If you were to look up cheese affinage in a dictionary or even in Google, you wouldn’t find much. Perhaps it’s because the word is French. Or perhaps it’s because we, in the States, don’t have a very long history of cheesemaking. Either way, affinage – or cheese refining – is not on the tip of most people’s tongues. And yet, if you’ve ever tasted a European cheese or any aged American artisan cheese, you’re hopefully eating the result of some damn good affinage. So here it goes:

Affinage: n. [afeenajh]

The period of maturation or refinement of a cheese during which it is kept in an ideal environment and receives care. Traditionally, this care comes by way of observation and treatment by hand. The ideal environment is natural surfacing in a cave with a particular level of humidity and at a particular temperature. These conditions may change according to the type of cheese. The care and the environment influence the smell, taste, appearance and texture of a cheese.

Over here in France I’ve been working with one of the world’s most renowned cheese affineurs, Hervé Mons. In my quest to apprentice with French cheesemakers, I unwittingly “found” MonS and agreed to work as an affineur before moving on to cheese production. Suspecting I would be learning the science of how and why cheeses age the way they do, I held on to this most vague of notions on my flight over Iceland’s erupting volcano.

Months later, it is now clear that my education in refining cheese is much more subtle than chemistry and microbiology. I must develop le toucher or “the touch” that will serve me in determining the stage of life of a cheese. Because no matter how many mushrooms, moulds and bacteria I can identify, none of it matters if I can’t decide whether or not to take a cheese out of the Haloir, or drying room. A few hours too many in the Haloir and a cheese splits open, or is rock-hard. A few hours too little, and a cheese may “skin” (faire la peau) when touched: the skin sticks to your fingers and comes off of the cheese. Common with excess humidity, a cheese can also develop bitterness or rancidity.

To top off this toucher challenge, no two types of cheese require the same treatment. Even within one type of cheese or with one producer, each individual cheese requires its own special attention. Since MonS works with farmstead and artisan cheesemakers, the conditions surrounding cheesemaking (weather, temperature, season, mood of the animals, mood of the producer – no joke!) have an enormous effect on the cheese. One day a Brillat will arrive dry and ready for the Chambre d’affinage (or aging room) and the next week its near relative will need two or three days in the Haloir. While there remains a science to all parts of cheesemaking and to affinage, the variables are too great to know exactly when and why something happens. Affinage is thus, to a great extent, art.

The Life of a Cheese at MonS

When a cheese arrives, there are steps that we take to make it comfortable and have it age to perfection. Different cheeses call for different conditions:

Type of Cheese Fresh Natural Bloomy Washed Hard/Semi Blue
Treatment Vacuum seal Hand rub weekly Flip weekly Brush with water and Marc de Bourgogne
or beer 2/weekly
Hand rub or scrub with water and vinegar weekly Aluminum foil
Surface Plastic shelves Straw or
cellulose paper
Cellulose paper Wooden board Straw or wooden board Plastic crates
Room Frigo Cave 2 Chambre d’affinage Celicaves Cave 1 or 3 Chambre d’affinage

The three affinage caves at MonS are situated close to an underground spring. This spring naturally provides an adequate level of humidity, while the temperature and the ventilation are regulated artificially. The earthen floors of the caves are covered with stones and I periodically notice tiny green shoots growing somehow in the darkness. These natural surfaces and living environments give our cheeses their particular flavor, smells and textures. The moulds and yeasts living on the walls, in the soil, and floating in the air interact with the cheeses in a way unlike anywhere else in the world. If you were to have an affinage cave in your basement, you wouldn’t be able to reproduce your affinage anywhere else, your basement is that special.

When MonS decides to take on a new cheese, the team experiments to find the best way to refine it. The producer is asked to age it him or herself, and we put two samples in each of our rooms – one in the producer’s packaging and one naked. The team then tastes the cheese over the course of the trial to determine its peak of maturation. If the producer is the best one to refine the cheese, we receive it and keep it in the Frigo for quick distribution. In this way, MonS is not only an affineur, we are a hub of cheese distribution, selling to places like as Tokyo, Dubaï and Seattle, where the local French farmstead and artisan cheesemakers cannot reach.

From Good to Great

Talking about the challenges and the pleasures of aging cheese with a few of the affineurs, it would seem that the fact that cheese is a living organism is what gets them going. Gaining le toucher, reading the cheeses and seeing their variation with the seasons is at once difficult and exciting. One week you could taste a cheese at its very best, and “it’s possible that next week the same cheese is inedible. This is why affinage is complicated. This is why it’s fun,” Guillaume Barthassot remarks when I wonder at the trickiness of cheese. On the other hand, Eric Meredith, MonS Operations Manager, tells me about how problematic affinage can be without solid communication between the cheesemaker and the affineur.

The producer-affineur relationship is paramount if the goal is to make great cheese because affinage will never make a bad cheese good; it can only make a good cheese better. Therefore, if a cheesemaker notices a problem, he or she will ideally notify the affineur in order for the affineur to take preventative steps.

For instance, we discovered pseudomonas, a neon yellow bacteria growing on our Selles Sur Cher a number of weeks ago. This particular strain can be found in water, lives at 86 degrees F, and , while harmless, when consumed at room temperature, tastes rancid. While our producer knew he had a problem, MonS did not. So we put our Selles Sur Cher in our cave, as usual, and the warm, moist environment was perfect for the proliferation of the pseudomonas. If this producer had informed MonS of the pseudomonas, we would have kept the Selles Sur Cher in the cold environment of our Hôpital to prevent a rapid growth of the bacteria and we would have ensured a quick turnover at the MonS stores. Affinage is not magic, but with communication, it becomes that much easier.

American Affinage: A New Tradition

With the boom in U.S. artisan and farmstead cheesemaking, some producers are starting to perk up to the possibilities of American affinage. The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont have worked with MonS to design their own affinage caves and bring in locally made cheeses. To encourage artisan cheesemaking and preserve Vermont’s working landscape, The Cellars are providing an option for small producers who cannot or would prefer not to spend their resources aging and marketing their cheese. At a smaller scale, retailers like fine cheese shop, Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, may have their own affinage cellar underneath their stores. Combining retail and affinage is common because the close relationship between a cheesemonger, her customers and her cheeses facilitates coordination, and ensures that a cheese will arrive on the dinner table at the peak of its maturation.

So while affinage might not yet be in the American popular lexicon, it seems that its day is very soon. With the momentum of the local food movement and the rise in U.S. artisan and farmstead cheesemaking, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more cheese shop cellars, and an increase in the number of businesses focusing solely on American artisan affinage. The United States might not have an in situ ancient tradition of fine cheesemaking and cheese aging, but, as a nation of immigrants, it seems appropriate to harness our collective historical inheritence of the traditions still swimming through our veins and lingering on our tongues.