Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Making Mons

by Liz Thorpe

At its most basic, affinage is the practice of aging cheese. Cheese folks will tell you affinage is the art of aging cheese. The affineur, of course, being the artist.
Art more than science, because temperature and humidity are the easiest factors to control in a cheese cave. What of the molds and yeasts, invisible, ambient little darlings unique to one animal’s milk, one region’s grass, one cave’s packed soil floor? Or the changing seasonal diet that, in one fell swoop, increases fat content, decreases protein, and modifies the flavor profile of rich, raw milk? What will be the impact of these seemingly tiny variables?

A good affineur will know, or have a fairly certain guess, before laying a hand on the wheel, wedge or round in question. As this ancient art of cheese maturation begins to take hold in the United States, with American producers building Little House on the Prairie-type rooms into their hillsides, and urban meccas like Murray’s constructing subterranean grottos in the middle of Manhattan, the work of French affineur Hervé Mons makes me realize how far we have yet to travel.

Hervé is a third generation affineur, working with his brother Laurent to oversee several small shops around Lyon, and guiding his aging facility outside of Roanne. I hesitate to call them caves, lest you imagine a dank, stone room carved into the mountainside. Caves like this do exist, but most serious facilities are run with mechanical precision. Hervé’s looks something like a long, white shed sitting alone in the middle of a field. The primary work area is limited to staff properly dressed in hats, jackets and clogs that never see the light of day, or the potential contamination of sidewalks, driveways, and hallways. Each cave is a lean, vaulted room where like cheeses are grouped with like, all the better to share their molds and bacteria. The floor is dirt, with stones, which retain the necessary ninety or so percent humidity. The planks are wood, usually spruce, as pine is enormously expensive. Small goat cheeses reside in one room; thick, crusty tomme-style cheeses in another; massive mountain wheels of two or more years in a third.

It wasn’t until I visited Hervé and some of the farms he works with, that I understood the truth of an affineur. Hervé’s starts in the dark, and the cold, at about 3:15 in the morning. The hotel we leave from has no coffee to offer because it is, arguably, the middle of the night. Hervé has recently had his license returned after multiple speeding offenses. The apparent benefit of the fast ride (twenty extra minutes of sleep) is immediately outweighed by the intense and persistent nausea of driving up endless hairpin turns at 130 kilometers an hour. Hervé is totally unfazed because he never sleeps more than four hours a night.

The traditional buron, or cheesemaking hut.

Our rush is to reach the buron of the cheesemaker Marcel, high atop the Massif Central. The buron is the traditional stone hut of the region, occupied by men at high altitudes who still make the annual pilgrimage skyward to make cheese. The Massif Central is a broad, flat expanse, the now-dormant plain of a former volcano, in the middle of Auvergne, at the bellybutton of France. On its flatness, you feel at the top of the world.

View from the buron.

Marcel’s day also begins in the dark, and the cold. He is one of eight remaining producers of the cheese Salers du Buron, a highly regulated farmhouse cheese not unlike Cantal, but far more complex. It can only be made from May 1-October 31, though snow often truncates the production season. It must be made of the raw milk of the Salers cow, with their burnished red coats and solid, curving horns. The milk must be gathered by hand, which is why the day begins so early.

The Salers cows.

By first light Marcel and his compatriots are out in the fields, separating mothers and calves; Hervé pulls up in a spray of dust; I focus on smiling and not throwing up. The men have one-legged stools bound to their waists so they can rock back in balance as they squat at the udders of some 70 cows. The wayward calves are strapped alongside, as Salers cows won’t milk without their baby present. The calves begin to nurse, are pulled away to siphon milk for the cheese, and are returned to finish breakfast. The men milk into wood buckets that are emptied into a wooden barrel strapped to a broken-down cart. The cart is pulled, I kid you not, by a blind and ancient donkey. One slap of the flank and the donkey, unaided, winds his way back to the cheesemaking room. He has made the same trip each day, all summer long, for fifteen years.

The ancient donkey, transporting milk.

As the popularity of Salers has waned, and the producers willing to work brutally long hours for little more than a piece of nostalgia have disappeared, Hervé has struggled to keep the cheese alive. Going so far, in Marcel’s case, as to purchase cows, sealing their partnership, and increasing the raw material available to make more cheese.

Following the rickety donkey on his last walk of the morning Hervé points at the calves, inquires about the rain fall, notices how much hay has been necessary this dry summer to augment the wild grasses. He chats with the young baker who wants to learn this craft, continuing to make Salers when Marcel cannot. Later, he expresses doubt that the young man can stand the lifestyle, and sure enough by summer’s end the baker declares that he will not return the following year.

The tiny, warm, damp cheesemaking room has two doors: one open to the plain, and a second, closed, leading to the aging room. Flies have gathered in the protection of the still air; the men agree a storm is coming. While Marcel begins the first of the day’s two cheese batches, Hervé flits around. Grabbing a nibblet of curd from last night’s make, already expressing the sour, slightly gamy flavor of Salers, he considers the squeaky texture, the finish, the curd size. He dips a finger in the barrel of milk, helps wash the equipment down with whey, a natural sanitizer that will run out the door to the pigs. He disappears into the adjacent, rudimentary kitchen to help with morning coffee.

I am mildly shocked that an aging room exists at all, since Hervé is supposed to be the ager. This dark cellar of cheese wheels has one tiny window, at ground level, through which a steady breeze circulates. One its invisible gusts, Hervé explains, come particles from the earth, the dandelions, arnica and mountain flowers that grow rampant, the essence of this space. To remove the Salers too young would destroy its character entirely.

It is this depth of understanding, this relationship not just with the producer, but with the breed of animal, the process of cheesemaking, the land, the difference between June and September, rainy season and dry spell, this ability to champion a 2,000 year old tradition while guiding, advising, and adjusting it, this is what makes a good affineur an artist, and far more than an ager of cheese. Hervé Mons, far more than any other individual I have met, is gifted in his ability to master these things simultaneously. He does not buy cheese and age it. He ferrets out the best potential and becomes a partner, helping producers to make better cheese, and ultimately, to survive as farmers.


Coagulating milk, and beginning to cut the curd.

The curds coagulate.

Marcel works his magic.

Stirring the curds, in whey. Until several years ago a
traditional wood board was used for stirring. Today it's plastic.

Marcel scoops out excess whey.

The curds sit for 12 hours, developing
characteristic sour, slightly barny flavor.

The curds are wrapped in cheesecloth.

Marcel pats the curd and begins the pressing. Curds are
turned, stacked & pressed a minimum of 15 times!

The traditional weighted press.

The wheels begin to mature in a tiny room
of the buron. I do not join them for long.

A cross made from the first butter of the
season sits above the cave entrance.

Taste it for yourself! Buy Hervé Mons cheese.