Eric Meredith: Cheese Affineur

Eric Meredith and his family. Pictured (left to right): Emory Meredith, Eric Meredith, Maia Meredith, Collette Meredith and Meghan Meredith. PHOTO COURTESY ERIC MEREDITH

This professional knows every step of the cheesemaking process like the back of his hand.

Eric Meredith can look at a piece of artisan-made, exquisitely aged cheese and see right down to its roots. Roots, that is, of the fragrant pasture the ruminants ate to make the main ingredient in cheese: milk.

Meredith doesn’t farm. He doesn’t raise cows or milk them. He doesn’t make cheese. But he knows every step of this process like the back of his hand. That’s what it takes for him to carry the highest quality baton right through to its final refining step, the aging process (affinage), ready for retail and the consumer.

To do this, the San Diego, CA-based cheese professional combines art gleaned from firsthand work with generations of French cheesemakers, food science learned at university, and an extraordinary sensory perception, to coach each cheese to its full-flavored finish.

Meredith, owner of Fromaginary and a decade-long American Cheese Society committee member, is indeed an expert cheese affineur.

“It’s realizing, for example, that the rind isn’t forming the way it needs to be on a lactic-acid-style goat’s milk cheese in the drying room. There’s a short window that you can do something,” says Meredith. “It’s when you push cheeses heading in one direction in a slightly different direction in the aging process. It’s something as finely attuned as making a 1-degree turn on an aircraft carrier and ending up in a different destination.”

Cheese Connoisseur talked with Meredith, born and raised outside Boston, MA, about his path from a curious kid to a cheese-aging caveman and consultant affineur.

CC: As a child, was there an occasion that provided a glimpse at your future path?

E.M.: Back then, I wasn’t averse to a plastic-wrapped American cheese slice on a grilled cheese sandwich or boxed macaroni and cheese in abundance. Our family had a garden, and when tomatoes were in season, I made bruschetta as an afterschool snack before my paper route. I tried to push for freshly shredded Parmesan, but there was always a bag of the pre-shredded in the refrigerator.
Before that, my grandfather had had a major heart attack, and my mom began paying more attention to food labels. One day, when we were grocery shopping, she turned the corner to see my buddy and I looking at the frozen pizza. We were reading the nutrition facts label and trying to figure out which had the lower sodium, and how many calories there were, and we wanted it to taste good. Another shopper was listening to us two kids talk about weighing everything from the pizza’s nutrients to deliciousness and commented to my mom, “You’re shaping something pretty exciting here.”

Cheese Connoisseur Blue cheese aging on a wood rack with natural stone bricks and a static cooling system at Neal’s Yard Dairy, in London. PHOTO COURTESY ERIC MEREDITH

CC: Later, how did your professional food path, which included a Bachelor of Arts in Culinary Nutrition from Johnson & Wales University in 2002 and Dietetics from Hunter College the next year, evolve?

E.M.: I started working in a hospital kitchen at 15 — I was what they call a “kitchen quarterback.” I mopped floors, cleaned steam tables, and worked the dish pit. Shortly after, I became a cook. When I left, we were one of the top 10 hospitals in Massachusetts for food quality for patients and staff.

After that, I applied to all the top cooking schools and received the Chancellor’s Scholarship to attend Johnson & Wales. I started in the culinary program and then pivoted into the culinary nutrition program.

Molecular gastronomy was a real buzz. I thought if there was a more science-based approach to cooking, it would lay a solid foundation for me. I wasn’t interested in calculating macronutrient needs for people in critical care settings. Instead, I wanted to learn more about the science of food, so I worked in restaurants while completing my internship.

My college and NYC roommate, Jedd Adair, brought me with him to work at Union Pacific with Chef Rocco DiSpirito. I treated Jedd to dinner at Restaurant Daniel for his 21st birthday. We ordered the 12-course tasting menu, and Chef Daniel (Boulud) sent out extra courses and wine pairing.

What a transformational experience! It sewed one of the seeds for Fromaginary. At that moment of a meal, I knew I wanted to be involved in this world, but I wanted food to be food. I didn’t want to serve consommé as jelly cubes. I wanted more agriculture, and more animal husbandry, which was the science I wanted. For me, cheese was the logical next step.

CC: I understand you had a defining “aha” moment with cheese at that time. Could you tell us about it?

E.M.: I was working long hours in the kitchen at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square, and completing my year-long internship program, when one day I found myself in Greenwich Village walking by Murray’s Cheese. There was a help-wanted sign in the window. It was one of those Hollywood movie moments where you walk by, pick up the sign, and say “Where’s the manager? I’m your guy!”

That was the start of a transition. I started as a monger and quickly became the receiving manager. Herve Mons, of Mons Fromage’s in Saint-Haon-le-Châtel in France, whom we bought cheese from, and helped design the cave aging space, came over from France. He saw the changes I implemented to the systems and structure at Murray’s. Luckily for me, he liked what he saw, saw something in me, and offered me a job.

CC: What was it like working for Mons Fromager Affineur? It’s one of the most recognized affineurs in the country, in the country that invented affinage. And, that six-year position set the course for your career.

E.M.: My role at Mons evolved rapidly as it did at Murray’s. I learned to speak French fluently and took on more responsibility.

One day, the mayor of a nearby small town knocked at the door and said, “We have this abandoned railway tunnel and thought it might be good for cheese aging because a mushroom farmer had been in there for nearly 20 years.”

Herve told me, “Eric, go with this guy and see what it is.”

We both thought it would be this tiny thing but couldn’t hurt to look. The derelict setting was at the end of a mud road. But as I walked up to these two giant wood doors, I knew it was something special. Inside, there was a giant light switch on the side of the wall. These lights turned on one after the other, to the point that I couldn’t see them anymore down the tunnel.

