On the infamously funny cheese signs at the Bedford Cheese shop, you will find information such as the name, milk type, if it is raw or pasteurized, the location of the dairy farm and… what’s that other thing next to the name of the cheese? Meunier? Neal’s Yard Dairy? Beeler? Those are the affineurs.
Cards you will find describing the cheeses found in BCS.
Affineur is the French word for those who help cheeses mature to their fullest flavor potential. The process, affinage, is the delicate yet rigorous, task of ripening cheese until the mature state of agreed-upon perfection. It has been said that this was to fit the taste of the king (or queen) or other wealthy patrons. Now cheese is ripened to suit the taste of you! (now doesn’t that kinda make you feel like royalty?)
Affinage is about nurturing cheeses and letting them ripen in their own time in order to bring out their best qualities. The affineur matures cheeses in order to bring to light their fullest flavor profiles. To be a successful affineur, one must have a well rounded knowledge of all aspects of the cheesemaking process including land stewardship, animal husbandry, milk production and each step of the cheese making process. An affineur eventually develops skills that include selection, tasting, and the application of ripening treatments for optimum results of all cheeses within their aging facilities, also known as caves.
A core sample taken from a wheel of Grey Goat Gouda (left). Core samples are taken in order for affineurs to try the cheese without destroying the wheel. Skilled affineurs can taste nuances in the flavors of the cheese allowing him or her know if the cheese is ready to eat or needs more time to age.
The setup of the cave or aging facility where the cheeses sit to ripen is extremely important in the cheese aging process. The physical construction of the aging facility is highly influential to developing healthy, delicious cheeses and once a facility is built, affineurs must manage a set of variables within the cave meticulously. Temperature, humidity conditions, duration of aging, the type, degree, and frequency of treatments are amongst an affineur’s responsibilities. There are microorganisms present in the cheese when it arrives at the aging facility and the affineur tries to encourage the growth of beneficial ones and eliminate those harmful to the character and quality of the cheese. Adjusting the temperature and humidity in the aging facilities accordingly influences the final product (a few degrees off in either direction can cause undesirable fungal blooms resulting in anything from imparting a bitter taste to more major catastrophes such as causing all of your bries to melt into a pile of goo).
The optimum length of the ripening period depends on the cheese type. As a rule, the harder the cheese the longer it should ripen, and, the longer a cheese ripens, the harder it gets. As a cheese ripens, it continues to lose moisture allowing salt to spread throughout causing it to become more solid ultimately giving the cheese a higher proportion of dry matter. Much care must be taken to continue ripening treatments without causing the cheese to become overly salty.
It is an affineur’s duty to understand all of these processes and manage them expertly so that the cheese reaches the peak of its flavor which is well balanced and not overly salty.
Philipe Goux, affineur of Marcel Petite Comte’ Fort St. Antoine (left )
Marcel Petite Fort St. Antoine Comte’
“We hand select our cheeses from among the 60,000 wheels slowly and coolly aging in the caves at Marcel Petite Fort St. Antoine. The fort is a former subterranean army fort converted in the early sixties into a colossal cave more reminiscent of an Egyptian tomb than a place to age cheese. Sunk into the side of a hill, fortified with thick stone walls, it offers a cool, damp environment ideal for maturing cheese. For thirteen to eighteen months the cheeses sit in this carefully controlled natural environment…” – Essex St. Cheese Co. website
When you take a cheese home from BCS, you too become an affineur – managing the continuous ripening process from your own refrigerator. Paying attention to small details such as keeping your cheese in a humid environment and not wrapping it in plastic wrap will allow you to keep your cheese fresh and healthy longer allowing you to experience the gradation of subtle flavors as your cheese ages. Enjoy cheese on your terms!
Get comfortable with understanding the nature of how something is made, and how its basic ingredients and handling might affect it. You can approach any cheese with recognition and better understanding by getting to know the different stages of your cheeses life. Remember- cheese is a living thing that needs to be handled with care to ensure its full potential throughout its life. How can you tell when things have gone too far? You’ll know. It’s that window-cleaner-meets-cat-box moment.
How to Keep Cheese Fresh at Home
Keep it under wraps
- Wrap your cheese in wax or butcher paper or Formaticum paper or cheese bags
- Never keep your cheese wrapped in plastic wrap. This will suffocate your cheese and impart a plastic-y taste
Keep it humid
- Place your cheese in a small tupperware container or in the crisper drawer
Keep a Constant Air Flow
- Open the lid on your tupperware container slightly
For a more visual experience of the affinage process, a video of the two aging facilites of the farms on which I volunteered. Pienza and Montefiascone, Italy
McCalman, Max, Gibbons, David. Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maitre Fromager. Clarkson Potter, New York, New York. 2009
Wolf, Clark. American Cheeses: The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse Cheeses. Simon & Schuster, New York, New York. 2008
Eekhof-Stork, Nancy. The World Atlas of Cheese. Spectrum Amsterdam International Publishing, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 1976
Essex St. Cheese co. http://essexcheese.com/about/comte/ last accessed: July 23, 2013
Check out the giant underground army fort cave! http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=h05NwMe-2rE
Photos & Video
by Mia Vergari