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The Cheese Whiz

All about affineurs, French specialists who age and finish fromage.

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I had my first great meal a quarter of a century ago, in Paris at Taillevent. More than palate-ravishing, it was eye-opening. Seafood sausage—wasn't that a contradiction in terms? The lemon-flavored duck seemed to be not only another species but from another planet. The Alsatian pear soufflé was breathtaking. But the most revelatory and mysterious part of the meal was the cheese course. Who had any idea that cheese could be as complex as wine?

Having since consumed innumerable seafood assemblages, ducks of all description, and soufflés both risen and fallen, I have lost some of my innocence. And yet, perhaps because it is never described on the menu, or because it varies so greatly from place to place, or because (unlike a fruit soufflé or chocolate cake) a cheese is something I've never made myself, or because the cart arrives at a point in the meal when I may be slightly sozzled—who knows why, but the cheese course still arouses in me a bit of youthful excitement and apprehension. Hearing the wheels of the cheese cart rolling in my direction, I feel the frisson of a quiz-show contestant. Am I about to choose the lady or the tiger?

After a long absence, I recently returned to Taillevent to interview its proprietor, Jean-Claude Vrinat, hoping to be enlightened on a particular aspect of the subject—the affineur, whose specialty is the aging of cheese. I had reserved a table for a late lunch on October 13th, which proved to be an auspicious day. With the pride of a father showing off his firstborn, a waiter was displaying to diners who had reached the cheese course the first Vacherin of the season, oozing gently on a wicker tray. Gloriously smelly and richly layered in primal, barnyard flavors, Vacherin—also called Mont d'Or—is one of my favorite cheeses. Its desirability is enhanced not only by the fact that it is unavailable in the United States, but also by its unavailability anywhere except in its season, which begins in the autumn and ends in early spring. Anyone who loves Vacherin knows that. What I had not realized until talking to Vrinat is that while other cheeses, unlike Vacherin, may be for sale throughout the year, every great cheese has its season. In the same way that you'd think twice before ordering peaches in January, Vrinat would not consider offering a Chabichou, or any other goat cheese, in December, a Saint-Nectaire in January, or a Reblochon in July.

But then, Monsieur Vrinat adheres to exceptionally strict standards. He has been working at Taillevent since 1962 and running it since his father retired in 1973; chefs may come and go (a new one had just arrived in September), but under Vrinat's steady hand the restaurant has retained its three Michelin stars and devoted clientele (number one in the Paris Zagat). Of course, consistency at this level doesn't come easily. Finding first-rate cheese, for instance, has become increasingly challenging. "We used to buy directly from Auvergne, Savoie, and Normandie," Vrinat recalls. "Goat cheeses, we used to have them directly from small producers. We can't anymore. With the exception of the Auvergne, the job is not the same. They are not so respectful of quality." Vrinat used to purchase goat cheeses himself when visiting the Loire Valley, but in recent years he was having so much trouble finding good ones that he stopped. The hunt was taking too much of his time. "For wine you can go once or twice a year to the same estate," he says. "Cheese you have to taste regularly."

So instead he has come to rely on cheese affineurs. "Finishers," they would be called in English, but the concept, and thus the word, is completely French. Taillevent gets all its cheese from just three Parisian affineurs, who procure raw-milk, small-production fermier cheeses from farmers in France and Switzerland, then complete the cheese-aging process in their own caves. "They spend all their time doing it," Vrinat says. "They love what they do." All three live in a world of fanatical devotion to cheese. They also sell directly to the public (see Best Cheese Shops in Paris below), should you find yourself in Paris without a reservation at Taillevent.

Alain Dubois sells 200 kinds of cheese, but what he is best known for, and what Taillevent buys from him, are his chèvres, or goat cheeses. Of the 80 or so varieties of chèvre that Dubois carries, Vrinat orders just two: Charollais, a cylinder from Burgundy, and Sainte-Maure, a log-shaped cheese from Touraine whose hallmark is the long straw or stick that's inserted lengthwise, for reinforcement, when the cheese is made. Moreover, he orders these two only eight months of the year, from the middle of February until the middle of October.

