PARIS -- Until I began visiting Parisian cheese aging cellars some 22 years ago, I thought that owners of cheese shops just bought cheese, tended to it for a few days, then sold it. How wrong can one be!
If you are a cheese shop owner and affineur – cheese ager – like Philippe Alleosse, you follow a cheese every step of the way, and learn quickly that yours is a métier of patience and of passion. You put out word around France that you are eager for someone to come up with a new cheese and voila, a few young and upcoming cheesemakers make an appearance. You fight for and reserve some cheeses – namely a Comte green label extra reserve – several years in advance and get to choose exactly which high-mountain chalet will tend to its upbringing, handling it as carefully as a prized wine.
You convince the Burgundian monks who make one of France’s oldest cheeses -- the subtle Reblochon-like cow’s milk Abbaye de Citeaux – to send you thousands of their cheeses to be aged just by you in a special way. You search out and finally find one of France’s rarest cheeses – the huge round of cow’s milk Bleu de Termignon from the Savoy – and handle it like the rare jewel it is. This blue (the greenish-blue comes from puncturing the cheese to create the colored veins naturally, not from injecting it with penicillium) is currently made by only three farmers in all of France. You hold a special secret (whispered to you upon the retirement of famous Savoy cheesemaker whose family had been making cheese since 1789) on how to age the prized cow’s milk disc known as Reblochon. You even suggest subtle but important changes to cheesemakers and dare to send cheeses back in you feel there has been less than normal attention in the fabrication of the cheese, or note that there may be something wrong with the current quality of milk from a specific herd. And you have refined cheese aging to such an art that you create four distinct underground cheese-aging cellars, each with a specific temperature and humidity level, each suited to the type of cheese that will be come of age there.
All this is about a passion for an art, and a very specific goal in mind. The slight, lean, blue-eyed Philippe Alleosse says it over and over “Our goal is extract from a cheese its true character, its greatest potential, its most developed and characteristic flavor.” All you have to do is taste a bland, unaged, version of a single cheese side-by-side with one with an Alleosse upbringing, and you instantly see the difference. Compare it to tasting a refrigerated tomato next one ripe from the vine, or a flavorless peach or apricot next to one that is literally dropping from its branches.
In the washed rind cellar --- cheeses such has the famed cow’s milk Epoisses from Burgundy, Reblochon from the Savoy, Maroilles from the north of France and Livarot from Normandy --- each cheese is washed and turned several times a week with a specific, and sometimes secret, brine. The brine may be a simple salt brine (Livarot), it might be a blend of water and eau-de-vie (Epoisses), or even one laced with beer (Maroilles). Here you will also find the tiny, rare disc of cow’s milk cheese known as Olivet Cendre, the only cheese in France still aged with a coating of the cinders from vine clippings, or sarments de vigne. All other ash-coated cheeses are aged with pharmaceutically made charcoal cinders.
The goat’s milk cellar is a chilly, fragrant sea of white blooms, awash with the highly perfumed lactic aromas of clean, fresh goat’s milk. Some 150 to 160 varieties of cheeses reach their potential here (up to 12,000 pieces of cheese at a time) some of them curing for several months. Some prizes here include the small cylinder known as Clacbitou, a Burgundian treat with an interior that is as smooth as silk; and the Chaibchou aux Noix, an Alleosse creation that will be sold only during the Christmas holidays. Philippe coats the young cheese with finely ground fresh walnuts, then ages it for up to 6 weeks. During that time, the tannic, intense flavors of the nut penetrate the cheese, turning it into a powerhouse of flavor.
In the cooked cheese cellar we take a trip to the high mountains – of Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and of course France – where the huge cheeses such as the 45 kg (99 lb) French Comte and 130 kg (286 lb) Swiss Emmenthal are coaxed to perfection. For each cheese Philippe has a special story, a note about aging, an anecdote. For instance, the rare and ancient breed of silky-brown, bison-like Salers cow (for his Cantal Salers fermier affine AOC ) gives a golden milk tinged with the color and flavor of their favored mountain treat, the yellow gentian flower. The breed is so finicky that they will now allow manual milking and begin to release their golden liquid only when the process is begun by a young calf looking for milk. Right now, one of France’s remaining truly seasonal cheeses, which can only be made from August to March – the Jura’s Mont d’Or – is aging, ready for us to slice off the top rind and eat the nutty, runny, lingering cow’s milk cheese with a spoon.
The bloomy rind cellar harbors some of our favorites and best known, including the famed Brie from the Champagne region (it takes weeks and lots of broken Brie to become agile enough to turn them on their rye straw mats) and all the high-fat cheeses preferred by Alleosse’s female clientele, including the cream-enriched Brillat Savarin (75% fat), Gratte Paille (70% fat), Petit Robert (75%) fat. As Philippe likes to point out, butter is 82% fat. (Whole milk is naturally 4.5 to 5% fat, so most cheeses are 45% to 50% fat.)
If God is in the details then he is there in the Alleosse cellars, where only raw milk cheese have a right to enter. Most comes from single farms or very specifically-selected dairies with a well-earned pedigree. And all of the AOC cheeses are their, those that are made according to strict historical and geographic standards that often specify breed, seasons, altitude, diet and aging conditions.
But like all fine things in life, cheese is there to give pleasure not to talked about. So here are a few pleasure tips:
To eat the rind or not eat the rind? On hard-rind cheeses such as Comte or Cantal, the rind is generally not eaten. For the pleasure of the cheese itself, discard the rind and enjoy the flavor, texture and perfume of interior. On soft cheese, such as Brie or Camembert the rind is usually consumed, although certain connoisseurs will still cut away the rind to get to the heart and soul of the cheese.
What is the best temperature at which to enjoy a cheese? Philippe Alleosse disagrees with those that feel we should eat cheese at room temperature. Better to enjoy it at the same temperature as a good wine, at “cellar” temperature, between 50 and 55 degrees F (10 to 13 degrees C.)
What wine, what cheese? There are classic combinations, such as Roquefort and Sauternes, but some other enjoyable marriages are Comte and a Vin Jaune from the Jura; a Crottin de Chavignol goat’s milk cheese with a chilled white Sancerre; and Philippe Alleosse promotes a brilliant combination, the bloomy-rind Burgundian cow’s milk cheese Chaource with a vintage Champagne.
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