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Sunday, November 09, 2003

an afternoon with Jean d'Alos

I had a marvelous afternoon yesterday in the company of the delightful Jean d'Alos, one of the best affineurs in the world. He was in town to speak and participate in a few culinary activities in the Bay Area, and I was lucky enough to have got a place in his class, thanks to Peggy at Cowgirl Creamery.

The afternoon started out badly for me, with a mad rush out of a meeting at the office in San Jose at ten past one, having only 50 minutes left to drive the 45 miles back home to San Francisco. I jumped in the car and sped my way up north, thinking I'd much rather get a speeding ticket than missing the event. Luckily I got there with time to spare, without a ticket even.

The class began with a talk covering the disappearing art of affinage and artisanal cheese making, and at the end we tasted 6 types of cheese. But I can't really tell you my experience in that class without first describing Mr.d'Alos, as it was truly his presence that made the afternoon so special.

Mr.d'Alos was an unassuming man dressed in a pair of dark khaki, a dress shirt and a tie over which he wore a dark denim “puffy” coat, with puffy sleeves. The coat was sort of like a painter's coat, except it was denim instead of white. The look was a tad comical. To my eyes he was a small unremarkable man in a funny outfit until he began to speak. His enthusiasm, passion and love of the métier were so palpable I could no longer let the aesthetic of the puffy jacket bother me.

His stewardship of the French art of fromagerie and affinage was wholly admirable. His eyes lit up as he talked about a small maker of Chèvre near his cave in Bordeaux that he kept in business by always buying the whole lot. In contrast, his shoulder drooped, his whole body emanated a longing and sadness as he lamented about the deteriorating state of cheese making and dairy production in Europe. One could not help but be swept away by his enthusiasm and affected by his profound loss, all at once.

Mr.d'Alos spoke to the class through a translator, who was not a professional but apparently a friend of Cowgirl Creamery. His beautiful daughter Amandine was helping him, chiming in periodically to translate a few things that the translator was unable to explain to his satisfaction. Luckily for me, Mr.d'Alos spoke very slowly and without a strong regional accent, punctuating his stories with poetic metaphors, making it quite easy for me to follow him without having to rely much on the interpreter.

He started by talking about his operation in Bordeaux. His cellar dates back to the 15th century. It was once part of a monastery and had been both the wine and cheese cellar in its previous life. The cave is 10 meters in the ground and provides a perfect environment for the again of cheese. He has at least three caves. One is especially for the chèvre as they share the same Penicillin Candidum that also lives in the ambiance of the cave. Another is for other types of soft cheese. The last is a more humid cave for the washed rind cheeses, which includes the Comté.

His employs between 12-14 people, all but him are women. He explained that the work of cheese making and affinage (aging) was the work of women, a “feminine” job. He laughed and said he wasn't being politically incorrect, but that it was “un métier très difficile” that needed the keen sense and the patience of women to do well. Perhaps that was the point of his puffy coat.

Affinage is an occupation that is in danger of disappearing. It is labor intensive, risky (with one “accident” one could loose a whole cave of cheese), and requires a highly skilled worker. He has no apprentice, as the work week of only 38 hours in France has made it nearly impossible to work with and train someone sufficiently. In addition, the regulations around cleanliness have even made it inconvenient to work on a short term basis with temporary apprentices.

The work of affinage is finicky and demanding, the proverbial labor of love. Some types of cheese must be turned everyday, others yet more often. Tasting must be done regularly to monitor the ripeness and to protect his sizable investment. He pays the cheese makers immediately after delivery to his cave, even though he may not be able to make a profit yet as the cheese needed to be aged first. Raw milk cheeses are living organisms that constantly evolve, unlike industrialized products that remain constant forever. Even the salt that he uses to wash the cheese rind must be of good quality. He uses only natural sel de mer that is free of anti-caking agents.

He emphasized that raw milk cheese making is in a steep decline in France. Out of the 1.2 million tons of cheese produced in France, only 200,000 of which are those made of raw milk. The 200K number covers both farmstead cheese and artisanal cheese.

He put partial blame for the decline on the EU regulations which have made it very difficult and less profitable to make raw milk cheese. These regulations cover everything from the cleanliness of the animal, the situation in the farms, to the pasteurization of the milk itself. They have made it nearly impossible for small producers of raw milk cheese to operate due to the high cost of maintaining code and scientific testing required. Mr. d'Alos himself must test at least 4 of his cheeses every month for signs of undesirable organisms.

The EU regulations are also responsible for the state of milk that is used to make the cheese. Most of the milk produced under these rules is too “clean” to be proper for cheese making. Mr.d'Alos called milk “une écologie fragile”, pronouncing it a life form that must be respected. “Clean” milk is as good as dead liquid. Nothing will grow in it.

Another problem is the changing nature of dairy industry in Europe. The trend toward large dairy farms is edging many breeds of cow closer and closer to extinction. In the1950's, there were at least 30 common breeds of milk producing cows in Europe. Currently there are five, the most predominant being the “milk factory” Holstein. This shortage of diverse milk source has a strong effect on cheese making. The respect for the terroir is diminishing from the disappearing diversity of cows.

