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Using Kansas City’s underground caves to age cheese could be boon to region’s cheese makers

10/03/2013 5:32 AM

10/03/2013 5:32 AM

There I was about to drive my silver 2003 Buick Century — yeah I know, awesome — into a cave.

It was a cloudy and rainy Monday morning. The kind of day that doesn’t make you feel comfortable driving into a cave — especially when the entrance is just a little wider than your car. To ensure I was in the right place, I picked up my phone to call Paris Brothers, a local food specialty distributor.

The conversation went something like this:

Me:

Hi, I have an appointment with you at 10:30. Is there somewhere I can park outside?

Them:

No, just drive right in. Take the first right and the employee parking is just past the next right. You can park there.

Me:

Oh … Okay. Thanks ….

It still didn’t seem right but I went ahead and drove into the cave. Pretty quickly the small opening expanded into a paved, two-lane road running through a cavern with ceilings high enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer.

I came to what I thought was the first right with a parking lot and small white structure. Thinking that might be where I wanted to go I parked next to a couple of other cars. I walked to the door and read a sign that said, “This is not Paris Brothers.” Awkwardly, I got back into my car and continued on my way. I don’t think anyone saw me. At least I was not the first to lose their way in this cave.

I eventually came to the “right” right and the Paris Brothers offices. I was there because I had recently gotten a tip that Paris Brothers had begun cave-aging cheese in their underground warehousing facility in the Hunt Midwest SubTropolis.

This, of course, was very exciting to me, an all out cheese geek for the better part of my average day. Thanks to Jenny Vegara, owner of Foodie, L.L.C., I got the chance to hear and see first-hand what Paris Brothers has in store when it comes to

affinage.

Affinage

— the act of bringing cheese to the peak of ripeness from a young state. It might not sound like much to a layman but the exciting thing about affinage is the possibility of elevating a cheese to something even better than it already is.

As a cheesemonger I employ many of the affineurs’ techniques to make sure the cheese that I sell at The Better Cheddar is as on-point as possible. I want to get the cheese to the customer in a condition as close as possible to the condition it came out of the affineurs’ cave. So you will often find me flipping cheeses, changing wrappers and checking temperatures.

Every cheese has a different window of relative perfection. Depending on the cheese some windows are very long, others very short. Now just because there is a window of perfection does not mean that a cheese that is past its window or has yet to reach its window is bad. It just means that every cheese has a point in time that it is at its very best. Adding to the difficulties of hitting that window are a multitude of other factors — milk type, changes in seasons, etc.

Still, with all the little things I do to help the cheese come of age or at least prolong its life, I would not call what I do affinage. What I do is more cheese supervision, which does not have quite the same ring to it.

For real affinage to happen the right set of conditions must be present where the cheese ages. Depending on the type of cheese being aged, the temperature is usually anywhere from 48 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit with relative humidity between 80 to 95 percent.

Now let’s see, where would be a perfect place for aging cheese? Maybe a cave? That’s the idea driving Paris Brothers’ to experiment with aging cheeses.

They began their experiment with a small batch of young Fiscalini Bandage Wrapped Cheddars from California. The wheels were placed on natural wood shelving in one of the many rooms in the Paris Brothers’ caves. The room was picked for its optimal temperature and humidity.

The 50-plus pound cheddars were flipped regularly to ensure even aging. They were also given rubdowns to keep the mold at bay. This pampering went on for 36 months, about a year longer than Fiscalini usually ages their cheddars.

A side note: Jenny and I did not actually get to see the rooms where the cheeses were aged. The Paris Brothers representative acting as our host said no cheeses were being aged at the time of our visit. Of course I was a little disappointed, but I hope to be invited back to see the process in action when some cheeses are being aged out. Which could be very soon.

The Paris Brothers rep said that Fiscalini was impressed with how the small batch turned out so it’s highly likely another larger batch of cheddars will be aging in the Paris Brothers’ caves soon.

We did get to taste some of this cave-aged cheddar though and it was good. Aging that extra year created a crumbly and crystalline texture. The flavor was savory with a sharp nutty bite. The edges of the cheddar right under the bandaged rind were slightly veined with blue mold. This is not unusual in traditional farmhouse cheddars and is considered by some to be ideal.

The challenge is consistency. Creating a relatively consistent product is one of the affineurs most important jobs. If Paris Brothers wants to expand its line of cave-aged cheese then they may need better climate controls, including temperature, humidity and air flow, as different kinds of cheeses need different environments.

For instance if Paris Brothers are interested in aging soft-ripened or washed-rind cheeses, the question is do those environments already naturally exist in the caves? If not, creating them could mean a substantial investment for Paris Brothers.

That said, it is exciting to think there soon could be a state-of-the-art cheese cave and affinage program in the KC area. This could lead to a boom in cheese making in Missouri, Kansas and the wider region.

Artisanal and farmstead cheese production is not an easy business start up. Access to a great local affineur would be a powerful incentive to regional cheese makers and would-be cheese makers if only because it would allow them to concentrate on making cheese rather than spending time and capital on aging facilities.

I left the cave excited by the possibilities that such a cave aging facility could be around the corner for Kansas City. As of right now Kansas and Missouri have only a handful of cheese makers.

We’re not known for our cheese. Wouldn’t it be great if a whole culture of cheese makers popped up in our region who produced artisan small-batch cheeses that reflect a distinct Paris of the Plains terroir? Only time will tell.

Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. He is the manager and buyer for The Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can check out his monthly Cheese Wiz column in Tastebud Magazine and find him on Twitter @LincolnBbook and on Instagram @lincycheese.

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