I am an affineur, an expert at bringing fine cheeses to their ultimate ripeness. I love the job, but there’s no doubt that the title is a strange one, particularly outside the cheese world.
Most people have never heard the term. I can’t count the times my occupation has raised an eyebrow, followed by the inevitable, “What do you do?” When I simplify the answer—“I specialize in cheeses”—you wouldn’t believe how often the response is, “You specialize in Jesus?” Hardly. But I am an expert on the saving grace of good affinage, and even devout cheese lovers rarely know just what that means. So here are some of the secrets of the craft.
What Is Affinage?
Affinage is a French word that literally translates as “ripening,” but the process is also called “cheese maturing,” “cheese aging,” or “cheese ripening.” All of these terms refer to the stage when milk enzymes, microbes, surface molds, and yeasts transform fresh, just-formed curd into ripe cheese.
As cheese ages, it develops a rind. Think of the rind as a skin: a living part of the cheese that interacts with the outside environment. What happens on the rind is critical: a great part of the cheese’s defining characteristics start right there on the surface. The rind is what affineurs are obsessed with and fuss over as they coax out the optimum characteristics of a cheese.
Stages of Affinage
Cheesemakers initiate the ripening of cheese, and some will even see the cheese through to the very end, especially when the wheels need only a few weeks to fully mature.
The affineur steps in when cheese requires a middle maturing stage that extends over several weeks or months. A clothbound cheddar, for example, will mature between nine and 24 months; a French Comté, between four and 36 months. In the distant past, regional cheesemakers began to send their cheeses to a single large cave where they could be expertly taken care of by one affineur, and that has become the common practice today.
Into the Cave
When cheeses arrive from the producer, the first thing the affineur does is assess the condition of the cheeses and decide how to handle and store them. It’s a kind of cheese triage. For instance, very young or wet cheeses may need to go through a period of drying out in order to encourage the right molds and bacteria to grow. If cheeses are too dry, they need to be placed in an area of higher moisture to prevent cracking or further damage. Once the cheese is in place and its needs are tagged in the cheese cave, the real work begins.
The point of a cave (also called a cheese cellar) is steady, constant temperature. Like wine, cheese hates fluctuation. Typically, caves are 50°F to 55°F, with humidity in the high 80’s or low 90’s, and no fierce gusts of refrigerated air.
Affineurs measure the temperature and humidity of their caves almost inch by inch—they know the drier corners and wetter corners, the hot spots and cold spots. Throughout its life, a cheese may be moved to different rooms or different areas as it matures and requires different conditions. Flipping a cheese (turning it top to bottom) also helps manage moisture. If a cheese sits on one side for too long, the top will become concave and sink in, and the bottom will become soggy.
Tending the Rind
Washed-rind cheeses, like Epoisses, are literally washed in a solution of brine and Burgundy brandy. It's a stinky, messy job, taking each cheese in hand, dipping a cloth or paintbrush in a small bucket of brine, and gently rubbing the cheese in a circular motion. The salt stimulates the good bacteria while inhibiting most others. These desirable bacteria break down the cheese under the rind. In the case of Epoisses, the result is a lusciously funky, mushroomy, soft, creamy cheese.
There are hard washed-rind cheeses, too. They tend to be bigger wheels—often mountain cheeses with very low moisture. When these hard cheeses are washed, they don’t become soft because of this low moisture content.
For other types of cheeses—particularly clothbound cheddars—the rind must be brushed or it will deteriorate. This is because in every cave there are cheese mites. These microscopic little buggers are generally harmless, but if left unchecked, they can ruin cheese. You get rid of them by literally dusting off the rind with a stiff brush. (However, some cheeses, like a well aged Mimolette, are deliberately left to the care of cheese mites, which enhance the flavor.) If you see an aged cheese with a pitted rind, you'll probably want to cut off the outside, but the cheese itself should still be good.
Mold-ripened cheeses in the Camembert style grow a white fuzzy mold on their surface. Humidity encourages the growth of the mold, which, if allowed to grow unchecked, traps tiny droplets of water that trickle down and hit the rind. This occurs on a microscopic level, but that wetness can make the rind thick and chewy and the cheese soggy and (eventually) rotten. As much as cheese loves humidity, it hates getting wet. Patting down the mold takes care of the problem.
Sometimes affineurs create their own version of a cheese by adding herbs or spices to the exterior. Tomme de Bordeaux, a twelve-pound wheel of chèvre from the Loire Valley, is a prime example. It arrives at the affineur one week old, a naked white disk. Then it’s painstakingly given ten or twelve coatings of herbs and spices as it ages for two to three months. The effect is utterly delicious.
Other affineuers—and we tend to be a quirky lot—have other approaches. I’ve known affineurs who play clarinet and even sing to their cheeses, and swear the cheeses are the better for it. One thing’s for sure, it can’t hurt. c
Written by Daphne Zepos. Daphne Zepos operates the Essex Street Cheese Co., which specializes in hand-selecting and importing three European cheese: Comté, aged gouda, and Parmigiano Reggiano. For more information or to read Daphne’s cheese blog, visit essexcheese.com.