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Jul 15, 2014

Aging Gracefully: Pavé d'Affinois

THE STORY:

Some of you will probably groan when you realize I am not about to tell you the secrets of how French women age gracefully but rather how cheese is gracefully "affine" -- aged, matured, ripened, refined. Call it what you will, because there's no single translation that quite works, though I think the combination of all of them together gives you a good hint. Here is an example of an industrial affinage process, with a machine that takes each round off the shelf, brushes it, flips it, and replaces it, for months on end (up to two years, even). You can see why this machine was invented, but of course some cheeses must be aged by hand.


You can see the difference between the cheese wheels (Gruyère in this case) on the top half of the shelves and the bottom. The older they get, the deeper the amber color.

Perhaps the best example I can give of this is these three examples of Fontenille cheese. Yes, they are all the same cheese. The upper left hand corner -- whitest, tallest, and least puck-like -- is a very fresh, barely aged goat cheese, probably a week old. The bottom middle is aged a few weeks, and you can see the toad's skin geotricum mold formed on the surface. In that time, the cheese also got firmer, tangier, and stronger. And the blackened version is not ashed, but rather moldy and aged even further.

 
It's not just a matter of how long it's aged, but also how it's aged. Different cellars provide different effects. You can't exactly bite into each cheese round, so you have to know the perfect moment to sell and eat a cheese simply by look, touch, and experience. In order to get to that moment, humidity, temperature, and access to certain molds (and, therefore, absence of other molds) must be carefully controlled. That's why great cheese affineurs are actually recognized by the French government.

In another excellent example of the difference that aging makes, check out this Bethia Bleu de Brebis Basque. The top sample, the one I buy, is creamy and mild. You can tell just by looking at it. Whereas the same cheese, aged much longer, has yellowed with age. Like the centuries-old parchment it resembles, the aged version is crumbly and brittle. In comparison with the younger version, it's also saltier and stronger.

 

THE CHEESE: Pavé d'Affinois

The Pavé d'Affinois is an industrial cheese, made from pasteurized cow's milk in the original version. There's also versions that are light, goat cheese, sheep milk, olive infused, and more. This cheese was born in 1981 and started being made and sold in commercial quantities in 1983. So no matter how you look at it, this is not an old cheese.

However, the name Pavé d'Affinois implies a little brick of aged cheese, and it is, indeed, an aged, moldy cheese made in the Loire in a similar way to a Brie or a Chaource. It's a double cream, and one of the differences in the manufacturing method between this and a Brie is that the milk is ultra-filtered so removed lots of water from the pasteurized milk. This allows the cheese to be made not only more richly, but also more quickly.


The taste is buttery, salty, creamy, and rich. Frankly, if I didn't know it was pasteurized and industrial, I wouldn't know it was pasteurized and industrial. And not to be a snob about it, it's a delicious bargain of a cheese, the kind you can find in a big grocery store and not be embarrassed to serve somebody. A good loaf of bread is a must.

I know you're wondering: Why is this cheese photo so crappy compared to the rest of the blog? Partly it's because it was taken with a small, old camera in bad lighting. But more to the point, it was taken in a rush, with a huge line of super-hungry visiting Americans at a potluck, desperate to start eating. Which is also why I have no interior cheese shots. Suffice it to say, the interior looks a lot like the Chaource that it also resembles in flavor and texture, though less melty and runny.


THE CONNECTION:

I am not able to take the cheese picture gracefully, because the hordes behind me are waiting impatiently for the potluck to commence and then attack the cheese rapaciously. Given that it's a relatively new cheese and one whose manufacturing process is designed for efficiency, what does this have to do with aging gracefully? It's all in the name: Affiner, Affinois.

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