Affinage: The Art and Science of Aging Cheese
My first week of training with Academie Opus Caseus was a broad survey of cheese, from farm to retail shelves. As such it was ideal introduction for me to the professional industry. The second week we dove deep into the art and science of affinage, or the maturation of cheese.
The vast majority of cheeses we eat are aged. Note that in this case, when I speak of cheese, I am not talking about the plastic cheesefood containing all sorts of oils and preservatives that is extruded into identical forms or liquefied in spray cans. Without aging, cheese is only at the beginning of its potential. Unaged cheese is nothing more than fresh white curd.
To put it way too simply, we age cheese for two reasons. One is that because aging enables the preservation of milk, which for centuries has been an essential protein source for the French peasantry. It’s important to remember that, centuries ago, cheese was food for the poor. Killing an animal for meat is something that can only be done once. Milking them vastly prolongs their nutritional value. The other reason, naturally, is that it makes the cheese yummier.
The trick with aging, though, is that it can yield wildly uneven results. Industrial production of cheese aims to eliminate this variability entirely through meticulous processing and environmental management that extends upstream through milk management (pasteurization) to the feeding and care of the animals. In doing this, industrial producers create hugely consistent cheeses with low waste. The unfortunate consequence of this intensive control is that the cheeses have a universally insipid taste.
Nnon-industrial producers take a different approach. They still take steps to manage the affinage process, but their focus is on coaxing the natural deliciousness from cheese with no meaningful risk to public health and at reasonable cost. It’s best to think of affinage as a continuum, with choices and consequences. It’s also fair to say that the closer you are to traditional methods, the better the cheese!
The Basics of Affinage
Affinage is indivorceable from the series of events that began at the farm with how the cow was treated, fed, and milked and continue into the “make room.” The composition of the milk (milk fat, water content, proteins, natural sugars), the cultures and rennet present (or added), and the method of fabrication create the initial canvas. Affinage can’t undo any of that. What it can do, however, is to encourage or inhibit the biochemical reactions that bring out the best that cheese has to offer in terms of smell, flavor, and texture.
The Science and the Flora
Scientifically, affinage is a combination of three different biochemical reactions. We are breaking down the proteins, the fats, and/or the sugars in the cheese. The extent to which these happen depends on time, temperature, and—the part that creeps most people out—different bacteria, yeasts, and molds. These flora are the things that pasteurization largely removes from our milk, for good (eliminating bad bacteria like listeria and E.coli) or for ill (simple standardization). It’s not unfair to say that pasteurization throws the baby out with the bathwater. Is there a probability of illness because of this? Not a high one. Health regulations and practices are extremely strict. Moreover, there are rigorous traceability requirements which have created self-policing incentives for companies in the supply chain to keep their act together. Even the hint of contamination can create the kind of negative press that will bring down a business.
As I mentioned above, as cheeses age they are subjected to different levels of heat and humidity for different periods of time. They may be brushed or patted to spread the molds, or lightly dabbed with liquid mixtures of salt, alcohol (beer, Marc de Bourgogne) and cultures to further the process. Each has a “recipe” designed to bring it to its peak. Some of the recipes are strictly governed by European regulations that protect the cultural traditions associated with how different foods are made. (There are 44 cheeses in France that are PDO: protected designation of origin in English and appellation d’origine protégée in French.)
One of the best aspects of the week was working in the caves. On Wednesday we spent the morning with smaller format cheeses. I rubbed down a goat’s cheese to encourage the spread of penicillium. I washed trays of Langres with a dilute mixture of marc de Bourgogne and Maroilles with a dilute mixture of beer. I patted down mucor, a black mold that looks like cat hair, on St Nectaire. Thursday we spent the morning in the Tunnel at Collonge where we applied morge, a mixture of cultures, water, and salt, to different sized wheels of sheep’s cheese.
One of the things we were able to do was to taste “flights” of cheese at different points in the affinage cycle. A young Camembert de Normandie AOP at X weeks was still very lactic and chalky, while at Y weeks it had a brothy, mushroomy smell and an unctuous texture. We did the same with goat cheeses, comtés, and blues. By this time all of us started to get good at the sensory analysis which we had learned the week before.
Excellent and relaxing company
Ryan and Kym stayed on for both weeks. We were all disappointed that Alex, our Romanian friend from week 1 was unable to stay, but we were joined by Delia Stirling, an amazing woman from Kenya who is East Africa’s only artisanal cheese producer. We picked up where we left off, and Delia fit right in. Dinner each night typically erupted in gales of laughter, but then occasionally got serious as we discussed the unique circumstances by which Delia gets milk (from literally thousands of farmers), Australia’s history with its aboriginal people, and US elections. Much of what we talked about was our own trials and travels.
Naturally we ate and drank well, spending all but one dinner with Jean Michel, our cook, at the hotel. Jean Michel is a towering man who has lived many lives. He was a former rugby player who later became a salesman in a number of different industries who also happens to be a very good cook and extraordinarily good host. Now, a difficult family situation has led him to change his life and to be closer to home. His outlook on life couldn’t have been more apparent: an old knee injury that flared up during the week should have put him out of commission, yet he soldiered because he had committed to help his friends who own the hotel (he will have his operation at the end of this week). We devoured the charcuterie his family made, drank multiple bottles of his homemade rosé wine, and loved all of our dinners, particularly an amazing brandade de morue (salt cod, mashed potatoes, and cream) and the simple country meal of sausage and boiled potatoes that is typical of the Lyon area. The last night we drank some of his devilish eau de vie d’Arquebuse, which to me tasted like a combination of Fernet Branca and Chartreuse.
My Own Advice
While the affinage course was directly useful for Delia, Ryan, and Kym, this didn’t mean that I, as the only non-cheesemaker there, wasn’t able to get help for my own concerns. I spent long time talking to Sue and Laurent individually to get their advice and make connections with others who might help me along. I also spent a lot of time speaking with Kym on a more personal level about framing the decision in front of me and measuring risks and rewards. I valued his thoughts as he was someone who walked away from a career in banking to pursue something by which he would make less money but gain more pleasure. He has a couple years’ head start on me.
Two Weeks Well Spent
I’ll sum up my full thoughts in a separate blog post, but if you couldn’t tell from the series of entries, it’s been a brilliant and life-changing two weeks. The people were as fantastic as the content. I’m not silly enough to believe that passion is either a necessary or sufficient condition: all of the people I met work very hard. But there is a real intimacy and willingness to share and connect. It was a magnificent experience that I highly recommend to anyone with even a remote interest in cheese.