Monsieur Dubois—like his fellow affineurs—is a bit disdainful of Monsieur Vrinat's adherence to this policy, which strikes most cheese purveyors as being as outdated as a refusal to eat oysters in the summer. "It is the opinion of Monsieur Vrinat, but he has not read all the books," Dubois says acerbically. "It is not necessary to stop serving chèvres at the end of October." (Although even Dubois admits the quality of the chèvres is highest in May and June.) In the old days goat cheese simply wasn't available in the late autumn and early winter, because that was when the goats mated and the females gave birth and suckled their young. However, by unfortunate coincidence, these cold-weather weeks, particularly around Christmas, are precisely when people want to eat cheese. "The natural logic of the animal is that there would be no cheese," Dubois says. "The economic logic is that we find ways to obtain cheese." Nowadays goats are mated on a staggered schedule. To ameliorate the problem of a bland barnyard diet, the best producers save the alfalfa and mown hay from their summer pastures to feed to the goats in winter. "What gives cheese character is the milk—and that depends on what the animals eat," Dubois says. "I refuse the granulated feed. I refuse cheese that is not made from milk of that region. That is the taste of the terroir. I am perhaps mad, but it is a rule."

To prove good chèvres can be obtained past Vrinat's cutoff date, Dubois leads me from his office, which is perched upstairs in a building that adjoins his shop, to his caves—that is, his local caves. In addition to his three-room cellar here in Paris, Dubois maintains or supervises several other caves throughout France. "I make the affinage[ripening], but there is a microclimate for each cheese," he says. "Reblochon is better aged in Savoie than here, Camembert is better aged in Normandie than here. I go see the fabricants, I see that they have good caves. But I alone affine the goat cheeses, because the makers there do not have the same ability. The fresh goat cheese is always neutral. Fifteen days later the cheese may be good, or it may not be good." Dubois estimates that 90 percent of his goat cheeses arrive fresh; then, just like little boys going through the best boarding school, they are instilled with character and maturity.

Dubois picks up his keys and leads me down a couple of flights of stairs and into a courtyard, where he unlocks an unmarked door, the entrance to the caves. The stone cellar dates back to the 18th century. But it has been used for cheese only for about a hundred years, and the systems that control humidity and temperature, which Dubois installed, are 21st-century in design. Each of the rooms provides a different environment for a different purpose. You enter the "half-warm" room, which is kept at 52 degrees Fahrenheit, and a foggy 95 percent humidity. Here, arranged on mat-covered racks, are the Vacherins, Saint-Marcellins and Saint-Feliciens, all of them moist and puddly. When ripe, they should droop like Dali's soft watches.

The next room—a little colder (48 degrees) and considerably drier (80 percent humidity), and the most highly populated of the three caves—is a veritable chèvropolis: mat-covered racks hold goat cheeses of different sizes in pyramids, discs, cylinders, and hemispheres, with varying blushes of mold. For example, the four-day-old Valençays on a low rack are white, truncated pyramids coated with black ash. The chèvres, like the cheese in the other rooms, are here to undergo the aging process, which Steven Jenkins in his book Cheese Primer calls "controlled spoilage." In essence, the protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the milk are allowed to break down through natural chemical reactions. Over the course of 30 to 60 days, the Valençays will be moved from the bottom to the top rack, having been gently and regularly turned on each side, and they will have acquired a three-week bloom of gray-blue mold. That means that they're ready to go out in the world. "When the cheese is young, turn it every day," Dubois says. "A little blue, every two or three days. All blue, and by touch one feels when it is ready."

It is in this chamber, too, that twice a week, Dubois and his caviste (cellarman) don a bonnet and gloves for the lavage, or the washing, of the cheeses. (For reasons that seem a little mystical and come down to that inarguable "terroir," Dubois has the lavage of his Saint-Nectaire, Camembert, and Brie de Meaux performed in their home regions.) Each variety is washed in the liquid that its recipe demands: Epoisses in marc de Bourgogne, Maroilles in beer, Pont-l'Evêque in brine, and so forth.

Dubois takes particular pride in the third cave. Completely remodeled in the summer of '99, this cheese chamber can be quickly modified in humidity and temperature. Whereas in days of yore the Vacherins would be finished in a room of steaming humidifiers, Dubois can now, with the turn of a dial, crank the humidity up to nearly 100 percent. Modern technology notwithstanding, the affineur still relies on intuition, honed through experience. "The rules exist, but you have to know that as the humidity of the season when the animals are eating varies, so does the humidity for the affinage," Dubois says. "It is experience, mainly. For feeding, species, method of production, there are rules. For affinage, there is advice."

