The method of ripening cheese to perfection.
The best things take time. This certainly applies to the art and science of aging cheese, called affinage. In French, the word “affinage” means “to refine” (the term comes from the Latin word “ad finis”, meaning “towards the limit.’). Affineurs are responsible for bringing baby cheeses to maturity by inoculating, washing, piercing, turning and caring for wheels until they reach perfection. Whether cheeses age for days, months or even years, this crucial stage is where they take on their ultimate flavor, texture and personality.
To say cheese is a living, breathing thing is not a poetic turn of phrase—it really is alive and constantly evolving. After all, cheese begins with milk, which comes from cows, goats and sheep, who graze on grass, hay and wildflowers. Excellent cheese starts with high-quality milk, but expert maturing takes the cheese to the next level, really making it sing.
First, aging preserves milk, which has helped feed populations through long, cold winters for millennia. Second, it makes cheese unfathomably delicious. Gooey Camembert, peppery Roquefort with its blue-green veins, sharp farmhouse cheddar. They all start out as fresh milk, then become nearly flavorless curds. It’s the aging process that make these cheeses culinary masterpieces.
After cheese is made, it continues to change: moisture is lost, proteins and fats break down, and rinds—the cheese’s outer crusts—develop, as do increasingly complex textures and flavors. Keeping the cheeses in a controlled environment allows the right microbes to work their magic (er, microbiology) on the proteins and other components of the wheel. Affinage requires a deep working knowledge of bacteria, molds and yeast strains, and the ability to encourage the growth of some, while slowing or stopping others.
Does that have to be in a cheese cave? The room for aging cheese is called une cave in French, or cellar, and although cheese may be aged in a cave, it may also be matured in an abandoned railway tunnel, a trailer or just a really high-tech walk-in refrigerator. What matters is that humidity, temperature and air movement can be precisely regulated in order to control bacteria and mold growth.
The techniques of affinage can take a lifetime to master. Affineurs must make sure the conditions in the cheese caves are not too dry and not too wet, that they have enough air but not too much air, that the temperature is just right. They must know when to flip, turn and brush and when to just let the cheese be. They learn which wheels to set aside for aging and which are better enjoyed young.
A cheese’s rind starts to take shape during the initial drying process. What happens next depends on the type of cheese; some are washed in a salt solution or a solution with alcohol or bacteria cultures, while others are washed in beer, wine or cider. Later, the cheeses are brushed, sprayed or patted to spread the flora, flipped regularly, carefully and constantly observed, and tasted to gauge how the process is going…then rinse and repeat.
Bloomy rind cheeses, like Brie and Camembert, are salted and washed with a solution containing penicillium molds, which creates their signature fuzzy, snow-white rind.
Soft washed rind cheeses like Epoisses de Bourgogne, Munster, Pont L’Évêque and Taleggio are washed with dilute solutions containing salt or alcohol. Adding mildly salted water to a cheese’s exterior fosters an environment hospitable to a variety of bacteria, usually including b. linens (brevibacterium linens). B Linens help create the reddish color and pungent smell that are a hallmark of these cheeses.
Hard natural rind cheeses, like the Basque Ossau-Iraty and French-style tommes, like Tomme de Savoie, are washed with a solution of salt and bacteria and matured in open air in a cheese cave. The exterior of the cheeses is rubbed with a cheese brush, which controls the development of molds from overtaking the rind.
Other hard cheeses are rubbed in lard or oil during the aging process, creating a layer of protection and controlling mold growth, like oil-rubbed Parmigiano Reggiano and traditionally lard-rubbed clothbound cheddar.
For aging blue cheeses, molds such as Penicillium Roqueforti are added to the milk during the acidification process. The cheeses are pierced with thin, metal probes, which create holes that allow air to circulate through the paste so molds can grow inside the cheese, creating veins of blue, green and even purple.
“Honor the cheesemaker by trying a little of the rind,” says Zoe Brickley, director of sales and marketing at Jasper Hill Farm, located in Greensboro, VT. “That’s where you really see the cheesemakers’ intent, and a concentration of interesting flavors.” As long as the coating in question is not manmade, think the red wax on Gouda or the cloth on cheddars, the rind is totally safe to eat.
