This gooey, fluffy ball is the Saint Nuage, a cow’s milk triple-creme from acclaimed French affineur Hervé Mons. “Nuage” actually means “cloud” in french, so this is the “Saint Cloud”, an appropriate name when you experience the texture.
The St. Nuage is a cow’s milk triple-creme, made by a Burgundy cheesemaker, and affinaged in the famous Mons tunnels before being sold exclusively through Whole Foods. I’m not sure if this is actually the first one, but I don’t recall seeing Mons cheeses with custom packaging and the Hervé Mons logo prominently displayed prior to this, at least on this side of the pond. I’ll certainly keep my eyes peeled for others.
When warmed to room temperature, the St. Nuage is almost unmanageably soft and must be moved with care lest the skin tear open in your hands. The rind, butter-yellow with a thin white mold layer, rippled and puckered, opens to reveal an incredibly gooey, delicate interior, the texture almost whipped in consistency. If you’ve ever baked a cake, the texture is kind of like the room temperature butter after sixty seconds of creaming, it’s that soft and fluffy; pretty impressive for an aged cheese — albeit briefly aged from what I can tell.
The flavor is mild but intensely buttery and rich, milky, a little tangy, with hints of mushroom, a nice salt balance, the paste melting in your mouth. Terms like “decadent” tend to be abused in the cheese world (including, admittedly, by yours truly), but this is a cheese that truly deserves that descriptor. I usually prefer my cheese neat, no bread or crackers, but this is a cheese that is tailor-made for slathering on a crusty baguette or with fruit. This is not a challenging or complex cheese, but it definitely puts the “creme” in triple creme.
From FarmerGeneral.com, which describes itself as “An Epicurean Review Emanating from Portland, Oregon and Points East”, a piece that actually was first published in February of 2011 but is worth revisiting. In it, Marie-Laure Couet (who also blogs at The Cheesestead) discusses the science and mystery of the delicate craft of Affinage, which she learned as an apprentice with the great Mons Affineurs:
…my education in refining cheese is much more subtle than chemistry and microbiology. I must develop le toucher or “the touch” that will serve me in determining the stage of life of a cheese. Because no matter how many mushrooms, moulds and bacteria I can identify, none of it matters if I can’t decide whether or not to take a cheese out of the Haloir, or drying room. A few hours too many in the Haloir and a cheese splits open, or is rock-hard. A few hours too little, and a cheese may “skin” (faire la peau) when touched: the skin sticks to your fingers and comes off of the cheese. Common with excess humidity, a cheese can also develop bitterness or rancidity…
Talking about the challenges and the pleasures of aging cheese with a few of the affineurs, it would seem that the fact that cheese is a living organism is what gets them going. Gaining le toucher, reading the cheeses and seeing their variation with the seasons is at once difficult and exciting. One week you could taste a cheese at its very best, and “it’s possible that next week the same cheese is inedible. This is why affinage is complicated. This is why it’s fun,” Guillaume Barthassot remarks when I wonder at the trickiness of cheese. On the other hand, Eric Meredith, MonS Operations Manager, tells me about how problematic affinage can be without solid communication between the cheesemaker and the affineur.
The producer-affineur relationship is paramount if the goal is to make great cheese because affinage will never make a bad cheese good; it can only make a good cheese better. Therefore, if a cheesemaker notices a problem, he or she will ideally notify the affineur in order for the affineur to take preventative steps.
Read the full piece here.
Via jowettcheese on Tumblr:
Rind of Berkswell cheese at approx 20 weeks. Cheeses are washed before leaving the farm to remove excess mould development. Rind development here is spontaneous and environmentally reponsive. Each batch develops rind at a differing rate and composition, as does each of the cheese stores on the farm.
I love this photo, because it shows a side of the affinage process that most consumers will never see. The truth is, many wheels of cheese, by the time they emerge from the cave, look more like science experiments gone awry than something you’d want to eat, with thick layers of multi-colored molds, yeasts and bacterias, cheese mites, and other (beneficial) organisms happy to take up residence on the rind. Before they go to market, though, the rinds will be brushed off, cleaned up and end up looking a little more like this. The same is true for many foods of course: the best steaks often start as sides of beef aging for days or weeks and will end up gray with splotches of blue and green mold; fish sauce, that great elixir of southeast asian cuisine, spends many months as vats of fish “rotting” in the sun.
That’s the beauty of microbiology: the same processes that can turn one food inedible can turn another into a revelation of flavor, aroma and texture.
(Photo ©2013 Jowettcheese)
Tome d’Aquitaine au Sauterne is that rare breed, a washed rind goat’s milk cheese. Also known as Clisson, the Tome is made by the dairy cooperative Union Laitiere de la Venise Verte in the Loire Valley, and then travels to Bordeaux, where famed affineur Jean d’Alos takes over, washing the wheels with a brine solution including the local Muscadet wines and Sauternes, a dessert wine.
