Apparently Dan Barber, from the restaurant Blue Hill renders all of his pig bones into carbonized ash (yes this description is redundant, but my editor says that I need to use more descriptive words. Sorry– my vertically disinclined and obnoxious editor says that I need to use more descriptive words).
Crown Finish Cave lovingly coats some of their baby cheeses with this ash to give them a traditional French look. I chuckle at the irony. Some finicky NYC customer will demand to know if vegetarian rennet was used in making this cheese. But they’ll never think to ask “Oh, and did you incinerate an entire pig and coat my cheese with its’ charred carcass?” But then again, it is Dan Barber of Blue Hill we are talking about. If anybody could get the New York Times to declare this cheese kosher, its’ probably him.
I digress. But since I’m way off base anyway, let’s touch on why I was impressed with the courage that launching Crown Finish Caves took. Affinage in the States is an obscure and misunderstood art that Crown Finish has embraced. Affinage literally means “towards the limit” or bringing something close to its’ maximum potential. Think of it like the cheese is a movie star. The affineur is the physical trainer who over time molds them into their ideal physical form. An affineur does this by continuing to age and treat a young cheese in various ways to bring out new flavors. Sometimes this treatment might border on abuse.
…being a quality gourmet cheesemaker is no walk in the park
Yet, not all cheese makers take the time to age their cheese. For cheap, industrial producers this would be a waste. It is the difference between aging a beautiful piece of wood to bring out its’ contrasts, and aging a piece of cardboard. One general exception to affinage are fresh cheeses like buffalo mozzarella, which no one ages. Fresh cheeses are called unripened cheeses for this reason. This also means that fresh cheeses have a shorter shelf life. It is hard to age something to perfection that dies before you start.
For the cheeses that do qualify for affinage, you mature the cheese while changing the temperature and humidity of your cave at different maturation stages. Ingredients are added during the aging process (brine, alcohol, lard, etc.) to further transform your baby cheese. This medley of chemical agents stimulates up to three different chemical reactions. The first, glycolysis, is the degradation or breakdown of sugar. The second, proteolysis, is the breakdown of proteins into smaller more numerous proteins. Lastly, lipolysis is the breakdown of lipids a.k.a. fats. You’ll notice the repeated use of the word “breakdown”, a scientifically more sterile way of saying “controlled spoilage” (as Harold McGee put it).
The Anatomy of Taste
How does all of this dead Greek explain why an orange piece of three-year-old Dutch Gouda tastes when it crumbles against your tongue? To understand this, we first need to understand how taste works. Flavor (or taste), is a husband and wife partnership between your nose and your tongue. It’s popularly believe that different sections of the tongue taste different flavors. This is just wrong. All sections of the tongue are equally good at detecting different flavors. Do you really think if you burned that one tiny bit of your tongue, you’d never be able to taste “sweet” again? Our bodies are wired to have redundancy (two arms, two legs, two boobs, two balls) and being able to identify food by taste has huge evolutionary advantages.
Your tongue, or in particular the taste buds located on your tongue, can taste Sweet, Sour, Salty, Savory (Umami) and Bitter flavors. Different redundant parts of your tongue have buds, which register specific flavors. These buds are so small that you can’t see them without a microscope. When triggered they send electrical impulses to one part of the brain, the Gustatory Cortex. Much like the hair on our head, these buds are shed and replaced every few weeks.