A Sign Of The Times

If you have any doubt how important specialty cheese has become in the United States, you need only to look to Rochester, N.Y. There you could meet Eric Meredith, who has been named the Wegmans’ Affineur. Wegmans is an East Coast supermarket chain well known for, among other things, an extensive selection of foreign and domestic specialty cheeses. An affineur is someone in charge of ripening or maturing cheese.

Wegmans has opened its own 12,000 square-foot-plus “cheese cave” near its headquarters just outside of Rochester, though the “cave” is actually a series of high-tech rooms that have been created to mimic the conditions one would find in traditional caves in Europe.

Traditionally, most American retailers have bought cheese that is ripe and ready for sale, although when cheeses are shipped long distances, the chance of optimum ripeness is often a moving target. Wegmans, on the other hand, is the first supermarket chain to offer a large-scale affinage (aging) center to supply their distribution network.

Wegmans’ operation may lead to a revolution in the U.S. specialty cheese industry, bringing it more in line with the specialty cheese industry in Europe. In the United States, specialty cheesemakers typically handle the whole chain of production, from the sheep, cow or goat to the final cheese. In contrast, in Europe the practice requires three stages: dairy farmers take care of the animals and get the milk, cheesemakers produce the fresh cheese, and the affineurs then age and finish the cheese.

The Wegmans’ facility could lead to a boom in U.S. specialty cheese production, as it could enable cheesemakers to focus just on that and allow them to turn over their cheeses to the new facility to ripen.

Of course, the cheeses don’t necessarily have to be local. It is difficult to ship soft-ripened cheeses from Europe due to their short shelf life and fragile nature. Meredith pioneers a concept that has European manufacturers making the cheese and shipping to the U.S. when they are very young and, prior to shipping, cooling them down to put them into a state of hibernation. Once they arrive at Wegmans, they go into their caves to finish the aging process.

It’s the first such facility in America, but it won’t be the last. It’s a sign that America’s appetite for specialty cheese has reached a critical mass. It means eating habits are rapidly transforming and the American palate is being refined. All trends that CHEESE CONNOISSEUR is proud to have played a part.