Goat cheeses are usually not washed because it doesn’t take much to push a goat’s milk over into the gamey, overly goaty zone. the Tome d’Aquitaine manages to retain a mildness and complexity that is notable. Lightly pungent and fruity in aroma, the bone-white paste is creamy and silky in texture, semi-firm and smooth. The flavor is mild but complex, milky, sweet and well-balanced saltiness, with a distinctly fruity, winey flavor from the wines used in its aging and subtle barnyardy, herbaceous notes.
Purchased at Blue Apron.
At FrenchForFoodies.com, Rachel Bajada looks into the endangered world of France’s cheese heritage, and visits one of Paris’ top affineurs to learn more (and take some beautiful photographs of the cheeses in the caves):
When I first arrived in Paris over two years ago, if you had tried to convince me that French cheese was an endangered species on the culinary food chain, I would likely have choked in disbelief on my staple lunch order of Salade de chèvre chaud.
My first exposure to the concept of “Les fromages en voie de disparition” (endangered cheeses) was through a French documentary called “La guerre des fromage qui pue” (The war of stinky cheeses) — an eye-opening exposé on the French dairy industry revealing the how countless French cheeses annually become extinct due to increasing hygiene controls enforced on small-scale producers, globalisation by mega dairy cooperatives, and the general decline in demand by French consumers for premium, artisanal products. Curious to learn more, I arranged to meet with one of Paris’ most respected, accomplished and outspoken men in the cheese business: Philippe Alléosse. A master fromager and affineur, Alléosse’s task is to ripen cheeses in his vast network of Parisian caves. He is not only a master when it comes to cheese making, but also a passionate ambassador for the preservation of what could be a dying art – the cultivation of stinky, gooey and delectable fromage.
I meet with Alléosse at his cheese maturation caves, which are situated near Clichy in the buzzing and eclectic 17th arrondissement. Eager to get to the bottom of the situation, I ask him which exactly of the French cheeses face extinction. His response is terrifying and astonishingly simple: “All of them”… When many French people think they are buying a Brie, Roquefort or a Sainte-maure-de-touraine today, what they’re getting is mass-produced industrial cheese, it’s not AOC and a lot of the time it’s not even made from raw milk… take Camembert AOC, there are only a handful of producers left making AOC Camembert, not to mention all the lesser known cheeses made on a small scale whose producers can’t keep up with the strict hygiene regulations being imposed on them.”
Rachel also provides some sobering statistics, showing that, despite the explosion of interest in cheese in regions like North America, all’s not well in every corner of the artisanal cheese world:
• Of the 100-150 raw milk cheeses available, three disappear each year, meaning around 40 have become extinct in the last decade.
• While Americans, Australians and Britons are increasingly going for unpasteurized cheese, in France raw milk cheeses dropped to 179,750 tonnes in 2008 against 183,500 tonnes in 2006.
• Bleu de Termignon, Vacherin des Bauges, Vacherin d’Abondance, Persillés de Tignes des Aravis and de Semnoz, Reblochon du Mont-Cenis, Colombier des Aillons, Galette du Mont-d’Or are just some of the cheeses that have disappeared. During the last 30 years, more than 50 traditional cheeses disappeared, whereas industrial production continues to increase
• French people eat 23.9 kg of cheese per capita per year, which is the second highest consumption rate, just after the Greeks. But that good score hides a cruel reality: raw milk cheeses are only 7 per cent of that consumption
(Photos ©2012 Rachel Bajada)
It’s finally Fall, and Little Big Apple, a collaborative project between Murray’s Cheese, Champlain Valley Creamery, and Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, captures the autumnal spirit perfectly. Inspired by the classic Banon’s of France, which are traditionally goat’s crottins, wrapped in chestnut leaves macerated and in eau de vie, this version brings together cow’s milk triple-créme, apple leaves and apple liqueur.
Cheesemaker Carlton Yoder starts with his Organic Champlain Triple, a soft-ripened triple créme bloomy rind (Silver Medal Winner, 2007 American Cheese Society Conference). Murray’s then takes the cheese, and wraps it in hand-picked apple leaves which have been macerated in Warwick Valley’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Apple Liqueur. These little packages are then aged in Murray’s Caves, allowing the Liqueur to infuse the cheese with the a complex blend of flavors and aromas. The buttery, mushroomy flavors of the the Triple blend with the sweetness of apple, with vegetal notes from the leaves and a slightly fermented, yeasty, earthy essence, especially at the rind, with a bit of bite from the alcohol. The paste is oozing at the creamline, but firmer and creamy in the center.