I immediately felt the heavy humid air and thought we could do more with our cheeses in this space. I drove back, told Herve this wasn’t a joke, and he gave me liberties with the next steps. I remember pulling a pallet jack full of cinder blocks on bare earth with stones and mud.

Marc Janin, one of our interns at the time, and I used the blocks and big boards to build rinky-dink cheese aging tables. We added Salers Tradition, Cantal, Beaufort Alpage, Comte, Gruyere, and Ossau-Iraty to name a few, along with humidity and temperature monitors. We tested it for an entire year. After that, I knew we could make an impact if we turned this into a robust aging space.

Cheese Connoisseur Three ages of Camembert for quality and sensory analysis. PHOTO COURTESY ERIC MEREDITH

CC: How did you create what turned out to be a successful and still-in-use cheese-aging facility?

E.M.: The biggest point, I think, was first listening to what the third- and fourth-generation cheesemakers and affineurs we worked with told me. What worked for them was because it was the way they always did it or the way they were taught.

Then, I researched the science to prove why it works or found the science that says it shouldn’t work even though it has for generations. I thought if I’m going to be making decisions, I need to be confident that they are the right decisions.

Herve had oversight, but he gave me the liberty to dial in what I believed to be the right process and technique to do this tunnel project correctly. It was an incredible education. It’s what drove, years later in 2018, the research I published, Affinage — A Meta Analysis of Global Research, thanks to the Daphne Zepos Teaching Endowment.

It re-emphasized the need to put practical knowledge in a cheesemaker’s hands through a scientific approach.

CC: I understand that at that point, you fulfilled a dream to work in making wine in Chile. What led you back to cheese?

E.M.: I trained someone to take my position at Mons, and that gave me the freedom to step away and go to South America in 2011. That’s when Cathy Gaffney at Wegmans sent me an email saying they wished to move forward with a project to start aging their own cheeses for their stores.

I had met Cathy when she and Daphne Zepos visited Mons to look at a prototype retail case Herve and I worked on that had a new humidification system.

Back in France, Herve convinced me to take the job because he foresaw how it would evolve my career. Cathy and I had the liberty to decide how big we wanted the caves to be, what styles of cheese we wanted to age, how many different aging environments were needed, and what the flow was going to look like to the stores. It was ground up.

I was again able to make key decisions that at this point were totally data-driven.

I could challenge manufacturers of air handling systems to move beyond their comfort zone and create environments that made sense for the types of cheeses that we wanted to age.

To have Wegmans’ name and resources behind the project was incredible.

We built the cheese-aging caves next to their Culinary Innovation Center in Rochester, NY, and worked with their QA department to achieve SQF Level 3 certification, which is not an easy feat.

CC: Next, I understand, you were called across the pond to construct cheese-aging caves at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Tell us about this move.

E.M.: Jason Hinds and David Lockwood from Neal’s Yard reached out, said they were moving, and told me I was the guy who was going to help them.

A branch of Mons in the U.K. was started by a former Neal’s Yard employee, Jon Thrupp. I was his main point of contact.

We developed a great reciprocal relationship with the Neal’s Yard cheese crew. Jason, David and Randolph followed my work. They wanted me to understand their daily flow and create the space — the aging space, office space, distribution and warehousing space. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to add Neal’s Yard Dairy to my resume.

CC: After Neal’s Yard, and now with your wife and firstborn daughter, you moved to California. What did this chapter bring?

E.M.: I represented Neal’s Yard Dairy in the U.S. for a year. Then, I wanted to find a better way to share what I had learned. I consulted, taught a few classes at Oregon State University and Sterling College, and served on the question writing and exam review committee for the CCP (certified cheese professional) exam.

That was the starting point of Fromaginary, a foundation for what I want things to look like in the future. I’m excited by the possibilities of sharing how to manipulate systems in simple ways, so you don’t have to spend a million dollars to renovate a cave space.

To consult on all scales, and from a half day to weeks, and anywhere in the world to help cheesemakers take their products down the path they want.

I haven’t taken the leap yet, and Fromaginary is still on the horizon. Instead, I’m working as a specialty buyer for Jimbo’s here in San Diego and heeding the advice of former colleagues and business leaders to spend time as a family with our three young children.

CC: Where do you see the future of the cheese industry heading?

E.M.: My priorities are shifting as the industry evolves and I am becoming acutely more aware of the broader market customers’ priorities.

The future, for me, is education across the supply chain and for the end consumer by finding answers to some fundamental questions. What does “raw” really mean, and is it important? Should cheese makers continue to take the risk of producing real raw milk cheeses? Some say the risk is removed with mastery and testing protocols, but is there ever a 0% chance of an issue?

Consider recent outbreaks with pasteurized cheeses, do raw milk cheese makers pay more attention to the details when they don’t have a pasteurization step as a fail-safe for microbial control? Can we get unique flavors and “terroir” with heat-treated milk using new technologies and creating cultures specific to the farm or animals that are producing the milk?

The raw milk appeal for me is still tasting the place where that cheese came from. If all the enzymatic, metabolic, and microbial processes that ensue in fermentation, coagulation, and beyond come from a packet that is mixed into the pasteurized milk the only differentiating factors are the hand of the maker and the components of the milk. That can be enough.

Lastly, I am focusing more energy on the story, land, animals, and people behind my favorite cheeses. If my favorite cheesemaker stopped making raw milk cheeses, I would still love their cheeses because I know their story.

Does a cheese need to be raw to be exceptional? No, but there is so much to be said for anyone still making raw milk cheeses every day.

What was once the only way to produce cheeses is now a pioneering differentiator in our industry. An educated consumer will drive the industry forward, so let’s spend our time teaching, tasting and storytelling. Your favorite cheese could be the next one!

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