A week with the master affineur Vincent Vergne at his eponymous shop in Nimes. A week of washing sticky red cheeses (époisses, munster), turning gooey goat cheeses, getting my fingers dusty with blue molds and white with candida/penicillin molds. So many questions to ask, so many little tricks of the trade to absorb. Temperatures, humidity, salt density, which cheeses are washed with salt, which morged (washed with cheese rind enhanced brine), which brushed with calvados and water, which in cold water and which in warm, which washed with beer (always diluted) and which with eau de vie.
Vergne greeted me warmly when I came into his shop during the holidays to purchase cheeses for my friend’s family’s feast. He had been intrigued by my request to spend time in the shop, so much so that he’d gone and looked up Northport Michigan on Google Earth. A good sign! We arranged for a time for me to be in the shop when he wasn’t overwhelmed with the holiday shoppers, and when my various errands and to do list in Provence had been accomplished.
I went in daily before nine. We shared a strong cup of coffee and chatted till Jean Marie, the man in charge of the 4 cheese cellars at the shop, arrived. I’m still digesting all that was conveyed to me: books to check out such as the Picodon, a cheese that traveled to the stars (in French); web sites to investigate to learn the specifics of the AOC protected cheeses in France. As the days went by we discussed the various virtues of dry salting to brining cheeses; the cellars in which lysteria showed up more than others (washed rind soft cheeses seem top of the list for potential dangers, whereas bloomy rind cheeses were safer and easier); the preferred ferments and chosen yeasts for rind development over the past few decades. The ancient history of brie, roquefort and comté cheeses.
Every day I brought home a number of cheeses to taste over meals with my friends. Tasting for flavor, for texture, for overall allure. I looked at the sizes and shapes of the various cheeses, discussed the different milks of our animals throughout the season and the need to adjust and adapt to the varying fat contents. No surprise that it was relatively easy for me to make ‘petit secs’ crottins this summer with a milk relatively poor in butter fat due to the dry conditions, and that most of my cheeses were runny and gooey this fall when the milk was far richer. Vincent gave me suggestions as did Christian Fleury, one of my guides and counselors in this venture. It often lies in the mastery of the drying period for goat cheeses… no set formula to follow, though a number of possibilities. Let your fingers and your nose gain experience, and always be willing to adapt.
My various issues with shipping cheeses were confirmed. I noted that the cheese shipments that arrived direct from the producers on Tuesday (always shipped on Monday) came in open containers – either cardboard with holes or small wooden crates bound together, barely wrapped in cheese paper. The cheeses needed to breath, and were allowed to do so. The day they put the cheeses in the sales’ case Vincent and his assistant would remove the papers, and either leave the cheeses open to the air, or wrap certain ones in plastic wrap (such as the tommes and the mont d’or). Ideally the cheeses would sell within a day or two, and so not stay wrapped in plastic for long. We even discussed vacuum-seal packing — good for long distance shipping, but not for keeping the cheese, particularly a humid cheese, for long. They would pre-wrap it in plastic wrap and then put it in vacuum seal, and put a sheet of cheese paper with it. Once home, the recommendation is to remove it immediately from the vacuum seal packaging and re-wrap it in paper. Let it breath, but not dry out.
Back in the States when I sampled goat cheeses from various other farms, they were almost always shipped in plastic tubs or heat sealed plastic. But these cheeses are always of the simple tart fresh variety, not aged to have an interesting rind or complexity of flavor. Stopped in their development by being put into cold refrigerator temperatures, protected by their high acidity and salt content, they are pretty safe and easy to ship. Only the lovely crottin from Vermont Butter and Cheese, shipped directly from Murray’s Cheese Shop in NYC came to me in the French manner, but lightly wrapped in paper, gooey, with a wrinkled rind.
My week was rounded out by assisting in the complete dismantling and cleaning of one of the cheese cellars. The boards were all washed and scrubbed, the cooling/fan element taken apart and cleaned thoroughly, the floor, walls and ceilings washed and brushed down. And at the end, a final rinse with vinegar to remove the calcium/milk stone deposit. Then the room was carefully put back together and the cheeses put into place. By the next day, the typical ammonia odor of the washed rinds was fully back in place.
I am now very inspired. Can I do something similar to the Langres from Champagne? washed with Champagne eau de vie? And maybe bring in some of the flavors of the tête du moine for my small tommes?? We shall see.