Dubois estimates there are 500 affineurs in France, with just 20 in Paris. For most of Taillevent's cheeses, Vrinat patronizes a relatively obscure one, Philippe Langlet. Unlike Dubois, who looks every bit the businessman he is, Langlet, a sturdy, white-aproned man with a childlike enthusiasm, could have stepped out of a genre painting. And his environs add to the illusion: He runs a cheese stall in the picturesque Beauveau covered market, located in the out-of-the-way 12th arrondissement. As Vrinat says, "Langlet is a very simple, modest man who is in love with his cheeses."

Philippe Langlet is a third-generation fromager whose grandmother once worked at the other cheese stall in the Beauveau market. Now 51, he purchased his business 10 years ago from an affineur who was retiring. In addition to the store and a 20-year relationship with Taillevent, Langlet inherited his predecessor's set of sondes—the tools a fromager uses in order to take "soundings" (more like biopsies) from hard cheeses. In his humid cellar Langlet, radiating contentment, pushes the sonde (shaped like an elongated potato peeler minus the slit) into a Tomme de Gluis, rotates the tool, and removes a long, thin cylinder. He then cuts an inch or so off the rind end and uses it to replug the hole. The thick crust, yellow with mold, shows no scar. "Une bonne croute, ça," Langlet says lovingly. He hands me a morsel of cheese. On the inside the Tomme—which had been aged a year—was almost soft. "There's just one maker left in France," Langlet says. "I sell this cheese on Saturday and Sunday, when people are looking for a special cheese."

Langlet has two caves. One, for chèvre, is kept at 43 degrees and at a high, if unmeasured, humidity. (Langlet's systems are less precise than Dubois'.) The damp air brings out "la fleur du fromage," Langlet says, beaming as if the moldy chèvres were his beautiful daughters. In the other cave, which is warmer (49 degrees) and drier, he keeps his large wheels, or moules, of Cantal (from Auvergne), Fribourg d'Alpage (Switzerland), and Tomme d'Abondance (Savoie). He gets busy with his sonde, performing a little surgery on a huge wheel of Salers that was made in May. "The cows eat almost near the top of the mountains," he says. "They eat gentian, a yellow flower. One can taste it in the milk." I devour the thin cylinder he hands me. "C'est bon, ça?" he asks. It was, of course, a rhetorical question.

I had more flower-derived dairy when I visited Taillevent's third affineur—Philippe Alléosse—whose cheese shop the food critic Patricia Wells considers to be the best in Paris. Alléosse took over the business from his father last year. Remarkably thin and angular considering his profession, Alléosse, like Langlet, rha psodizes about the nosegays that have metamorphosed into butterfat.

"In the Basque region the sheep eat two flowers, la serpolette [wild thyme] and la reglisse [licorice], and they marry marvelously in the Ossau-Iraty," he says. "It is one in a thousand sheep cheeses. The brebis [ewe's milk] Iraty is aged three or six months. It is finished partly here and partly there. For two months they do it with saltwater. The cheeses get a crust, and they lose some of their weight. The ciron is the microorganism that makes the crust. The longer one waits, the more the cirons eat and make the crust deeper, and the cheese becomes stronger." He takes out a sonde and cuts me a plug. I understand his enthusiasm.

Alléosse is especially lyrical in describing the fleur or mousse—the bloom or moss—of mold on aging cheeses. "Each one is particular, according to the color of the land and the environment," he states. "For the chèvres of Savoie the fleur is yellow or red, together with gray. In Savoie the land is yellow and gray, and one recovers the color of the land in the cheese of Savoie. In the Pyrénées the land is red and pink—so the cheeses have a fleur rouge. In the Auvergne the bloom is yellow or gray—a different color from Savoie, without any red."

We have been speaking in his office in the rear of the shop. We proceed down to the small cave below. (Alléosse also has another one, 10 times the size, nearby.) Here, once again, is the division: a chamber for chèvres, at a chilly 49 degrees, with humidity ranging from 86 to 89 percent; a section for cheeses with croutes fleuries (rinds with a bloom of mold), like Camembert and Brie, that is less cool and more humid (95 percent); and a still warmer (55 to 59 degrees) but drier (85 to 90 percent humidity) area for the big tommes from the Alpine region. For the cheeses (including Pont-l'Evêque and Livarot) that are washed in brine, Alléosse uses the expensive sel gris de Guerande because "treated salt makes the cheese too strong." He shows me the Epoisses, which he sprays for up to three to five weeks with vaporized marc de Bourgogne; some Le Bon Don Cendre chèvre, boasting "ça, c'est le top," as he demonstrates how it cleaves as cleanly as feldspar; and then the Dome de Boulogne, an arcane cow's-milk cheese with a fruity taste that, he says, "is now being discovered by the great Michelin restaurants: Arpège, Taillevent, Pierre Gagnaire, Ducasse."