Aging Comté at Fort Saint Antoine
Four years ago, I found myself somewhere miraculous, at the Fort Saint Antoine, in the Haut Doubs forests in the east of France, a former military fort that now houses more than 100,000 wheels of Comté cheese as they age. My group entered through a 10-foot door on the side of the mountain, which opened into a cheese bunker that disappears into the earth. The dark, damp and cool conditions there are ideal for aging cheese. The cheese is kept on spruce shelves to allow airflow and prevent spoilage, the same way it’s been done for hundreds of years.
“We listen to the cheeses and do exactly what they tell us to do,” said Hubert Borel, our guide. Wheels of Comté are aged for a minimum of four months, as per the PDO regulation, but some wheels will continue aging for another few months or up to a few years.
The fort is vaulted and cut stone, covered with a thick layer of soil, which provides perfect conditions for affinage lent, slow maturing. Each room has its own microclimate. Borel demonstrated how he and his coworkers tap each and every wheel with a little cheese hammer and taste a sliver not once but three times before a wheel gets moved or flipped, left to mature further or is taken to market to export.
“Never say Comté without an ‘S,’” Borel instructs. Each wheel is a little—sometimes a lot—different. The flavors are stunningly complex, with layers of caramelized onion, butterscotch pudding, hazelnut, sweet cream, coffee, leather and prune, depending on the season and the batch.
“Each batch of cheese is like a new vintage of wine,” explains Brickley. “Native flora shapes the character of cheese,” and as wheels age, they come into their own. No two wheels are exactly alike. The cellar affects the cheese, and in turn, the cheese impacts the cellar. The cave is a part of terroir.
The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm
The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm are 22,000 square feet of underground cheese aging facilities. The experts there ripen cheese made by Jasper Hill Creameries as well as cheeses made by several other producers, like Cabot Creamery in Waitsfield, VT. Cabot sends Jasper Hill their unripe cheddars, which get coated in lard, wrapped in an additional layer of muslin, and matured in the open air of Jasper Hill’s vaults for 10-13 months.
Fresh wheels are introduced to one of seven specially calibrated vaults, where they receive customized care until perfect ripeness is achieved. “Some cheeses are low interference, like the laissez faire rinds,” Brickley describes. “Whereas with a washed rind, we’re washing it multiple times a week to make sure we get what we want.”
According to Brickley, aging cheese adds both flavor and value. “Even someone with no idea what we are talking about will be able to taste the difference [between a cheese that is aged and one that is not]; it will be obvious that there is more complexity, more flavors and a more special experience,” she says.
Affinage is incredibly laborious. With age, about 15-20% of the cheese’s weight is lost. It’s also an expensive process, requiring space, time and costly labor. Yet affinage “adds a tremendous amount of value,” Brickley believes. “It can triple the value of a product, like cave-aged cheddar.”
“We’re helping small and farmstead producers in our area thrive,” says Brickley.
Underground in Brooklyn
In 2000, artists Benton Brown and Susan Boyle were biking around Brooklyn, looking for affordable real estate that could be both an investment opportunity and a place for artisans to work. They discovered the historic former Nassau Brewery building in Crown Heights where tunnels were once used to ferment beer in the 1800’s. The cool, humid environment—the caves stay at approximately 50 degrees F year-round—proved to be an exceptional spot for aging cheese.
The mission of Crown Finish is to provide a valuable, unique skill set and facility to local dairies that lack the time, space, resources or knowledge to make high-quality aged cheeses on their own. They partner with cheesemakers, most of them pretty local, to create a unique product that reflects their one-of-a-kind terroir. They “allow people who are producing the milk and cheese to continue what they do to do it well, sustainably and successfully,” says Crown Finish cave manager Ethan Partyka.
Partyka started at Crown Finish as an intern, and now oversees everything happening in their caves, to the tune of 26,000 pounds of cheeses in various states of aging. It’s a very physical job that involves lots of standing and lifting heavy wheels. It can be “very monotonous, but also completely rewarding, getting to be part of the cheese’s transformation over time,” he reflects. Crown Finish doesn’t make cheeses, but in aging them they make them what they are. There’s Naked Pruner, a soft ripened sheep’s milk cheese from the Hudson Valley, and Tubby, a 30-pound Alpine-style wheel from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont. After weeks or months or sometimes even years in the cave, they grow up to be tasty, complex and exquisite. It’s nothing short of miraculous.