can take a good half hour to bring a cold slice up to room temperature. Cheese temperature abuse is usually caused by elevated temperatures. However the potential for harm is also great at the other end of the thermometer. Even the hardest of cheese has its water content and if the cheese is stored too cold the destructive effects on the texture cannot be undone. The softer cheeses suffer the most; if a triple-crème is stored below freezing (which apparently happens from time to time) the soft voluptuous texture is permanently lost. The water and fats lose their balanced suspension in the protein matrices.
Cool storage certainly has its advantages; the lower temperatures help maintain a cheese in a more static state. The moisture and fats do not leach out as quickly, the microbiological activity slows down so that a cheese reaches its optimal stage of ripeness more gradually. This is referring to storage though, and not to cheese service, as in a home or restaurant.
The flavors will not only be masked in a cheese served cold; the cheese may actually be a little objectionable. A cold cheese will not be presented to a judge in a cheese competition, either in international competitions or here in the United States.
The cheese cave at New York City’s Picholine restaurant (the cheese shrine) was installed in 1995. The temperature was set at 50° F and we worked to keep the relative humidity levels high. They are called “caves” because they have cave-like conditions: cool, moist, with gentle air exchange. The compressor kept the temperature steady. We kept the humidity levels high by filling the cave with cheeses. During drier winter months we sprayed the tile walls with water to keep the cave moist. The only minor flaw in the cave’s design was that it was a little too drafty. We simply turned off one of the fans, and shielded the most fragile cheeses in the recesses of the shelves.
Tons of cheese went through that cave from its installation in 1995 until just a few weeks ago. A local health inspector had the Fromagère remove the cheeses from these near-ideal conditions and place them in a colder (and much drier) walk-in refrigerator for storage.
Why they waited until 2012 to take action could be because they did not know of the cave’s existence. It was tucked in a corner of a small private dining room doubling as a wine cellar. We were not trying to hide the cheese cave; this just happened to be the most logical space within the tight quarters of the restaurant. Many guests had the good fortune to dine in that little private dining room with a view of America’s first restaurant cheese cave.
Of all the cheeses that were stored in that cave over the past seventeen years, not one of those cheeses made anyone ill, not one of them. The cheeses were all happy being in that cave, all of them together. We thought it might be a problem but cross-contamination between blues and cheddars, for example, was never a problem. Some cheese lovers profess to love a little blue accent in their cheddars. The cheeses moved through there so rapidly that they did not have a chance to make trouble for one another.
Cheese has been around a lot longer than has refrigeration. I hope that the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professionals will help correct these misinformed health regulations. If we cannot get the 60-day minimum aging requirement for raw milk cheese amended, maybe we can at least give cheese the conditions that benefit them the most.
I do not want to think that the closure of the first North American cheese cave marks the end of an era; I just felt a little chill.
It is apparent that we have a lot of work to do. Let us all fight for what is right by cheese!