“One day everything is going along as you’ve observed it for a couple of years”, he says. “Then you see a completely different mold than you ever seen before. Why is it developing there? Why is it in a place you’ve never seen it before? Where is it coming from? Those sorts of things make you wonder what else is out there in this world that we can’t see…until all of a sudden it just pops up.”
“I go back to Greensward. It’s a spoonable Vacherin-style cheese we do with Jasper Hill. The cheese is slightly funky but not over the top, unctuous, woodsy, buttery, resiny. The texture is ethereal.”
— Brian Ralph, Murray’s Cave Master
Ralph, 28, is no stranger to mold colonies. He’s the Cave Master at New York’s most recognizable purveyor of fine cheeses, Murray’s, where he’s responsible for aging the cheese that comes in from producers and ultimately ends up for sale over the counter or in restaurants across the city. His line of work — using bacteria and mold to ripen cheese, bringing forth intricate flavors hiding in the fat and proteins of milk — is both bizarre and in vogue.
The science behind his job is zymology, which deals with the biochemical processes of fermentation, the same field of study related to the making of wine, beer, bread, kimchi or anything else that gets funky before it gets consumed. Put differently, fermentation is cooking food with microbes, which is a bit more tricky than using an oven. “These are things you can’t see”, Ralph says.
“You just have to postulate on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. You need to be very patient with it. You have to make something and then wait while it matures. We’re not talking five or 10 minutes like when you cook a steak or a piece of chicken. You’re waiting weeks, months, in some cases years, to understand if these flavor profiles are coming forth.”
If have a 40-year-old cheddar, will that be better than a two-year-old cheddar? Maybe. Probably not, to be honest.
As a former student of neurobiology, Ralph is familiar with experiments on the microscopic level, but the mold-covered caves turn out to be filled with wisdom on the human scale as well. Like how quality is about more than just how old something is.
“I try not to get too hung up on age”, he says. “The longer you age something, the more the flavors will develop, sure. But in cheese, we talk about windows in time. We try to understand when a cheese will be its best quality. If have a 40-year-old cheddar, will that be better than a two-year-old cheddar? Maybe. Probably not, to be honest. You’re not going taste a cheese and say, ‘Wow I can really taste the 40 years.’”
In cheese as in life, age only tells part of the story.