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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cheese Affinage? New York Times: Pro. Rainbow's Head Cheesemonger: Meh.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 6, 2011 at 7:30 AM

Ask Gordon Edgar about affinage, and that cheese machete he's holding might get put to use.
  • Ask Gordon Edgar about affinage, and that cheese machete he's holding might get put to use.
​Yesterday, the New York Times published a feature on affinage, the practice of properly aging cheeses until they hit that perfect moment for eating. The article profiled several East Coast cheesemongers who practice affinage, most notably Murray's Cheese Shop in Manhattan, which has a master affineur who turns, washes, and sprays wheels of cheese in the shop's network of "caves."

The article had SFoodie scheming ways we could convert the laundry room in our basement into a place for aging cheeses. We called Gordon Edgar, head cheese guy for Rainbow Grocery, to see whether the Bay Area had any master affineurs. The moment we mentioned the word "affinage" to Edgar, the author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, he started laughing, then called the practice a word he quickly retracted in favor of a more nuanced explanation.

"I think that there are certain ways that you can affinage cheese that will improve the cheese," Edgar said, "but those are few and far between. Most people who talk about their affinage are just marketing." 

For the record, Edgar's thinks Murray's aged cheeses are good, but claims "no opinion" on their affinage practices. "I will say they've devoted a fair amount of money and space to their program," he hedged. "It's not something you can really do lightly, and you have to have someone who's studied in affinage. The article made me swear up and down, though, because it encourages people who want to get into cheese to claim that they're going to do affinage."

Edgar says Rainbow, like most of San Francisco's cheese shops, rely on producers to bring their product to market in its peak state. "We do more what I'd call triage, or harm reduction," he says. "Most cheese comes to us in the shape that we're going to sell it. If it doesn't, we have little tricks that we can do to fix something like a wet rind." Sure, Rainbow will hold an under-ripened cheese for a week until it's ready to sell, but that's just being a cheesemonger. 

If you think affinage is a load of hooey, SFoodie asked Edgar, what's the quality that consumers should look for in a cheese retailer? "You want a retailer who sells a lot of cheese, because you don't want a bunch of cheese sitting around, unnoticed," Edgar said. "You want to make sure people are looking in the case every day, looking for problems. And you want cheesemongers who are actively engaged in their cheese. That's not the easiest thing to gauge as a consumer unless you start talking to the staff."

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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