He's especially proud of his Reblochon, a deliciously creamy and unctuous cheese with a nutty taste. It is made from cow's milk in the Haute-Savoie, in southeastern France, and is at its best in the fall. "Ours has a [pale-orange] color from a very specific lavage," he notes. "One gentleman in Savoie told me the recipe, which he had kept a secret. He was retiring, and he believed that we would do it as well as he'd done it." The perfect Reblochon, Alléosse maintains, "should be soft, with little eyes in the interior, made with finesse. It is an understanding between the producer and the affineur. To get the best quality we explain on the telephone what our clientele wants—creamy but not too runny, a nutty taste, melting in the mouth. To find the best producer took us a year. This Reblochon wasn't well known when we discovered it, but we made it win a gold medal." (The secret lavage made the difference.)

"The title 'affineur' is more important than 'fromager,' " Alléosse continued. "The affineur is the one who has the responsibility to say yes or no—to decide whether the cheese is good or not good. He is the enemy of everyone who does bad work. It obsesses me."

Cheese In Season

• indicates optimal seasons for consumption
Brie De Coulommiers
Cantal De Salers
Fourme D'ambert
Pave D'auges
Pierre Robert
Vacherin (Mont D'or)

Best Cheese Shops in Paris

Affineur Philippe Alléosse and his family run this venerated fromagerie with a comprehensive array of cheeses, some of which are aged in the caves beneath the shop. Sample a selection from the Pays Basque, 13 Rue Poncelet; 33-1-46-22-50-45.

Older than the bluest blue—in business since 1909. There's an additional Paris location as well as a bistro (see Best Cheese Carts in Paris). 83 Rue Saint-Dominique; 33-1-45-50-45-75.
Click here for more info (in French)

Carries some of the most coveted Vacherin in Paris, also known for its Epoisses, Camembert, and Roquefort. 51 Rue de Grenelle; 33-1-45-48-56-75.

Fromagerie Quatrehomme
A source popular with local restaurateurs, it usually has an impressive, hard-to-find Beauford (from Haute-Savoie) and a creamy Saint-Marcellin. 62 Rue de Sèvres; 33-1-47-34-33-45.

Marie-Anne Cantin
One of Paris' most famous fromageries, this family-run shop has a well-rounded and consistent selection of about 120 different cheeses, 40 to 50 of which are chèvres. The house specialty is Saint-Antoine, a super-lush triple-cream made from cow's milk in Ile-de-France and named in honor of Marie-Anne's husband. 12 Rue du Champ de Mars; 33-1-45-50-43-94.
Click here for more info

Best Cheese Carts in Paris

Alain Ducasse
This Michelin three-star restaurant has a selection of 16 cheeses, offering multiple variations of most—10 different Stiltons, four Rocamadours, four Vacherins, and three Reblochons. 59 Avenue Raymond Poincaré; 33-1-47-27-12-27.
Click here for more info

With two Paris cheese shops by the same name, the owners of this bistro are able to serve from 120 to 150 different varieties daily. Many are integrated into the menu items, from appetizers to desserts. 6 Rue Arsène-Houssaye; 33-1-42-89-95-00.

A working-class-area bistro with a platter that features 15 to 18 cheeses each day. The Fleur du Maquis, a sheep's cheese from Corsica, is a rare find; a perennial favorite is the Gaperon from Auvergne, which contains peppercorns and chunks of garlic. The strong wine list and reasonable prices add to the restaurant's appeal. 44 Rue J.P. Timbaud; 33-1-43-57-16-35.

Le Grand Vefour
Paris' oldest restaurant, one of its most beautiful dining rooms, and its newest three-star. Has particularly good Reblochon and Saint-Nectaire. 17 Rue de Beaujolais; 33-1-42-96-56-27.
Click here for more info

Le Montparnasse
Opinions on this restaurant vary, but the cheeses always draw praise. Strong on Saint-Marcellin. In the Hôtel Mériden-Montparnasse.19 Rue du Commandant René Mouchotte; 33-1-45-55-01-90.

Arthur Lubow profiled architect Daniel Libeskind in the March/April issue of Departures.


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