I spend most of my working life in a cave. It’s cold, humid, and it smells crazy. No, I am not a spelunker. I am a lady who washes cheese.
I jumped into this cave, and this job, two months ago. I’d had no real cheese making experience, save a totally failed at-home attempt at mozzarella (less a ‘cheese’ and more a ‘rubber’ that sat in my refrigerator for a depressingly long time before I threw it out). I was nervous that all of my idyllic dreams of the fromagère lifestyle would be shattered. Instead I’ve only become more fascinated with it, marveling each day at the colorful new mold species I discover growing on my tommes and the patterns of splattered mold-water that cover my arms. In all honesty, this job makes me so happy.
Before this I worked in the kitchen of a mountain hut where I was responsible for all the cheese and charcuterie plates. I became well-acquainted with the region’s local products- the dried, cured beef and ham slices, the sausages, the rock-hard rye bread and above all the delicious artisanal cheeses that I now help to produce. Working with these cheeses was always an adventure; sometimes I’d pull a round of tomme out of the box that was huge, tall, and firm, and sometimes I’d pull one out that was tiny, soft and completely flattened. It was totally inconsistent. “Voila, l’artisan!!”, we’d say, sighing and rolling our eyes. My initial reaction was to think of the variability of this cheese as a weakness, as if inconsistency in the final product somehow indicated that the cheesemakers had screwed up.
Today I spend a large portion of my waking hours turning and scrubbing these tomme cheeses. I turn and scrub them almost every day from the moment they come out of their salt bath to when we sell them five weeks later. Like other washed-rind cheeses, I need to make sure they stay free of ‘bad’ molds as they’re aging, and it’s a constant battle. If I leave the rounds an extra day without washing, an unwanted mold can spread and change the rind permanently, even after it’s been scrubbed off. I’ve encountered molds in colors and consistencies I never knew existed, and seen some which seem to create an environment hospitable to yet others. When I try to ask my Swiss or Romanian co-workers about certain types of mold and what I might have accidentally done to promote them, they reply either in incomprehensible scientific French or overly simplified French (“ça c’est pas bon”). Anyone who’s been to a cheese school probably knows way more about what’s growing on my cheese than I do, but even a formal education might offer limited knowledge; the cheese we make here is so totally specific to this place, and perhaps its varieties of mold and its various ailments are equally specific. Working in another language limits the transmission of this kind of knowledge, yet I as an amateur I can still be fascinated by the little ecosystems forming on each round of cheese as the days pass- and I totally am.
In Europe there’s a lot of emphasis on the concept of terroir. It’s actually a great word for which I don’t know of an English equivalent. It describes how a particular product relates to its place. Yes, ‘place’ in this sense is geographic; any fan of artisanal cheese knows that what we taste in our cheese is shaped by what the cows are eating, which can be in turn shaped by the flora of a particular area (where I live the cows graze freely in the mountain pastures during summer, so in the summer the milk- and the cheese- reflects the very particular qualities of the grass and alpine wildflowers they’re eating).
The cheese is also shaped even as it’s aging by the particular funguses living on the walls of its aging facility; take two cheeses and age them in separate cellars, and they’ll end up different than one another. The ‘place’ in terroir also refers to cultural characteristics that shape the product- such as traditional methods and materials of production and local knowledge. Altogether it means that artisanal cheeses are fundamentally tied to a place and community; you can try to replicate them elsewhere and maybe you’ll get something totally awesome, but it won’t ever be the same.
All this is well-known among cheese lovers but it really is impressive how many factors are intertwined when a real, authentic artisanal cheese is produced, and how variable each cheese can be. And this doesn’t just apply between cheeses in different places or with different terriors; changes occur from day-to-day in the content of milk, for example, meaning that even within one facility using the same milk source and recipe daily, the cheeses made one day might come out completely different than the ones made the following day. And where I work, they often do. Every time we’ve made these tommes, I’ve nursed them and watched them grow from their initial uniformed white appearance, through rainbows of mold in varying degrees, into sometimes stiff, sometimes runny, sometimes orange, sometimes pink grown-up cheeses. Sometimes the outside gets hard and bumpy, sometimes it stays smooth. “Tomme rouge” (“red tomme”) is our name for this cheese, but after spending hour after hour gazing down at the complex interplay of color and the unique landscape on each rind, this term seems terribly oversimplified.
Because the span of my French vocabulary hasn’t yet delved into the realm of dairy science, I’m not yet able to explain the science behind all of the mold I find. But I have began to think a lot about what it means to be an artisan. Like so many of my peers, I grew up eating individually-wrapped Kraft cheese slices and string cheeses. I’m not here to criticize anyone’s choice of cheese; I myself still have a (top secret!) affinity for these things. But I’d grown to expect that these products should look the same each time, because they always did. It spans way beyond cheese to all categories of food products. Low-cost, high-yeild industrial production has changed the way that we view how our food should look. Take anything that’s made simply and naturally by hand, especially something like cheese, and you’ll realize that the variations prove its very naturalness and ultimately, its beauty. I’ve learned that here, each round of cheese is a living thing and an ecosystem, growing and changing along with the bacteria and fungi that inhabit it.
My job is to control this process the best I can, to make it into a desired edible final product. But nature has its own ways of expressing itself; whether via the particular traits that create our terroir, seasonal variations or daily changes in our cows’ milk, the creation of the final product is an ongoing interplay between our intentions and those of mother nature. In each round of cheese there’s a uniqueness so complex we can taste it. The terrior both shapes and becomes us, and we’re reminded of our place in the world.