The Art and Science of Aging Cheese

In Murray’s urban caves, expert hands transform young wheels into glorious cheeses
August 29, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW YORK—In Hunters Point, Queens, in a building tucked among derelict warehouses and factories, remnants from the Long Island City neighborhood’s industrial past, hundreds of wheels of cheese are quietly coming of age.

They sit silent and still, but imperceptible to the human eye, they’re bustling with activity. Whole communities of living microbes—mold, bacteria, yeast—are busy at work on their surfaces. Human hands fuss over them, too, intervening to flip, brush, or wash them every few days. With time, the cheeses grow rich with flavor.

This is the ancient art of affinage, or cheese aging, and it’s happening here at Murray’s Cheese’s cheese caves, an expansion of their beloved Bleecker Street retail store in Manhattan. In its Cave Aged program, Murray’s imports high-quality cheeses from across the country and the world, and then sends them to their caves to ripen and mature to their full potential. Days, months, or even years later, they resurface onto Murray’s shop counters completely transformed.

Cheese has been aged in this way for centuries. Natural caves, being cool in temperature and high in humidity, have long provided an ideal environment for aging.

“That’s how it started,” said Murray’s cavemaster Peter Jenkelunas, “and there are still some out there.”

Murray’s caves, however, are man-made. The state-of-the-art, temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers are designed to imitate cave environments as best as they can, with porous, limestone-coated walls that promote microbial growth; sensor-regulated humidifiers; and low-velocity fans that ensure proper airflow. Each of the four caves—plus a drying room—is carefully calibrated to maintain its resident cheeses’ optimal environment.

Murray’s operation is a bit of an anomaly in the United States.

“Usually, in the U.S., the system is that the cheesemaker also ages the cheese. There are quite a few cheesemakers out there that have something similar to what we have,” Jenkelunas explained.

What’s unusual is for a place to specialize purely in affinage; Jenkelunas can name only a few others in the country. (One is also in New York City: Crown Finish Caves, which ages cheeses in a repurposed 1850s “lagering tunnel,” once used to brew beer, 30 feet below-ground in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.)

The practice is much more common in Europe, where “everyone’s a little more specialized, so [aging] is seen as a completely different part of it,” Jenkelunas said.

But there are perks to having a dedicated facility right in New York City. Look at soft-ripened cheeses, like creamy brie or valençay, for instance.

“If you’re importing from Europe, there are a lot of obstacles there—softer cheeses don’t hold up as well,” Jenkelunas said. Murray’s, however, imports them fresh and unripened, and then matures them in their own caves, to ensure that they’re kept in good condition and sold at the peak of ripeness.

The caves were initially constructed in the basement under their retail store in 2004, with the simple purpose of providing better storage for Murray’s collection. (They expanded to their Long Island City location in 2013, and the basement caves were recently demolished.)

Over time, curiosity and creativity inevitably snuck into the mix—why just preserve the cheese when you could also better it?—giving rise to their special Cave Aged selections.

“It’s become more about doing unique things,” Jenkelunas said. “We’re trying to have special products for Murray’s. It’s evolved.”

Coming of Age

So how does it all work? A visit to the cheese caves is a fascinating peek into the process.

Simply put, aging is the natural breakdown of cheese, the work of the scores of microbes growing on the surface. Microbes all have their own optimal conditions, including cheese makeup, moisture level, and pH, to name a few, so different cheeses in different environments will give rise to different microbial communities.

In turn, those microbes have unique sets of enzymes, “[which] are going to break down proteins and fats in different ways and create different flavors,” Jenkelunas explained. Details of the process, from aging time to treatment of the cheese (a dusting in vegetable ash, perhaps, or a bath of white wine), also impact the final result.

“You can age [the same] cheese in a different way and it’ll taste completely different,” Jenkelunas said.

Murray’s makes four distinct styles, each housed its appropriate cave: bloomy rind, washed rind, natural rind, and alpine.

The Bloomy Rind Cave is home to their youngest and softest cheeses, mostly sheep’s and goat’s milk varieties imported from France. These cheeses are inoculated with mold spores during the cheesemaking process, and the cave simply provides the best environment for them to grow.

They arrive fresh and rindless but soon bloom into works of art. Some develop wrinkly, fuzzy rinds that give them the appearance of tiny, gray brains; others turn chalky white, like familiar brie and camembert. For others, the art is human-crafted—the Hudson Flower, for instance, is coated in a colorful mosaic of rosemary, lemon thyme, marjoram, elderberries, and hop flowers.