The state of farmstead or artisanal cheese making in France is in decline. There are now only four makers of true Camembert, the rest are crappy commercial makers of inedible flobs. The true Comté is also more difficult to find, as it must be made from the milk of only the Montbéliard cows, whose number are diminishing.

Mr.d'Alos has created a network of likeminded people who help him search out cheese makers and support them. There are about 20 true affineurs left in France. They get together a few times a year to go to a specific region to taste cheese. The work is truly collaborative. Recently they got together to define the true flavors of Camembert, coming up with 80 distinct flavors and scents in Camembert. In fact he showed us a small set of scents in a Camembert, kind of like Le Nez du Vin.

Next we tasted eight types of cheese. Unfortunately six of them they were not his cheese but American artisanal cheeses. Only two were Comté from his cave. We were also running short on time, as the talk went much longer than expected. Mr.d'Alos recommended a multi-sensory process of tasting a cheese, starting from looking at the cheese, the color of the rind, the texture, considering whether those were appropriate for the type of cheese being tasted. Next we rubbed a small amount of cheese between our fingers, feeling the texture and smelling the fragrant coming from the cheese heating up between the fingers. Then each of us tore off a small piece, put it on our respective tongues and pressed it against the palate the mouth to aerate the cheese without biting into it, slowly letting the taste of the cheese disseminate throughout the mouth, tasting the flavor, the mouthfeel and the texture of the cheese in the mouth. Then, finally, we were allowed to actually eat the cheese, chew, swallow, and all.

My tasting note about each one is as follows…

1. a goat milk cheese called Acepello, made by a Korean(?) woman in the Bay Area. The cheese was in the manner of Valançay, but unlike the Valançay this one is not aged. I have had this cheese before, many times, but tasting it in the manner Mr. d'Alos recommended opened up a whole new world of flavors in this cheese for me. It was especially fragrant, with a great perfume that eminates from the back of your throat after you swallow, like drinking a great first flush Darjeeling. Mr. d'Alos liked this one, commenting that it was goaty, sticky and fragrant. He said that the only problem with it was with the milk. If it were made from raw milk the palate would have been much wider.
2. Sally Jackson goat cheese wrapped in grape leaves. I didn't like this one much. I usually like Sally Jackson's cheese, but there was something about this one that was somewhat blah. It wasn't salty enough, nor goaty enough. Mr. d'Alos didn't like this much either, pronouncing it too young. A longer aging will help it develop further.
3. San Andreas by Bellweather Farm. I am drawing blank on this one, and no note!? Sorry folks.
4. Vermont Sheppard sheep milk cheese. This one was very mild for a sheep cheese. Mr. d'Alos commented that this would be a good cheese to eat with a nice glass of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
5. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, in the style of Beaufort. Mr. d'Alos loved this cheese, so much so that he is planning to bring some to his cave. The cheese is from cow milk and is aged for 8 months. He thought that aging it for another 4 months would improve it significantly. When I took a bite of mine, I detected first a very strong, somewhat unpleasant, nose of petrol. Looking closely at the piece I saw that it was sweating heavily, most likely from having been sliced and left in the open to oxidize for a while. I ended up scraping the surface area before tasting again, this time tasting the very nutty, fragrant, salty and rich taste of the cheese. Only then that I understood why Mr. d'Alos loved it so.
6. Alpine Sheppard, a raw milk goat cheese that has been aged one year. I DETESTED this cheese. It tasted of candle or soap. The texture was too dry and brittle. Yuck.
7. Comté, aged 10 months. The color is light, the texture and mouth feel quite pleasant, salty, buttery and very tasty.
8. Comté, aged 1.5 years. This one was heavier in texture, slightly darker color, and a much stronger nose that the younger one. I also detected a bit of a toasty scent. The taste was ever so slightly bitter, which perhaps could again be blamed on oxidization.

Mr. d'Alos commented on the American cheese making scene after the tasting. He said that he was very happy with the development of the producers as well as the palate of the consumers. American artisanal cheese making has come a long way since his first visit in 1987. They are on the right track, most cheeses he tasted are lovely, and have no major flaw. If anything, they try just a bit too hard to be perfect. He would like to see more terroir in the cheese, and perhaps longer aging as well.

The whole 3 hours of the class went by as though it was fifteen minutes. It was such a wonderful time. He was a truly engaging and fascinating presence. One could see a fire that was in him, that he was determined to nurture his love and his art. At the same time one sensed a profound sense of longing and perhaps even a bit of hopelessness lurking underneath the charming exterior.

I was chatting with his lovely daughter Amandine at the end of the class when Mr.d'Alos came over to join us. I asked her if she wanted to continue her father's work. My heart sank when I caught the look on his face. The kindly smile remained, but the happiness was replaced by a palpable sense of forlorn. I knew the answer before she gave it. She has her own job, but she does help out during busy times. The work was too difficult, she said.

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