Ask the Cheesemonger
Emiliano Lee is a veteran cheesemonger who recently moved to California to be the artisan market manager for Farmshop in Santa Monica; he is noted for championing an appreciation of domestic cheeses.
Q: I've noticed some cheeses are coated in ash. What is the ash, and why do producers do this?
A: The ash you see is a food-grade (sterile) charcoal ground to powder. Charcoal? Yuck, right? Au contraire. It serves a number of purposes and has a long-standing tradition of use—particularly in a number of beloved cheeses from France. Morbier cheese, for example, was originally developed with a thin line of ash running horizontally through its middle because it served as a kind of bug repellent during cheesemaking. Back in the 19th century, Morbier was made in two phases over the course of 24 hours (not in one process as is done today). The curds for the cheese were created twice daily, following each milking. To protect the evening curds in their half-filled molds from insects, the cheesemaker dusted the exposed surface with ash. The next morning, another layer of curds from the morning milk was added atop, hence the dividing line of ash. Even though the ash is no longer needed to make Morbier, its striking dark midline makes it immediately identifiable, so the sprinkle of ash between two layers continues.
In myriad little goat cheeses, an ash coating actually grants the surface of the cheese a more hospitable environment for the desired mold growth and rind formation. As an alkaline agent ash also helps neutralize acidity so its usage can allow a cheesemaker to find a desired balance with acidity to age the cheese to a specific pro- file. So while the virtually flavorless ash itself isn’t a direct contributor to the taste or texture of a cheese, it does have an effect overall.
That said, what you probably notice most is that ash adds a striking appearance, in contrast to the light-colored paste of most cheeses, whether it is used to coat the cheese or runs through the middle in a delicate stripe. On a cheese plate these two-toned beauties always make for a great presentation.
Q: I recently bought a cheese I like called Delice de Bourgogne, but this one is much too firm and underripe, not soft and runny the way I love it. Is it still possible to mature the cheese at home so it becomes more gooey?
A: In short—sure! The long answer gets a little complicated, involving topics such as “affinage,”
“distribution chain,” and “mismongering” (okay, I made that one up).
If your cheese is a wedge cut from a larger wheel, it’s going to make further maturation challenging, as oxidation occurs from exposure to air, changing the aging process—akin to uncorking a bottle of wine.
However, all is not lost! You can still attempt to ripen it. Try unwrapping the cheese and covering the cut surface with parchment paper so it can breathe without drying out the paste. Put it inside the refrigerator in a container with holes punched in the lid. Every couple of days, flip the cheese over so the moisture doesn’t collect all on one side. If a week passes and the texture of the cheese isn’t breaking down (a.k.a. “more gooey”), best to enjoy as is.
On your next cheese run, ask your cheesemonger to help pick a cheese to your liking. In lieu of a monger, if you feel it give under light pressure when you pick it up, that’s a good sign. Smell it, too. If it’s unripe, you won’t smell much, but if it’s overripe, it’ll smell strongly of ammonia. If it’s in between these extremes, that’s another clue that the cheese is nicely ripened.
Photo courtesy Farmshop