Counterpoint: The benefits of learning affinage

12 June 2023, 08:27 AM
  • We find out how learning the skills of maturation can level up your business
Counterpoint: The benefits of learning affinage

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 significantly impact the flavour and texture of the finished product. In fact, learning the art of the affineur offers cheesemongers a way to differentiate themselves from competitors.

Inside the maturing room
In order to dive into the world of affinage, a cheesemonger could invest in a maturing room to complete the process.

Patricia Michelson, owner of La Fromagerie in London has multiple hidden locations for her affinage processes. She tells Speciality Food, “I have rooms in my warehouse and under the shop in Highbury especially for keeping cheeses in their right place, at the right temperature and with humidity to enhance their ripening process.

“These rooms hold hard, soft, washed, fresh and blue cheeses which are tended every day and turned, brushed and racked according to their needs. There is also a special room for working on specific cheeses to see how the maturing process grows from their fresh status until fully ripened. This is for members of the team to learn and assess hard, soft and blue cheeses – just one cheese each – to work on them and make notes as well as discuss.”

Maturing is the backbone of Mike’s Fancy Cheese, as founder Mike Thomson explains. “We wanted to be able to make sure that the customers are getting the cheese in its peak condition, so we created a maturing room to be able to achieve this.

“We have turned our whole shop into a maturation store with a refrigerated counter to enable us to control the softer cheese too. We can keep the harder cheese in the same maturing temp and humidity to keep the flavour vibrant. It also helps us bridge the seasonality of some of our harder cheeses.”

The benefits of affinage
In many ways, learning the art of maturing is what helps an independent cheesemonger stand out from the crowd and draw in more customers.

As Patricia explains, “Affinage/ripening is so important for us to put our thumbprint onto a cheese to show when it is at its best or when we think it is at its best but also show the stages of ripening. We like to have a fresh cheese, a ripened one and then a fully matured and maybe ‘funky’ one in the shop cheese rooms to show the very end of the maturation.

This is something Mike also understands, as he adds, “Allowing the customer to see full wheels of cheese is the main reason. I think it gives them more of an idea of how cheese is made, what is different between smaller producers and mass-produced cheese, and connects them with the product with visual dates of production helps them appreciate the effort that goes into small-scale cheesemaking.”

Of course, promoting artisan cheese is what cheesemongery is all about, and learning how to develop the flavours through affinage which have so many complexities from within the curd to the rind and crust. We are not always looking for consistency; we are looking to see how each stage changes, and when to say stop – it’s now at its best and don’t go further as the flavours will start falling away and the texture become brittle or dry”, Patricia says.

Learning the art of affinage
The purpose of maturing is to elevate a high-quality artisan cheese even further.

As Mike puts it, “I remember someone saying once in affinage you can make a good cheese great, but you can’t make a bad cheese good, so only if proper conditions space and procedures are in place can you elevate the cheese.”

But more than that, affinage is an art and requires a lot of hard training and research to develop the skill. As Patricia warns, “Do not think for one second that experimenting blindly will get you to understand the world of affinage. You need to get ‘under the skin’ of the cheese and read a lot of books.

“Creating the right room and temperature and humidity takes skill and expertise, as all sorts of negative pathogens can develop and grow on rinds and crusts which need monitoring. I feel it is very dangerous indeed to just say I have a room in my shop or facility where I mature and ripen and just leave a load of different cheese in there without any knowledge of how they are going to react to each other.

“The mind boggles, and you need to understand right from the start how this is not just a romantic notion, but rather a science requiring knowledge and insight”, she adds.

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