This cheese charms visually as well, presented as it is in a compact package, carefully wrapped in the leaves and tied shut with a bow of grass. Perfect as a centerpiece for a cheese plate.
From the legendary cheesemongers Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, this is “A Neal’s Yard Dairy Film”, looking at the cheesemaking process from sheep (and goat and cow) to shelf, with a nice mix of footage (not sure how much of it is found and how much shot for this film) from all points in the life cycle of a wheel of cheese. Neal’s Yard is one of those life list cheesemongers that I intend to visit at some point, famous not just for their excellent selection of British Isle cheeses but for their skills as Affineurs as well (affinage-related controversies notwithstanding…)
Back in my college days, when I was first expanding my cheese palette, Morbier was one of the first “fancy” cheeses I discovered and fell in love with. It didn’t just taste good but had a story to go with it — that famous ash line down the center — which traditionally separated the evening and morning milks, so that leftover cheese from the evening make could be covered with ash to sit overnight, and then topped off with fresh curds in the morning.
Unfortunately, Morbier is a popular cheese, and its quality wildly variable, with overproduction and poor cheese handling leading to a lot of subpar Morbier being sold, to the point where you don’t often see it on restaurant cheese plates anymore, and I frankly tended to skip over it when shopping for cheese. I suspect, like Brie or Brin d’Amour, it’s also tainted with a bit of a stigma of being “over”, last decade’s cheese, and people have moved on.
Enter Murray’s. Among their custom Cave Aged cheeses is Morbier, and after tasting it, I can confirm that, recent affinage kerfluffle notwithstanding, Murray’s knows what they’re doing when it comes to affinage — or aging or cheese handling or wheel juggling or whatever term you’re comfortable using for what they do — suffice it to say, they do it well. This cheese, from the Jura region of France, has a creamy, moist, giving paste, a lovely pungent aroma and a nutty, grassy, mild flavor. This is not your rubbery, flavorless supermarket Morbier.
(image copyright 2011 Nona Brooklyn)
The recent piece in the New York Times on affinage has touched off a bit of a food fight in the cheese world. Nona Brooklyn spoke to some cheese world folks, in what is an interesting and informative post that helps to clarify what Affinage really is and who is really qualified to claim the mantle of Affineur for themselves. The most important distinction made is between “Cheese Care” and “Affinage”. As Brad Dubé says:
To really boil it down, there’s cheese care and there’s affinage. The difference is big. The distinction is there and it should be made clearer. The lines between affinage and cheese care are starting to be blurred, and that’s a problem…The new school has taken to calling cheese care ‘affinage,’ but it’s not affinage. Affinage is very different. Real affineurs buy young cheese – cheese that hasn’t yet been aged, and that isn’t ready for consumption – and they age it themselves, to give it a specific set of characteristics that they’re seeking to impart or highlight. Affineurs work directly with producers to select the right wheels of young cheese. They’re not getting cheese that’s already been aged and is ready for the market and then doing something to it.
Interesting piece in the NYTimes about the art (or artifice?) of Affinage. I had no idea there were sides in this battle — or that there was a battle at all — but apparently there are some cheese heavy hitters who question the value of Affinage, Steve Jenkins, author of Cheese Primer (the first cheese book I ever bought, back in 1998) fame and one of the godfathers of the NYC cheese scene, being the most notable.
“This affinage thing is a total crock,” said Mr. Jenkins, the cheese monger at Fairway and the author of the pivotal 1996 book “Cheese Primer.” “All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense.”
Mr. Jenkins, a New York retail pioneer, argues that affinage is ultimately about marketplace savvy. Long ago in places like France and Belgium, the affineur first stepped in to extract profits by acting as the middleman.
“It has nothing to do with making cheese taste really good,” he said. “It has to do with getting paid. And it’s morphed into a typical ‘French things are cool’ thing that Americans have bought hook, line and sinker. They all think, ‘I can even turn this into a marketing tool, so people will see how devoted I am to my craft.’ ”
Given the importance of aging to the end product, though, it’s rather hard to believe that he can be so dismissive of Affinage in general. As the Jasper Hill folks point out:
“The fact of the matter is that a cheese that isn’t properly ripened doesn’t have any value,” Mateo Kehler said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t become cheese until it’s ripened.”
or Terrance Brennan:
“Affinage is the recipe,” said Terrance Brennan, the chef and restaurateur, whose Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro is arguably the most cheese-centric dining spot in Manhattan. “It’s what makes the cheese. It’s what develops the flavor and texture.” As for those who claim it is bogus, he said, “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
That being said, I have had some cheeses that had been affinaged at the cheese shops (which shall remain unnamed) where I purchased them and were…less than impressive, so there’s no denying that there is an art and science to the process that might suffer due to people jumping into the affinage game without the proper experience or facilities.