On April 7, 2014, Wegmans Food Markets will begin full operations at its Cheese Caves, a one-of-a-kind, high-tech building that mimics the environments of famed cheese caves in Europe where many of the world’s most-prized cheeses are ripened to reach their richest flavor. The French term for this ripening process is affinage. Wegmans’ facility is believed to be the first such facility among supermarket chains in America, and in time is likely to become a “game-changer” in how artisanal cheeses in this country are finished and distributed for sale.
For customers, the chief benefit will be a consistent level of product quality that was previously unattainable. “Our customers will get a cheese that’s absolutely perfect, with the taste and texture they prefer, every time,” says Cathy Gaffney, director of specialty cheeses, deli and kosher deli for Wegmans.
Building the facility will also bring employees and customers along on an educational journey, seeing more of the extraordinary efforts that go into crafting perfect cheese, and learning more about taste and texture profiles associated with soft-ripened and washed-rind cheeses – earthy and intense versus milky or buttery, or gently firm versus melting softness.
The 12,300 square foot building houses a Brie room and seven “caves” where soft cheeses like Camembert and washed-rind cheeses such as Bourbon-Washed Pie d’Angloys will be coaxed into splendid flavor. As many as eight different kinds of cheese can be ripened within the facility at the same time. Each “cave” is between 185 to 200 square feet and houses only one type of cheese at a time, so the flora from one type never mix with those from other kinds. Temperatures and relative humidity are controlled separately for each cave and a generator assures continuous power in case of a power failure.
Ripening or aging cheese begins with inoculating milk with “friendly” bacteria and molds that develop the cheese’s distinctive flavor and texture. These desirable microorganisms perform their magic only within a specific range of temperatures and relative humidity. If the environment isn’t kept in that range, cheese spoils or develops off-flavors – that’s why each cave’s climate is controlled separately.
Affinage, however, involves much more than precise climate control. Patient, labor-intensive rituals that can include turning, brushing, washing and spritzing each cheese wheel with solutions of brine, alcohol or other ingredients may also be called for. Affinage is like a recipe of steps to follow toward creating perfection in each wheel of cheese.
“Building the Cheese Caves lets us take our commitment to customers who enjoy premium, artisanal cheese to the next level,” says Gaffney. “In the last 10 years, the interest customers have shown in the world’s best cheeses has grown phenomenally. Many have traveled abroad, tasted the best, and want that kind of enjoyment available at home.”
Wegmans’ Cheese Caves will house only soft cheeses such as Prestige de Bourgogne and washed-rind cheeses such as Epoisses or Bourboned Pie d’Angloys. The reason? Hard cheeses, like Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano, are fully aged before shipping and survive the trip in excellent condition, so they don’t need an affineur’s care when they arrive in the U.S.
Soft-ripened and washed-rind cheeses don’t travel well, however, so they are partially ripened for a few weeks or months in the country of origin and then chilled to retard further development during shipping. (Think of how green bananas survive shipping better than ripe ones, but then must be ripened before sale.) When the under-ripe cheeses arrive in the U.S., they need additional care for a few days or weeks under ideal conditions for their full flavor to develop. (Few specialty cheese retailers in the U.S have aging, or an experienced affineur, to bring out the best in each wheel of cheese being ripened – two things that will set Wegmans’ Cheese Caves apart.)
The affineur who will oversee ripening at the new facility is Eric Meredith, a trained chef and registered dietitian who learned the art of affinage from one of the world’s most celebrated affineurs, Hervé Mons. Over the next three years, the staff is expected to grow, adding about seven full-time jobs to the local economy.
“The bigger picture is that we’re moving in a direction more like the way Europe’s best affineurs, like Hervé Mons, conduct business,” Gaffney explains. “Mons buys young cheeses from dairy farmers, finishes them, and then sells to retail outlets. We’re actively building partnerships with artisanal cheese makers that will help them focus on the early stages of making cheese – producing outstanding young cheeses. They can let us deal with the later stages – finishing cheese, marketing it to consumers, and getting it to where it’s sold.”
On a separate, but related track, Wegmans and Cornell University have created a pilot program that will help more artisanal cheese makers in New York State develop the expertise they need to create world-class products. Wegmans made a $360,000 gift to Cornell in support of that pilot program.