A common questions is “What type of cheese do you make?” I feel a bit of a fraud admitting that I don’t actually make the cheese. I mature it. Maturation is part of the cheese making process, but it is not where the alchemy happens. It is not turning liquid milk into curds that can be mounded into shape. Cheese maturing is the part where the cheese, already formed, spends most of its time sitting in a cold dark room.
While it looks like not much is happening, this is an exciting time in the development of a cheese. During this time the rind is formed and taste develops. It is a stage where the microbes are busy breaking down the proteins and fats to create the distinctive flavours and aromas. It is the stage that makes cheese taste and smell like it does.
My days are filled with rubbing, washing, turning and brushing cheese. Giving each and every one, the care and attention they need. I could say that I am a mother of baby cheeses, a bacteria farmer or cheese wangler. Fortunately the French have a term for people who mature cheese, an affineur. Technically I am an affineuse, but that is getting a bit too French and gender specific for us Anglophones.
In Europe people with skills in affinage are recognised as part of the cheese industry. Some affineurs work in big caves specialising in a single cheese such as parmesan or comté. Others have caves that mature cheeses from small producers. Providing specialist skills and facilities needed to develop the flavour and quality of the cheese. Over time there is a trust developed between the cheesemaker and affineur. There needs to be, the affineur is taking a young and raw cheese and developing it to be the best it can be. It just goes to show that it takes a village to raise a good cheese.