I didn't know what to expect from "Affinage vs. Triage," the first cheese seminar at a new venue called the Barnyard, housed in a nondescript warehouse in industrial Queens, N.Y. The event title conjured visions of cheese-stocked M.A.S.H. units, and the host was a man who, the first time we met, was rapping about dairy products while wearing a cow costume.
The warehouse, however, was Larkin Cold Storage, which happens to be the home of Columbia Cheese, one of the largest and most important U.S. importers of cheeses from Switzerland, Italy and more. And the host, whose alter ego is a hip-hop heifer named Mr. Moo, was Adam Moskowitz, the riotously funny, energetic and engaging cheese enthusiast whose family owns Columbia Cheese.
Sweetening the cream pot were cheese presentations from Jason Hinds, David Lockwood and Owen Baily of Neal's Yard Dairy in England; Zoe Brickley of Vermont's Jasper Hill Farm; Leah Lewis of New York's Essex St. Cheese Co.; and Columbia's Jonathan Richardson.
Throughout the night, I was reminded of the parallel lives of wine and cheese. Affinage, or "finishing," is the act of aging and caring for cheese from the time it leaves a cheesemaker's hands to the time it reaches your local cheesemonger—affineurs play a role similar to that of wine négociants for those dairies that aren't able to age their own cheeses.
And triage, in the context of this night, referred to the meticulous attention affineurs must pay to each wheel of cheese they select from a dairy—"We go to the farms and we taste a lot of cheeses. It sounds really obvious, because it is," Lockwood deadpanned—and then how it ages, making sure one rotten Appenzeller doesn't spoil the bunch. It's the cheese-cave equivalent of a winery's sorting line and barrel-aging regimen.
If you thought making wine of consistent quality from year to year was a Herculean task, however, imagine having to deal with a new vintage every day. Each batch of milk comes with a new set of challenges, as a pair of cheeses from Neal's Yard starkly demonstrated. Two Hafod cheddars made just two days apart were remarkably different. The older of the two was firm but creamy, fruity and flavorful with a rich mouthfeel; the same cheese made two days later was dry and desiccated, a product of acidity run rampant. "The [younger Hafod] is one we can't sell," Hinds said. "The [older] is one we will."
Hafod cheddar is a cult favorite among cheeseheads, but every fine cheese suffers wheel variation. Consistency of cheese quality is the goal, but Sisyphus could sooner push a wheel of Comté up an Alpine mountain pasture.
Just as a wine that tasted ho-hum a year ago might blow your mind tomorrow, there's a thrill to the unpredictability of how that next piece of cheese might taste. That's part of the message these affineurs were trying to send. "A customer might say to you, 'Oh, I've tried that cheese before,'" Brickley said. "Unacceptable!"
That's the thing about fine cheese: You'll never taste the same one twice.