The Art of Aging Cheese
Somewhere in the 22,000 square foot underground labyrinth of The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greenboro, VT, Clarence Wheeler is poking your cheese. The caves are located alongside the secluded Caspian Lake—right below the verdant pasture where Jasper Hill Farm’s Rorschach-blotted Ayrshire cows graze.
Wheeler is an affineur, a person who carefully monitors cheeses during their aging process, or affinage. Highly specialized in his role, he deals solely with Bayley Hazen Blue, cultivating a deeply intuitive relationship with the contents of Vault 7, where he works bespiking (strategically piercing) the fresh cheese by hand. Clarence knows the particular quirks of Bayley Hazen better than anyone, declaring that “It’s a challenging cheese and there is definitely a learning curve.”
First he examines the curd structure, which varies unpredictably from wheel to wheel, Clarence “pokes” each one on day six. The tiny holes he pokes are the oxygen pathways that determine how Penicillium roqueforti—the distinctive mold that gives the cheese its trademark blue veins—expresses itself. After the initial cheese soothsaying and piercing are complete, the affineur lets the mold come forth out of the invisible microbial world. For the first four weeks he must turn the cheese every other day—right now, he says he is spiking about 400 wheels per day to load up on ripe blue for the winter holidays. After the first four weeks, the rind structure is solid enough to require less scrutiny, so he turns and brushes each 7.5-pound wheel less frequently. Clarence periodically tastes the cheese for the rest of the maturation cycle, aiming for peak flavor at 80 to 90 days.
Andy and Mateo Kehler started Jasper Hill Farm in 2003 to make cheese with the milk from a small herd of Ayshire cows. They built The Cellars at Jasper Hill upon realizing that most of the work in cheesemaking came after the cheese was already made. It is due to the efforts of people like Mr. Wheeler and the Kehler brothers that the affinage tradition of Europe has started to bloom in America. In addition to their own cheeses The Cellars at Jasper Hill also provide aging services for other local cheesemakers, taking a neighborly approach to the business.
The careful art of aging cheese is all about paying attention to the balance of each component; it’s essential that a friendly mold, the right milk, the proper conditions of temperature and moisture, the cave’s location, the duration of ripening, and most importantly, the affineur that orchestrates the whole mysterious symphony come together to create a pungent product that is decadently divine.
Bayley Hazen blue is the perfect example of just such a successful symphony. Its fudgy texture, nutty sweetness, and anise aroma are accompanied by the grassy flavors of the excellent milk. Bayley Hazen is the perfect finish for a juicy burger or steak. It is excellent with bitter greens, and beet salads. Or simply crumble the cheese over some sliced apples. People have been eating this moldy stuff since the days of Pliny the Elder for a reason!