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Cheesemaking is both an art form and a science. As well as being rooted in flavours, feelings and smells, cheese is ruled by biochemical reactions and fractions-of-a-degree differences in temperature or humidity. Maturing is an important stage of the process which can have a significant impact on the flavour and texture of the finished product.
Affinage, a French term that translates as ‘to refine’ is the process of expert maturing and ageing of cheese by a specialised individual, Tracey Colley, director of the Academy of Cheese, tells Speciality Food. While on one hand cheese is aged for practical reasons – it extends the shelf life of the milk – on the other, it is an important step in developing flavour, aroma, texture and appearance. “The affineur has expert knowledge in maturing cheeses in caves or temperature/humidity controlled rooms to nurture and develop the flavour and texture of the cheese,” Tracey says. But you don’t need to be an expert in maturation to begin experimenting in your own shop.
As well as caring for cheeses, affineurs introduce moulds, wash the cheeses and bring in new flavours. “Affinage is a key part of the cheese’s life, when care and time allows the affineur to produce outstanding cheeses with specific textures and flavours,” says Tracey.
For cheesemongers, affinage offers a way of setting oneself apart from other cheese sellers and creating a brand that can gain a reputation for fantastic cheese in its own right. “Affinage is a way of differentiating yourself from your competitors and working more closely with cheesemakers in your local area,” Tracey adds. “It requires skill and much patience.” Maturing cheese also requires a controlled environment and knowledge of the ins and outs of creating cheese. Before you begin, Tracey advises, “Ensure your cheesemaking knowledge is adequate, get some specific training and talk to other experienced affineurs.”
But even amongst the best prepared cheese lovers, things can go wrong. “Faults may include cracking, unintentional blueing, cheese mite or a too dry or too wet cheese. Every maturing room will have its own character and microflora, so the conditions and the effect on each cheese will be different.”
Although Tim Jones, the maker of Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese alongside brother Simon, does not claim to be an affineur, years of experience maturing his own cheese has helped him understand the maturation process more and more over the years. It all started around 15 years ago, when the cheesemakers conducted an experiment by taking four cheeses from the same batch and placing them in the site’s four different cheese stores for maturation.
“We tasted them at maturity with Randolph [Hodgson] from Neal’s Yard Dairy, and we were struck at how different they were. At the time, we thought everything we did with the milk and making the cheese was what was key to the end result.” Having learned the huge impact maturation could have, the team has since brought it into focus.
For Lincolnshire Poacher, Tim says, maturation is focused on airflow, humidity and not allowing the cheese to dry out. The cheeses are constantly watched and managed in the cheese store to ensure they stay in good condition. “I think it’s that attention to detail that’s so important with maturation of our style of cheese,” Tim says.
For those who are just starting out and are wanting to learn more about ageing and maturing cheese, he recommends getting stuck in with recording and experimenting. Record weight loss and when weight is lost; humidity, temperature and how both vary throughout the store; and air movement, Tim advises. “A lot of it might well be superfluous, but I think if you record things and try lots of different things, that’s how you learn with cheese. Cheese is a difficult mistress. It’s inconsistent and doesn’t always have patterns, but I think the more data you’ve got, the more you’re able to make informed decisions.”
In spite of his years of practice and record keeping, Tim is still keen to learn more about the art of affinage, so he’s joining in with an inaugural Affineur of the Year competition this year in order to share insights with other industry experts. “Truthfully, I think a lot of cheesemakers, particularly hard cheesemakers, in the UK probably don’t understand masses about cheese maturation. I think we all focus quite heavily on milk production and cheesemaking. I think it’s going to be a moment for all of us to have a really, really interesting evening, discussing the whys and wherefores of what has happened with the maturation.” From experienced industry professionals to cheesemongers who are looking to broaden their shop’s horizons, there are always more mysteries to uncover in the world of cheese.
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