If you’re the type of cheese enthusiast who takes their love of cheese beyond the shop and starts to do a little research of your own, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen the word affinage thrown around a bit. Affinage translates as refining and it refers to the crucial last steps in cheese making that deliver a huge reward for a little extra time and attention. It is a process that requires more than a passing knowledge of cheese and takes years to perfect. Any shop can receive and sell great cheeses, it requires a knowledgeable and well trained staff to give that cheese the care it deserves in the ripening cave.
Proper affinage can transform a cheese in unforeseen but wonderful ways, turning up the volume on the sweet stone fruit notes present in a Basque Ossau Iraty or transforming a fresh Loire Valley Crottin into a runnny, bloomy rind treat. As the art of artisinal cheese making continues to mature and expand in the states, increased attention is being put on making sure each cheese receives the care it deserves. We at Di Brunos are happy to announce that our own modest affinage program will be bearing fruit at each of our shops in the near future. As we go forward in pursuing this delicate process, we will try to show the utmost respect to each individual cheeses that we age, as well as the long and illustrious history of the affinage process.
Europe’s older tradition of artisinal cheese means that affinage is often an entirely separate job from cheese making. Great Affineurs like Giorgio Cravero in Italy and Rolf Beeler in Switzerland owe their fame throughout the world of artisinal cheese to hand selecting and aging cheeses alone. They are not necessarily there when the cheese is first born, but the finishing touches (taking anywhere from weeks to over a year) that they make to the cheese are what makes the very good cheeses they receive into truly great ones. America’s younger tradition of artisinal cheese means that many cheese makers handle the affinage of their own cheeses themselves. However, an increasing number of American cheese shops and cheese maker/distributors such as Jasper Hill have taken it upon themselves to age the cheeses made in their surrounding area. They mature these cheeses and help small farmer/cheese-makers by purchasing their products relatively young, thus allowing them to sell more cheese without having to go through the sometimes lengthy affinage process themselves. In this way the farmer can make more cheese and get a quicker return on their investment.
The process of affinage starts with picking a cheese or cheeses that the Affineur (or cheese-ager as some prefer) has great esteem for in terms of the sourcing of the milk and the techniques used by the cheese maker. The second step is identifying a cheese that the affineur thinks may have some additional potential flavor to express, but one that requires additional time and care to express that flavor. The importance of patience and close attention to the way a cheese develops during the process are key here. An understanding of the way cheeses mature and the different environments each cheese requires is an absolute necessity for aging cheese. A pungent washed rind cheese like St Nectaire or Epoisses is going to require a completely different environment to age in than a firmer natural rind cheese like Queso de Mano would. Some cheeses simply require the proper environment and being flipped so they mature evenly, others will require “washings” in brine or a mixture of brine and beer or spirits.
Similarly, each cheese is going to ripen in different ways and has a different ideal aging time. Hold on to a cheese for too long and it may turn bitter or split, allowing unwelcome flavors in. However, with proper understanding of each cheese, it’s unique properties and what I could only call it’s personality, you can bring out a wealth of flavor that was always there in the cheese, just waiting to express itself. Come in and taste the potential we try and bring out in each of our house aged cheeses as we explore this exciting new frontier in the American cheese experience.
Great job explaining this process. Any chance you can give us a sneak peak of what’s aging in the cave right now?