Cheese is a tricky business no matter how you slice it. While the paean has it that cheese is the highest achievement milk can hope for, the reality is that first you’ve got to have good milk. And, like everything else about cheese, the milk is a partnership between man and Mom Nature. It’s Mother N who provides the cows, goats and sheep who’ll give the milk and, since she’s also responsible for the grass the animals will eat, the taste of the milk is her doing as well. After that, it’s us humans who turn the milk into cheese, an ancient process that’s deeply respected in France, where it’s often pointed out that you could eat a different cheese every day for a year and still not have made your way through the country’s offerings.
Except in the case of fresh cheeses, which are eaten within days of being made, newly made cheese is only a faint, faint whisper of what it is meant to be and what (if all goes well) it is capable of becoming. To bring the cheese to perfect maturity – or, put another way, to see that it lives up to the potential Mother Nature and the cheesemaker gave it – you need an affineur, the expert who ages the cheese.
In some cases, the affineur might be the cheesemaker, but often it’s the cheeseseller, and in France, where being an affineur is an important craft, a cheeseseller who does his own affinage will announce it proudly: his sign will say Fromager-Affineur.
Recently, when I was traveling with Maison de la France in the Loire Valley, a region unparalleled for goat cheese, I met a young cheeseseller/affineur who is one of the country’s best, having gained the title of MOF, Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best artisan in France).
Rodolphe Le Meunier, once dubbed the Zidane of fromagers (Zidane was probably France’s greatest soccer star and a national hero), earned his stripes (as an MOF you’re entitled to wear blue, white and red stripes on your collar) in 2007 by passing a blind tasting; a jury tasting of his cheeses; a theoretical written exam; an oral exam; and a cutting test in which he had to slice a series of cheeses to perfect weight, size and form. He also had to create and serve a dish based on cheese – he made a mousse of Langres with spices.
Although he learned his craft from his family, like so many young chefs, winemakers, farmers and producers, he’s found a way to use modern technology to recreate centuries-old traditions.
Walk into Le Meunier’s “cellars” and you’ll find yourself in a large, cold space that could double for an operating room. Gone are the romantic stone caves with their iffy humidity. In their place are perfectly controlled refrigerators, each set to the exact temperature, humidity and ventilation levels needed for each type of cheese.
For sure, push-button control has made a part of the affinage process easier, but none of the buttons can determine when a cheese is at its most sublime. For that, you still need people as knowledgeable as Rodolphe Le Meunier.
And to give us a taste of what it means to age a cheese to perfection, he cut a piece of Comte from July 2005. Comte is a firm, pressed cheese from the Jura that is sweet, fruity, nutty and, when it’s as old as this one was, speckled with little grains that could be mistaken for salt, but which are casseine (a protein).
Aged Comte is one of my favorite cheeses and one we usually serve at Christmas and New Year’s with either Savignin or Vin Jaune, both wines from the Jura. This one was exceptional!
If you live near Le Meunier or are visiting Tours, lucky you, you can go straight to the source. Or, if you’re in Paris and want to nibble on Le Meunier’s work, you can find his cheeses at his friends’ shops, Dubois (47 Blvd. Saint Germain, Paris 6) and Quatre’homme (62 rue des Sevres, Paris 7), both fromagers/affineurs and MOFs. If you’re nowhere near France, you can still get a hunk of something wonderful from him through the magic of two-day delivery. Finally, if you’re just curious about Le Meunier and his cheese, you should go to his site Fromages en Jazz (did I mention that he’s also a musician?). In fact, you should go there even if you don’t love cheese – it’s got great stuff.