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Spelunking in a suburban Chicago cheese cave

Standard Market's newest and largest cheese-aging room, in suburban Countryside, brings the European tradition of affinage to the midwest.



Standing in the middle of Standard Market/s new 1,200-square-foot cheese cave in Countryside, a suburb 20 miles southwest of Chicago, David Rogers looks worried. "You shouldn't see that," he says, frowning at the mist hissing from the cooling units on the ceiling. "I don't know where that moisture is coming from. I'll have to talk to the refrigeration company."

Rogers is the maitre fromager affineur for the market, which he says is "a fancy French term for 'guy who runs a cheese program and ages cheese.' " Controlling humidity and temperature levels is key to the process—as is limiting the bacteria that's introduced. He's wearing a lab coat, a hair net, a beard net, and booties over his shoes. When the repairman comes, all his tools will have to be disinfected before he can bring them into the room. Though aging rooms are often referred to as cheese caves, Rogers says, "it's not a bat-filled stalagmite thing."

Quite the opposite, in fact: the room was disinfected completely before the first wheels of cheese were brought in last week. This is Standard Market's third cheese cave; the first two, located within the company's Westmont and Naperville retail stores, at about 70 square feet each are minuscule by comparison. The Countryside aging room will hold 20 tons of cheese, increasing production by 700 percent.

There's a reason for the ramping up of production: last summer, Standard Market's cave-aged Chandoka cheddar was named runner-up in the Best in Show category at the American Cheese Society Competition, the Academy Awards of cheese, beating out more than 1,500 other entries. (At the time, the market had just four wheels ready to be sold, though more were already being aged.) Like the other cheeses in the aging program, Chandoka is made by a creamery—in this case, LaClare Farms in Wisconsin—then bought and aged by Standard Market. When Rogers and his team began the program five years ago, he says, they followed the model set by Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont, which buys freshly made cheese from other creameries, ages it, and sells it (though Jasper Hill also makes and ages its own cheese).

Affinage, the art of aging cheese, is a separate concern from the making of the cheese, and is often done by different people. It's a more common concept in Europe than in the U.S., though it's become more popular on the east coast in the last ten years or so. Murray's Cheese Shop built its now-iconic cheese caves underneath Bleeker Street in 2004, followed by several more New York City cheese stores, Jasper Hill Farms, and, in 2014, the east-coast supermarket chain Wegmans. Much like Standard Market, the stores buy cheese from creameries without the capital, time, or (in some cases) know-how to age their own cheeses.

The practice isn't without its skeptics—cheese authority Steven Jenkins foremost among them. The author of Cheese Primer told the New York Times in 2011, "This affinage thing is a total crock. All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense." (Then again, in the same article the Times reported the results of blind-tasting cheeses from three local stores and found that ones from Fairway Market, where Jenkins is the head cheesemonger, were markedly inferior to the ones from two stores with their own aging programs.)

But while affinage seems to be catching on in New York and the surrounding areas, in the midwest it's practically unheard of. According to Rogers, most creameries age their own cheeses, which is time-consuming and expensive. The sellers he's talked to at Jasper Hill estimate that 60 percent of the cost of making cheese is in the aging, he says. And he doesn't know of any other programs in the Chicago area exactly like Standard Market's (though a place in Wisconsin called Bear Valley does affinage, charging the cheese makers a flat fee for the service rather than buying the cheese from them). Rogers looks for cheeses to buy that will taste noticeably different after being aged: "It doesn't do any good to take cheese [the dairies] are making and make the exact same cheese; it needs a differentiating factor," he says.

LaClare Farms sells a one-month-old version of their Chandoka cheddar (a mix of 70 percent cow and 30 percent goat cheeses) that's aged in vacuum-sealed blocks; Rogers says it tastes completely different from the cave-aged one, which is bandage wrapped, allowing it to breathe, and aged for six to eight months. The former is "creamy, buttery, a little tangy," he says. "When we get finished with it, it's sweeter, got a little more nuttiness to it, a little more salt, it's a drier texture, a little more crumbly. It tends to be more like fresh grass and hay flavors."

Rogers checks on the cooling units in the cheese cave. - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Rogers checks on the cooling units in the cheese cave.

So far, there are only a few dozen wheels of Chandoka sitting on wooden boards in the new cheese cave, which is dedicated entirely to aging the cheddar. When it's full, which Rogers estimates will take about eight months, the room will hold approximately 1,200 wheels. Most are a uniform creamy off-white color that comes from the melted lard they're dipped in after being wrapped in food-grade muslin. Lard is traditional for coating English bandage-wrapped styles, Rogers says, because it holds in moisture but also allows the cheese to breathe and mold to grow on the outside; you wouldn't get the same flavor if the cheese were waxed.

A few wheels on the top shelf, which are nearly done aging, are already covered in mold. Those, Rogers says, are there to introduce specific molds to the room. "The Westmont store is where we started, and the ambient molds that were in that room started the whole process. It's basically like the Westmont terroir, the natural molds that lived in that area." He's not looking to add the Countryside terroir to the mix, but to replicate, as closely as possible, what Standard Market has been doing in its original cheese cave. "We know what [those molds] do and how they work," he says. "We're shooting for the same flavor profile." But molds and cheeses can be unpredictable, and it will be months before he'll know the outcome. At Rogue Creamery in Oregon, Rogers says, it took the cheese makers a year to get things back in balance after they expanded their aging space. "Cheddar is a little easier [than blue cheese], but we are concerned."

Rogers is familiar with the potential pitfalls of setting up a new space. "When we opened the Naperville store and put the aging room there, we had some growing pains early on," he says. "We put a couple bloomy-rinded cheeses in there that just died. I felt terrible." There were issues with the humidity, air flow, and temperature, according to Rogers, and the rind on the cheese never took off.

Different cheeses need different microflora—the mold, yeasts, and bacteria that "are doing the actual work," Rogers says. In the Naperville space they're now aging washed-rind cheeses, which require a completely different set of bacteria—the molds they have in the Westmont cheese cave, for example, wouldn't work. Two of those cheeses come from Kenny's Farmhouse, a creamery in Kentucky. Tomme de Nena is washed in Revolution's Eugene porter; Rogers describes it as nutty and slightly bitter, with a sweet maltiness towards the rind from the beer. Pauline, another cow's milk cheese, is washed in Penrose Brewing's Devoir saison along with B. linens, a bacteria often used to ripen washed-rind cheeses (not coincidentally, it also causes foot odor); according to Rogers, it's softer, more buttery, and funkier than the original. Anabasque, a sheep's milk cheese from Landmark Creamery in Wisconsin that Rogers likens to a more aged Ossau-Iraty, also gets a B. linens wash.

What Rogers is most excited about, though, is the space that will be freed up for experiments. For example, he's talking to Zingerman's Creamery about buying some of their Manchester, a soft double-cream cheese, to try washing it with gin. "Gin has such a unique flavor profile—woodsy, piney notes, floral characteristics—we thought that it would be interesting to see how the aromatics influence the flavor profiles of the cheese," he says. (They'd dilute the gin down to about 5 percent ABV first so that the alcohol doesn't kill off the microflora.) Rogers doesn't know of any other cheeses being washed with gin, but Époisses de Bourgogne—famous for being so pungent that it's banned on the subway in France—is washed in pomace brandy. And that's exactly the type of profile Standard Market is going for with the Manchester, he says. "If all goes well it should stink to high heaven but be superdelicious." v

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