The Art of Aging Well

A cult destination in London has revolutionized cheesemaking, winning converts as far afield as Vermont.

Great cheese is always a collaboration. So I thought at the opening-night tasting at the annual conference of the American Cheese Society in Burlington, Vermont. In 1996, Allison Hooper, the society’s president, whose Vermont Butter & Cheese makes famous crème fraîche and marvelous butter, called Vermont the Napa Valley of cheese.” At the time, it was an outlandish claim: When she first set up shop, as she recounts in her introduction to the new Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, “if it wasn’t cheddar, it wasn’t a business.” Now it is hard to dispute.

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Ten years ago at an American Cheese Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin, the feeling was intimate, and many of the cheese­makers looked like the ex-hippies they proudly were. This year the sessions on making and marketing cheeses, held in ballrooms at a Sheraton conference center, were overflowing with people looking more like well-heeled retirees who thought cheese might be easier to get into than wine.

Conference attendees nearly filled the stupendously large and equally beautiful building where the opening-night tasting was held: the Shelburne Farms breeding barn, for nearly 50 years the largest open-span timber structure in America (it was built in 1891 with Vanderbilt money). The enlightened agricultural center created by the family in order to keep the estate whole produces a highly regarded cheddar. I was struck by the quality of most of the cheeses being sampled, all of them from Vermont, and was particularly taken with three aged goat cheeses from Twig Farm that I, a dedicated goat-avoider, couldn’t stop eating.

The story of the attractive young couple that makes them, Michael and Emily Lee, is par for the Vermont course. They met at Hampshire College as art students; after several years as a bike messenger, Michael got a job at Formaggio Kitchen, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Emily got one with an international publisher. Three years ago, they decided to buy a farm in Vermont and make cheese.

Ihsan and Valerie Gurdal, the owners, were among the first American cheesemongers to install a ripening cave (actually, a humidified room in the basement), and they encouraged and guided the Lees at every step. At Formaggio, Michael had come to understand the central role that thoughtful aging plays in bringing cheeses to their fullest expression; today Twig Farm’s aging makes the difference between a perfectly good cheese and an exceptional one.

The cheeses I tasted in the awe-inspiring barn crystallized my thoughts on what makes cheese become great: constant communication between cheese­maker and cheese­monger, and very careful attention to affinage, the art of tending cheese as it ages. I came to the conference with the taste of a lovely new English cheese fresh in my mind. It was the result of just that kind of collaboration.

Borough Market is the thriving heart of the food scene in London, a city that has taken to the buy-local mantra with an enthusiasm rivaled only by that of—well, Vermont. Cheese lovers board the Tube for London Bridge to visit the large headquarters of Neal’s Yard Dairy—a mecca, even if its cheeses have long been sold at other shops. Whole Foods, which sells them too, has begun building showplace cheese-aging rooms—some under the guidance of Neal’s Yard staff, notably at its long-anticipated first United Kingdom store, in Kensington.

Affinage was crucial to the cheese that captured my imagination: Ogleshield, made in Somerset by the Montgomery family, renowned for its cheddar. The milk for my new discovery came from Jersey cows, which the family keeps alongside its Friesians, the classic cheddar cow. They had never used it for cheese. Jersey milk is unequalled for clotted cream, a Somerset speciality, and the cows are an amiable breed. But the milk is much less suited to cheese­making: The large fat globules, marvelous in cream, deter proper setting, and the excess fat can detract from the desired texture in a hard, matured cheese.

At first Jamie Montgomery, the re- nowned cheese­maker in the current generation, made a Jersey cheese that Randolph Hodgson, the owner of Neal’s Yard, nicknamed Montgomery’s Lite—a blander, fattier version of the cheddar, which is famous for keeping its tang and deep flavors in exquisite equipoise. (Montgomery called it “Shield,” for a shield found on the farm under a hill some believe to have been the original Camelot; he had the motif stamped at the bottom of wooden molds.) It struck Hodgson as too mild and too hard.

The Neal’s Yard cheese whizzes went to work. Hodgson and William Ogle­thorpe, the master affineur of Neal’s Yard, relentlessly think of ways to improve even already-great cheeses, like Montgomery cheddar. Hodgson regularly visits Somerset and selects his favorite wheels to bring back to the Arches, an aging cave he built under train tracks about a mile down the railway line from Borough Market.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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