After 10 days of aging, they’re ready to enjoy.

Residents of the Alpine Room, on the other hand, “come here and stay quite a while,” Jenkelunas said. These nutty, grassy Alpine-style cheeses, traditionally made high in the Alps, are Murray’s heavyweights—the European wheels weigh anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds. They ripen more slowly, with less active rinds, and make themselves comfortable for a year or more.

One wall of the room is completely stocked with hefty wheels of Murray’s Annelies, one of its flagship cave-aged cheeses, a raw cow’s milk wheel made in northern Switzerland and sent exclusively to Murray’s to age for 9–12 months.

Organized by age, the wall of cheese is really a visual timeline of its life. Starting from the farthest end, columns of wheels proceed in a gradient of pale, snowy beige to rich, mottled bronze—from three months old, as the producer sells it, to maturity, at least nine months later.

It transforms on the inside, too, from what Jenkelunas describes as a mild, everyday cheese to “something completely different”—intensely savory and grassy, redolent with hazelnuts and butterscotch.

Next, there’s the Washed Rind Cave, lovingly dubbed “the stink tank.” This is where you’ll find all your pungent, meaty varieties—think stinky taleggio and morbier. Those flavors come from diverse bacterial communities, which flourish in the cave’s warmer temperatures.

For washed rind cheeses, “you want a lot of variety, and a lot of that variety comes from the environment,” Jenkelunas said.

Most of these wheels come already aged; Murray’s job is to maintain and further push along their rind development. They do that by washing the rinds three times a week with different brines, beers, wines, or ciders, which can also contain added yeast or bacteria to alter the microbial community. The washes prevent moisture loss, impart different flavors into the cheese, and “help push them in the right direction.”

Finally, in the Natural Rind Cave, home to mostly cheddars, variety is also key. But the approach is much more relaxed.

Jenkelunas calls this their wildest room. “We’re letting pretty much whatever’s in the room grow on these cheeses,” he said. As a result, they develop rustic, multi-colored rinds, thanks to the work of the varied and colorful collection of microbes populating the cave. One particularly striking specimen is ashy-black mottled with orange specks, as if someone had flicked a paintbrush dipped in paint in its direction.

Relaxed, however, does not mean hands-off. The cheeses are often treated before beginning the process (like the Stockinghall cheddar, which is wrapped in cheesecloth and coated in lard, the traditional English way); the environment remains strictly controlled; and the cheeses are regularly and meticulously maintained.

A Labor of Love

All in all, affinage is a high-maintenance art.

“You have to take care of the cheese,” Jenkelunas said. “Doing it this way, it’s a lot more work.”

With so many variables in the mix, a lot can go wrong in the process, and the easiest way to mess it up is to not tend to the cheeses often enough.

Washed rind and Alpine styles, for instance, must be washed regularly, to prevent them from drying out and cracking. Most wheels must also be frequently turned, else they settle for too long and end up misshapen or split.

Then, there are cheese mites. The pesky bugs only affect natural rind cheeses, as they’re drawn to certain types of molds, and once they show up, usually when the cheeses are three to four months old, they’ll eat away the rinds.

Murray’s solution: once a week, take to the wheels with a Shop-Vac vacuum cleaner. Each wheel is then also brushed, to spread around the mold, and turned, to prevent settling. It’s long, monotonous work; it would take one person a full eight-hour day to handle all the cheddars—about 350, Jenkelunas estimates—in the Natural Rinds Cave. There are five on the cheese caves team.

It’s also slow work. Cheese takes time to age, after all. Much of it comes down to faith and patience.

“You just kind of trust that things are moving in the right direction, even if you don’t see it happening right in front of your face,” Jenkelunas said.

If it doesn’t work out, it becomes a learning experience. Jenkelunas credits much of his knowledge to “doing things over and over, seeing what went wrong.” And when each round can take months or years to complete, that adds up to a lot of time.

But that time, effort, and extraordinary care are exactly what make Murray’s cheeses stand apart. The caves team works behind the scenes, but the clear proof is in the taste.

Murray’s cheeses can be found at Murray’s Cheese Shop and Grand Central Market in New York City, at Murray’s cheese counters in over 400 Kroger locations across the United States, and online at MurraysCheese.com

 

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