Accident Waiting to Happen
Between my appetite and my occupation, I often have a lot of cheeses in my refrigerator. So much so, that I can lose track of them. A piece of cheese can easily go astray in those 28-cubic feet, slipping past the cartons, bottles, jars, and leftovers. That’s apparently what happened to a half wheel of Canadian camembert some time ago. I have no idea how many weeks passed since I had stored the cut cheese. But when I rediscovered it in the food ghetto at the back of my frig, the wayward curd was loosely dressed in a wrinkled piece of cheese paper.
Peeling back the covering, I expected to find a sad little corpse of a cheese. But actually it didn’t look too bad. A bit aged, of course, its youthful dewiness all gone, it’s shape deflated. But the rind was still white and flocked like camembert and inside the cheese was the color of Irish butter yet dense like fudge. (See the photo.)
So I gave it a gentle squeeze and took a good a sniff, bracing for an odor of ammonia or some other unpleasantness. But it wasn’t so. The cheese had a nice aroma of aged cow’s milk—lactic, grassy, slightly meaty. At this point, of course, I had to taste the cheese. Trimming off the edges, I cut a thin slice. And then another. Gosh. It was chewy and tangy, not so far from the flavor of a waxy-textured super aged goat cheese, but more sweet and salty, less acidic. Who knew a cheese could benefit from neglect? What a little marvel of accidental affinage, I thought to myself.
Only weeks later did I find out that eating my “aged camembert” was a risky pleasure. While interviewing Catherine Donnelly, a microbiologist at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese and an expert on listeria food pathogen, I learned that soft moist cheeses, such as camembert, can be a source of contamination, especially if kept too long. The French government, in fact, doesn’t allow AOC Camembert to be sold past 59 days for this reason. (For more on this topic, see Donnelly’s responses in the upcoming Fall issue of culture.) So if you, like me, are inclined to play affineur at home, stick with firm, drier cheeses such as a cheddar or alpine style.