Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sasha Diaries Entry #2: Sasha Makes Her Pilgrimage to Mons

When I first met with Rob Kaufelt, the owner of Murrays Cheese in NYC, to discuss the possibility of running the cheese caves at the new Murrays I had one demand on my mind: training. After all- I had entered the cheese world in a fast and furious way by going from affinage intern to cave manager at the Artisanal Cheese Center (the other large scaled cheese maturing operation in the US, also conveniently located in New York City).

Rob isn’t someone who appreciates demands from anyone (not that most of us do). Lucky for me, before I got to bring mine up, he made it clear that to be the affineur at Murrays I would need training. “We would have to send you to Mons,” he said meaning Herve Mons of course, one of the most revered affineurs in France. I signed on.

In April, I took my trip to spend a full week working at Maison Mons. Herve’s caves are out in the country- about 20 minutes by car from Roanne a mid-sized city that is just an hour and a half northwest of Lyon. In a general sense, his facility isn’t so different from ours; he has a set up different “environments” (temperature and humidity controlled spaces) to suit the cheeses he stocks, there is a large production room for filling orders that go to retail shops and restaurants around the country, and he is conducting affinage. Same as Murrays, right? Upon closer inspection, I found that although it is only different in a handful of ways- the differences are important ones.

My expectations for the trip were that I would be learning a million specific affinage routines and tricks, procedures for receiving cheese and properly organizing our workspace. While I did learn a lot about all of those things, the more interesting and in some ways useful part about the trip was the opportunity to consider the reality and the future of affinage in the US. The best part about the trip was getting to discuss these concerns of logistics and even culture with one of the best affineurs in France.

Herve is probably the most efficient and passionate person I’ve ever encountered that was still normal and charismatic enough for me to genuinely enjoy his company. He is a living example of all the lists of the top ten things you need to do to excel in business. If he comes across a situation in his affinage where no tool exists to do what needs to be done, he designs and builds a new tool. Essentially he agreed with me that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done to make affinage a success in the US and yet he believes that it can be done... with good organization. The Herve Mons mantra is this, “Il faut que tu as des bonnes organizations”- it translates to “ You must have good organization.” Every time I would ask a question this phrase would weave its way into his response. And this would be so easy to mock except that Maison Mons is so successful and impeccable organization is so clearly the fundamental reason why.

So what are these important differences that make the world of cheese and affinage a different endeavor on this side of the pond? For starters Herve has about 75 cheeses on his order form at any given time; Murrays has 170 cheeses in our permanent collection and then approximately another 75 cheeses that rotate on and off the list seasonally. Mons also focuses exclusively on French products while we are sourcing and bringing in cheeses from all over Europe and the US. This means that Herve knows the maker of every product he carries and also that they are all arriving by truck having traveled a distance of 500 miles maximum- often by drivers he knows well or by his own delivery person. At Murrays we are bringing cheeses to our store by boat, airplane, and delivery services- many traveling thousands of miles to get to us. Some of the cheeses delivered to Murrays just from within the US endure a more taxing journey than that- i.e. 3,000 miles by plane followed by truck delivery. All of these challenges are compounded by the customs and FDA regulations.

These challenges could make the situation seem discouraging and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was a tad jealous about the setup at Mons. I returned to our caves with a healthy balance of excitement and overwhelm that is so typical for me when I’m at the beginning of something big. There are big plans at Murrays to do more targeted affinage which could be things ranging from sourcing Cheddars that match a specific flavor profile to determining the exact age we would like to buy each cheese at and then working with cheese makers to arrange that. There is also an enormous possibility for us to work with American cheese makers to alleviate some transportation issues by sending cheese to us at younger ages (when things like delicate rinds are less vulnerable) and allowing us to bring them to maturity in our caves.

Stay tuned for updates from me on our affinage developments and hopefully reports on my “bonnes organizations”!