Some Essex County cheese makers would have to make big changes if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ever follows through on a recently retracted statement that cheese can't be aged on wooden boards.
An FDA official had said wood can't be adequately cleaned and made sanitary, but those who make specialty cheeses dispute that. They say wooden boards have been used safely for time beyond reckoning and that changing to stainless steel or plastic would harm the quality of the cheese. Plus, the expense of switching would be a big blow to small operations like Sugar House Creamery in Upper Jay and Asgaard Farm and Dairy in AuSable Forks.
Just last year, Margot Brooks and her boyfriend, Alexander Eaton, founded the Sugar House Creamery. They developed a signature cheese - a raw-milk, Alpine-style variety called Dutch Knuckle - and to ripen it, they built an underground cave, filling the walls with shelves made of locally milled spruce. In December 2013, they laid their first Dutch Knuckle wheels in this naturally cool space to rest for six months. They just pulled them out and started selling them at farmers markets.
"They're delicious, and it's definitely in part because of the wood," Brooks said. She compared it to cooking on cast-iron frying pans.
"The boards become seasoned," she said. "It's unlike aging on any other material."
Around the same time as Brooks and Eaton's Dutch Knuckles first touched spruce, New York state's Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, part of the Department of Agriculture and Markets, asked the FDA to clarify its policy on the topic. The FDA's Monica Metz replied in January that wooden boards cannot be adequately cleaned, and therefore it's not OK to let wheels of curdled milk ferment on them for months or years at a time.
"The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria," Metz wrote; "therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products."
Last week, after Metz's email was made public, there was a nationwide backlash from cheese lovers, cheese makers, the American Cheese Society and politicians including both of New York's U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
"We were kind of reeling from it, but it really did make it into the mainstream media, and people seemed to care about it," Brooks said. She said she got support from friends on Facebook, and when she went to a wedding last week, "It seemed like it was on everyone's radar."
FDA critics pointed out that Europe, a continent renowned for its cheese as well as its regulations, still allows aging on wooden boards. Plus, they said, an FDA ban would also halt the importation of all kinds of wood-ripened cheese, including the popular Parmigiano Reggiano.
Last Wednesday the FDA publicly backed away from Metz's message, saying it "may have appeared more definitive than it should have, in light of the agency's actual practices on this issue."
The statement noted that the FDA still requires any surface that touches food to be "adequately cleanable" and "properly maintained," and that "Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement.
"Since 2010, FDA inspections have found Listeria monocytogenes in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers," the statement said. "However, the FDA does not have data that directly associates these instances of contamination with the use of wood shelving."
Instead of banning wooden shelves, the FDA agreed to enter into dialogue with the cheese industry and take it from there.
"It's really beautiful"
In Upper Jay, just north of the tiny hamlet's main intersection, the new artisans at the Sugar House Creamery are especially vulnerable. While Brooks and Eaton only age one of their four cheeses on wooden boards, it's the one they chose as their anchor. She had previously apprenticed with a cheese maker in West Pawlet, Vermont, named Peter Dixon, a big proponent of aging cheese on wood.
"We designed our cave around this shelving that we built," Brooks said. "Spatially, it would be difficult to figure out a different system. Monetarily, we would certainly take a hit.
"It would certainly take away a lot of what I love about cheese making," she added. "It just wouldn't be the same for me to not be able to use that material.
"It's hard to describe, but you walk into the cave and see all the cheese, and it's really beautiful. You smell the wood when you walk into the cave, and that's definitely contributing to the flavor of the cheese, to the rind."
Many people see bacteria as a problem in food, but for cheese and yogurt - Sugar House Creamery makes both - those germs are why they exist. In between cheese batches, Brooks said she and Eaton sterilize their shelves by washing them with scalding-hot water and then kiln-drying them in a room with a super-hot stove. But during the ripening process, that culture of microbes that permeates the wood, the thing Metz was worried about, helps make the cheese taste good.
"The main thing about cheese making is that you're harnessing the power of yeast and bacteria and mold, those things that normally you might consider bad things, but that's what you use to make cheese," Brooks said. "You're embracing that bacteria - the good ones.
"If any bad bacteria made it onto that board, it would be outcompeted by the good ones," she said. "Aging cheese is kind of a mysterious thing to most people."
Avoiding slimy cheese
About 10 miles up Route 9N and off to the east is Asgaard Farm and Dairy, named for the home of the Norse gods. These 1,500 acres, nestled in the AuSable River valley just south of AuSable Forks, were the former home of Rockwell Kent, the artist, writer, adventurer and political activist who lived and worked there from the 1920s until he died in 1971. Rhonda Butler and David Brunner have owned the property since 1988 and re-established it as a working farm in 2003.
Goat cheese is a big part of their business, but not the only part. They also produce vegetables, beef, poultry, pork and wood products, and they also use their goats' milk to make soap and caramels.
Butler, the head cheese maker, said Asgaard uses wooden boards for only one of the five cheeses it sells, the semi-hard AuSable Valley Tomme - like the Dutch Knuckle, a kind of cheese associated with the Alps. They also use wood for a goat-milk Gouda that's currently in the research-and-development phase; they expect to bring it to market later this year. As for the other varieties, the fresh chevre isn't aged much at all, and the feta is aged in brine.
As the Tomme wheels ripen, whey seeps out and can pool up under them, so they're turned at regular intervals to redistribute the moisture, Butler said. Wooden boards absorb some of that; she said cheese would tend to get wet and slimy on stainless steel or plastic.
If the FDA bans wooden shelves, she's not sure how she'd make her Tomme: maybe turn it more often or find some kind of fabric to put under it. One thing is for sure, though; it wouldn't be the same. Cheese draws a special flavor from the wood, she said.
"There's a whole sensory and quality characteristic to it, for sure."