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Wegmans Builds Cheese Caves—Industry’s First Central Affinage Facility

Wegmans cheese

Last updated on April 16th, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Wegmans Food Markets last week began full operations at its Cheese Caves, a one-of-a-kind, high-tech building that mimics the environments of cheese caves in Europe where many of the world’s most prized cheeses are ripened. (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 the U.S. are finished and distributed for sale, the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer says.

“Our customers will get a cheese that’s absolutely perfect, with the taste and texture they prefer, every time,” says Cathy Gaffney, Wegmans director of specialty cheeses, deli and kosher deli.

The facility also will seek to educate employees and customers. They will be able to see the efforts that go into crafting cheese and learn more about taste and texture profiles associated with soft-ripened and washed-rind cheeses—earthy and intense vs. milky or buttery, or gently firm vs. melting softness.

The 12,300-s.f. building houses a Brie room and seven “caves” where soft cheeses like Camembert and washed-rind cheeses like Bourbon-Washed Pie d’Angloys will be ripened. As many as eight different kinds of cheese can be ripened within the facility at the same time. Each cave is between 185 and 200 s.f. and houses only one type of cheese at a time so the flora from one type never mixes with those from other kinds. Temperature 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 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 more than precise climate control. Labor-intensive rituals that can include turning, brushing, washing and spritzing each cheese wheel with solutions of brine, alcohol or other ingredients also may be called for.

“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 and washed-rind cheeses. 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., according to Wegmans.

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. 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.

The affineur who will oversee ripening at the new Wegmans facility is Eric Meredith, a trained chef and registered dietitian who learned the art of affinage from celebrated affineur 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 says. “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.”

In related news, 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 the pilot program.

Family-owned Wegmans has 83 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts.

In the feature photo at top: The new cheese cave for Wegmans in Chili, N.Y., allows workers to age and ripen fine cheese using the traditional affinage method in a controlled environment.



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