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Cheese is Hot, or at least warm!

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!

Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
  • more Cheese is Hot, or at least warm!
Posted by Artisanal Cheese

3 Responses to “Cheese is Hot, or at least warm!”

  1. Bill Krieger Says:

    Max,

    Thank you for another useful and encouraging post (despite the sad news about the Pichiline Cheese Cave which I had the very good fortune to experience a few years ago). Your post is encouraging because it urges all of us who care about real cheese to do what we can to educate and persuade health departments and food inspectors to understand that not all cheeses are the same, not all cheeses need to be kept at 38-42F, and that few if any real cheeses have caused sickness or other ill effects in consumers. In Washington State, along with the Washington Food Industry Association and representatives from the ACS, we are being asked to consider the economic impacts that relate to more restrictions on real cheese, especially soft-ripened varieties. The biggest problem in this action relates to the issue at the heart of your current blog: the idea that all cheeses are alike and should be kept in like conditions. I hope that we can make some progress on this point and on the 60-day rule for unpasteurized milk cheeses. Thank you for your efforts and condolences for the loss of the cheese cave.

    William (Bill) Krieger, PhD and cheesemonger at Cheese Louise in Richland, WA

  2. patricia michelson Says:

    Such a heartfelt article, and one that makes me both sad and angry. However, I met up with Philippe Olivier and Roland Barthelemy in Paris at the Salon du Fromage in Paris recently where a discussion took place with 8 others about forming a European Confederation of Cheese Retailers. This I hope will become worldwide, where we, as cheesemongers and affineurs (refiners and maturers) can have a say in how we run our businesses and especially the way we keep cheeses. I am hopeful that in future people like Max and I can run our businesses in a way that maximizes what we are doing to the cheeses as well as setting ourselves apart from the mass market.

  3. Rona Myers Sullivan Says:

    I so appreciate your experience and dedication to the proper care of cheese. As a farmstead cheesemaker it breaks my heart to see cheeses handled improperly simply from a lack of understanding and information. I can only hope that your books, seminars and blogs continue to inform and influence the masses!

    There is so much work on the front end of a farmstead operation from caring for the animals, to developing make styles and proper aging, and then getting them sampled out to create a demand. These processes generally take years, but any operation with livestock can only be sustainable through good cash flow….

    SO, if you are fortunate enough to get your cheeses to that point of sustainable demand, it is then quite disheartening to deliver them to a venue only to see your leaf wrapped cheeses promptly disrobed, slapped in plastic and into 38f .. well, you can imagine the visceral pain a cheesemaker might experience. Speaking to one cheesemonger about this issue, they told me they had come to this practice because otherwise they'd have to continue to unwrap them occasionally, wipe off natural the molds, and then RE-WRAP in the leaves! Oh my!

    We appreciate having a defender like yourself bridging the gap between the cheesemakers and retailers to raise American standards. Thank you!