Affinage (pron. Aff-in-arge) is the age-old technique of maturing cheese. It is such a unique skill set that there isn’t a direct English translation.

 

In 2012, I was awarded the Churchill Fellowship’s Jack Green scholarship which allowed me to study this craft with cheese whisperer Ivan Larcher in France, at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London’s Borough Markets and at Jasper Hill Cellars in Vermont, USA.  There is no degree or diploma in affinage – instead it is learnt through experience and guidance from a mentor. An understanding of microbiology and dairy science is a must, as the science learnt helps when viewing, smelling, touching and tasting a cheese during its time spent ripening.

It is a combination of alchemy, sensory evaluation and science which allows an affineur, or cheese maturation expert, to help guide a cheese to its full potential. In order for the affineur to understand what the cheesemaker is trying to achieve in flavour, texture and aroma, they need to have an understanding of the farm itself: the soil, grass, animal breed and cheesemaking techniques. All these variables play a significant part in the flavour profile and life of a cheese – variations in feed, weather, animal lactation and so on mean no two batches of cheese are ever the same. Just as the cheesemaker has to adapt their recipes, the affineur must adapt their processes to get the best out of the cheese.

An affineur exists for two reasons. The first is that they possess a specialised skillset which makes for a better end product. The second is to provide an instant cash flow for the cheesemaker: as an affineur buys cheese from the maker straight away, it frees up the financial and logistical pressures of holding stock for up to two years without seeing a return on the cost of making that cheese.

To mature a cheese properly, an affineur must have a facility (or cave) with a temperature range of 8oc – 12oc, a minimum relative humidity of 80% and minimal airflow within the facility. If the room is too cold, the rind doesn’t develop. If it’s too hot the cheese develops too quickly and releases a lot of carbon dioxide. Not enough humidity and too much airflow causes the rind to die and the cheese fails to develop its full potential – it dries and cracks and becomes bland.

There are two types of affinage in the cheese making world:

 

The first is the purist way, which is simply guiding the cheese to its peak condition. The affineur uses simple techniques such as brushing the rind or washing with a basic brine to remove unwanted bacterium and allow the natural microflora of the milk and what’s in the facility to grow the cheese. If the milk is of high quality, then the finished product will reflect this beauty and the affineur’s job is to help the product reach this peak. This pure form of maturation thrives in the raw milk cheese industry where the milk has a vast array of microflora and flavournoids waiting to reveal themselves in the finished product. Examples of the purist technique of affinage include Marcel Petite Comté (the best Comté in the world) and Neal’s Yard Dairy who has reinvigorated the British cheese industry with the resuscitation of heritage territorial cheeses.

The second way is aging to enhance flavour and texture. This is more popular in the pasteurised milk and industrial cheesemaking worlds where, through the process of pasteurisation, the microflora in the milk is destroyed and the cheesemaker needs to increase the use of cheese cultures. For the affineur, this means extra techniques in the cheese maturation room, such as setting the temperature above 12oc, excessive washing of the rind to increase the bacterial development, dunking the cheese in wine to mask inefficiencies in the milk or introducing advanced ripening agents to speed up the maturation process. This is how a bulk cheddar can have the flavour of a two-year-old cheese after only three month’s maturation.

As you can see, maturing cheese via the managing of a microflora environment is a lifelong learning in dairy science, cheesemaking and animal husbandry. The key to being a successful affineur is the connections made with each cheesemaker, the ability to develop an understanding of what they want to achieve with their milk and providing them with proper feedback regarding their precious product when you notice a cheese has not reached its full potential. An affineur is forever learning new scientific discoveries regarding the bacterium in milk and the microflora present in their cave and how each individual strain of DNA present in the room and within the cheese imparts a certain characteristic to the flavour, texture and aroma of the cheese. Alchemy at its finest! The old adage is blessed are the cheesemakers, but I say blessed is the cheese microflora!