The short and long of it: I received a wheel of Amoureux from Baetje Farms–a cheese I have fallen in love with from a creamery I adore–and it was busted. I can’t sell it. The ash line through the middle had separated into a chasm, such that it’s not possible to cut wedges from this wheel. It had “blown out,” as they say, a major flaw. It’s a flaw, I should explain, that should not reflect poorly on the maker, especially considering that they just recently starting making this particular style of cheese. And it’s an AMAZING cheese. Top five EVER in my book. But this particular wheel was just… busted. Cheesemakers use a trier tool to test the taste and quality of a cheese as they’re aging it, but that won’t necessarily detect a flaw like this. Every time I break open a wheel of cheese in the shop, I’m opening a mysterious box. Not even the makers know exactly what we’ll find. We cross our fingers that we won’t discover major flaws, and usually we don’t, but every now and then tragedy strikes.
As a cheesemonger, you order the cheeses you want but have no control over the quality at which they arrive. One thing that must be understood is that artisanal cheese isn’t like so many other products that can be expected to arrive exactly the same way every time, all year. Good cheese varies in quality for more reasons than I can name. It varies, most obviously, by season (which is why many artisanal creameries offer different cheeses depending on the season), but there are many other factors, some of which are difficult to control. The same wonderful creamery that cares deeply about quality might offer a cheese that’s wonderful one month and ho-hum the next. That’s just the reality of artisanal cheese. It’s also affected by how well it was transported. When I worked for Murray’s/Kroger, we’d sometimes receive shipments that would have been fine if the transporters hadn’t allowed them to be smashed in the truck or if they’d been better packaged to keep them safe. Or perhaps they didn’t control for temperature very well. I’ve seen wheels of brie absolutely demolished by boxes full of heavy olive mixes simply because, I don’t know, life is tragic and people are either dumb or not paid well enough to care. Hey, if you want consistency, there’s always Kraft singles.
There’s also the reality of how time affects cheese. If you get a batch of soft-ripened cheese that’s perfectly ripe and ready for sale, well, that’s not necessarily a sign that it’s of a higher quality than another cheese. No, you just happened to receive it when it was perfectly ripe. That same creamery offering the same wheels of soft-ripened cheese might send you a batch next month that’s not nearly so ripe. They haven’t done anything differently. Instead, the difference is in the time between the making of the cheese and your receiving it. Had you received it any later, you’d say that it was spoiled. Had you received it earlier, you’d say that it was too firm. The creamery can’t control that. Time controls that.
A couple of cases in point.
- I recently received a wheel of Aux Arcs from Green Dirt Farms that was very, very different from the Aux Arcs wheels I’ve received in the past (which I loved). It was much softer. Its rind was sticky and orange, rather than hard and grayish, like a washed rind rather than the aged sheep cheese I normally sell as a domestic alternative to Manchego. I contacted my wholesaler, who contacted Green Dirt, to find that it was simply a matter of the cheese’s youth. One could argue that they shouldn’t sell the cheese until it’s ready, but on the other hand, I tasted it and it’s absolutely delicious–just not what I expected.
- The Amoureux tragedy is just that. Perhaps as Baetje perfects the making of this cheese, they’ll be able to avoid this problem, but as it is, I really can’t complain about a small, artisanal cheesemaker running into a problem. I think that’s inherent in cheese-making. I’m sure they’re embarrassed to find that a wheel of their cheese failed like this, but here’s the thing: it’s wonderful cheese and I want more. I’m happy to accept that failure happens in the pursuit of great cheese. My response wasn’t to say, “Gah, I’ll never order Baetje again!” Instead, I just wanted to know if I could get another wheel.
It can be frustrating, of course, but I have come to see variance as, in many cases, a sign of quality. It’s an inevitable product of artisans working with real ingredients full of living microflora and influenced by the environment’s whims. There’s something beautiful and natural about it, and I love that each wheel that arrives brings with it a bit of mystery, a bit of surprise, no matter how many times I’ve tried the same cheese before. There’s a bit of undesired gambling involved, though. If I buy a large, expensive wheel of something, I can get a refund if it’s faulty, but I can’t get a refund if it’s okay-but-not-great. And I’m one of those dummies who will tell customers, “I know you loved this cheese last month, but this particular wheel is a little more bland–still good, but not quite as mind-blowing.” But that’s the beauty of real cheese. Unlike commodity cheese, processed chemically to banal consistency and reflecting not a hint of terroir or season, real cheese varies as surely as the weather.
So this is also a reason to develop a relationship with your cheesemonger. If, for example, you tend to like your soft cheese super ripe and oozy, you can’t know that the wheel of, say, Mt. Tam that you buy today will be as ripe as the one you bought and loved last month. But if you came into my shop and asked me for the ripest soft cheese I’ve got, I would be able to point you toward what you’re looking for. I taste everything in the case, repeating the process over time until it’s gone. Perhaps I just got a shipment of Mt. Tam, but it’s still quite firm, not nearly as ripe as the last wheel you bought. I’ve got some Trillium from Tulip Tree, however, that’s as ripe as it gets! I could also advise you that if you’re not planning on eating the cheese for another week, you should go for the Tam–it’ll be perfect by then, whereas the Trillium may get over-ripe (if there’s such a thing)!
Alas, here’s the sad portrait of a busted Amoureux–the opposite of cheese porn. Cheese gore, perhaps. May the cheese gods bless you and keep you, creature of cream. You can’t tell from the pic, but the crack goes all the way to the rind, all around. If you hold it up to the window, you can see light on the other side.