Cheeses, they’re like us!
“A lot of people think they want to work in a cheese cellar,” said Caroline Hesse, sales manager at Crown Finish Caves, a cheese aging company in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, standing near a door marked “ Employees Only. ”“ Then when they realize you’re in a tunnel thirty feet underground for eight hours a day, a lot of them are like, ‘Oh, maybe not’. Hesse opened the door to let in a visitor.
Crown Finish’s cheese cellar is located under one of the old Nassau Brewery buildings on Bergen Street. Company owners Benton Brown and Susan Boyle purchased the building in 2001 and converted the four floors above ground into art studios. Then they got a feel for what to do with the vaulted brick tunnels under the building, where the brewery once aged. Brown had learned the ripening, or aging, of cheese. Affineurs buy “green” cheese wheels from cheesemakers who have neither the time nor the space to tend the cheeses for the months or years needed before they are ready to be quartered and sold. to consumers. “Cheeses that don’t need cellaring are like ricotta, mozzarella – things that don’t have a rind on them,” Hesse said. “Everything else – the brie, the blue cheese – has to be put in a cave. The tunnels of the Nassau brewery, unused since the brewery closed in 1916, and where the ambient temperature has remained cool to fifty-five degrees for more than a century, are the dream of refiners.
Hesse put on a red hairnet, a blue lab coat, and a pair of white plastic clogs (cellar clothes required) and walked down a spiral staircase. Crown Finish is asked about the clogs, which fans spot on the company’s Instagram. “A German emailed us saying, ‘I think they would go well with a lot of my outfits,’ Hesse said.
Opening a sliding door, she revealed the cave: a space the size of a decent studio, with white brick walls and three rows of wooden shelves containing twenty-four thousand pounds of cheese in progress. A hygrometer, which measures humidity, reads just under ninety percent. The smell was more that of the barnyard than that of the locker room. Basically, two refiners, Liana Kindler and Ethan Partyka, were moving around, refining themselves. Hesse made for a shelf of Mixed Signal, a Cheddar-style cheese tied to Vermont fabric. “This entered the cave last week,” she said, pointing to a waxy orange cylinder one foot high and two feet wide. “And that came in last month,” she said, pointing to a mixed signal cylinder covered in green-gray mold. In a few months, the mold would develop into a real crust. Until then, the cylinders would be turned regularly, to prevent moisture from the cheese from sinking to the bottom, and brushed, to maintain an even distribution of the mold.
Aging cheese is a profession of active patience. You cannot age the cheese remotely. Crown Finish Caves maintained operations during the pandemic. At first, the company sold whole wheels directly to consumers for the first time. “Everyone was squatting,” Hesse said, looking at a row of Carpenter’s Wheel, a goat’s milk cheese from Maryland that had been molded into smooth discs intended to resemble river stones. “We made videos explaining how to store a whole wheel of cheese. At the back of the cave, globes of Mimolette, an orangey French cheese, hung from the ceiling. “We like to keep a few wheels from Mimolette, because there’s this big mold growing on them, these nice red spots,” Hesse said. “The air has all these molds and germs and things that pass on all the cheeses.”
Hesse stopped to speak with Kindler, one of the refiners. “Time stands still here for a bit,” Kindler said. “I don’t know if the sun is up right now. It can snow. We are able to monitor the weather in a way that humans generally don’t. Hesse nodded. “It’s, like, a very normal clock,” she said, pointing to the cave. “After a month, the mixed signals will start to show a lot of mold on them. After three weeks, the Bufarolos will start to turn orange.
Partyka, the other refiner, appeared. He had two flying birds tattooed on his neck. “The strangest thing was to be seen as essential workers,” he said. “The world has been thrown into chaos, and I always cycle to work, I go underground, and here is the cheese.” In the cave, social distancing was difficult. Turning the cheese over, rubbing the cheese – these were normally two-person jobs.
There was the cave, and there was the world, but the line between the two was blurred. “A lot of what we do from a food safety perspective is risk assessment,” Partyka said. “Cheese – everything – presents a potential risk. “
“For every risk, there is a protocol,” Hesse said. “Now we also have these protocols for our personal life. “??