Someone asked me on twitter yesterday how many artisan cheesemakers age their cheese on wooden boards and would be affected by the recent FDA mandate that wooden board are unsanitary, and therefore banned from the aging room. Let’s just say this- all the artisan producers that I’ve visited (50-60) throughout my cheese days who make semi-soft to hard cheese rest their wheels on wooden planks while they’re aging. And this is only semi-soft to hard cheese. Like that creamy, spoonable Mont’ D’Or stunt double made in the United States? Chances are that it’s aged on wood too.
Why wood? It’s a nod to the European cultural and historical cheesemaking practices that shaped our own industry- a lively, fantastic industry that is now in turn influencing European cheesemaking too. More importantly, wood is also used because it imparts flavor. There’s a reason why certain French cheese appellations require fruitiers and affiineurs to use only specific species of wood (mainly from their own appellation) when aging wheels. Specific woods impart particular flavor characteristics to cheese. What will happen if our prized and adored cheeses in the United States are switched to being aged on plastic and metal boards? Their flavor, texture, composition will change. Even the difference in air circulation from resting wheels on plastic or metal will influence a cheese’s taste. The act of cheesemaking is a symbiotic process, and everything- from molds to humidy to board type- affects how a cheese will end up.
If the FDA is allowed to go forth in its ban in the aging room, our artisan cheese industry will suffer because our cheese won’t be as good. It won’t be up to its full potential that we’re experiencing today. Cheesemakers will have to pay to revamp their aging rooms and spend a lot of money trying to figure out how to make it as good as it was before- which many question is even possible with a switch like this.
Keith Adams, Cheesemaker at Alemar Cheese is worried. Though he now focuses on soft cheeses, he recently decided to move west to California to make Cheddar. This August he heads to Britain to study with Cheddar’s fore-bearers, where every artisan version of the cheese is aged on planks. Same goes for our artisan Cheddars here.
“I’m deeply concerned with the FDA ruling,” says Adams, “and if you’re a cheesemaker and you’re not concerned with this, you’re not paying attention.”
Even European cheesemakers should take note. As summed up in the fantastic look at FDA’s actions by Jeanne Carpenter on Cheese Underground, this law doesn’t just apply to American cheesemakers. According to the FDA, it applies to anyone’s cheese that are imported to the U.S. If the FDA gets serious about it, people making Parmesan, Gruyere, and may other of the European greats would have to have a section of their cave where their wheels are just aged on plastic for the U.S. market in order for the wheels to be imported. Would they do this? Would it taste similiar?
So this is not only harmful to our burgeoning industry, it could be damning to other’s as well. As cheese lovers, let’s keep an eye on this. If cheesemakers ask for folks to sign petitions or support them politically by stowing up to rulings, let’s lend a hand. They do a lot for us, our tastebuds, the land, and the economy by making their cheese – the delicious and safe way that it is made now.