Cheese is fragile. Cheese is living and breathing. Cheese must be stored properly, especially in its infancy, when the difference between the heavenly and the horrid is a fine line. Considering all of this, we should be equally grateful for the people who age our cheese as we should be for the people who make it. Sure, once a cheese is made, it's made; an affineur will never be able to make a bad cheese great. But under the wrong care, a great cheese can go bad. In short, we have affineurs to thank for some of the best cheeses in the world.
Affinage is complicated. Every style of cheese must be stored in a different kind of environment, depending on what temperature and humidity levels make a specific cheese's bacteria or molds most happy. Affinage relies on a profound knowledge of these bacteria, molds, and yeast strains, and an understanding of how to propogate the growth of some and hinder the growth of others.But it's more tricky than that. Since cheeses can change so much from day to day-- cheeses have seasons, too, like wine, produce, or flowers-- the work of an affineur is incredibly unpredictable; his or her success requires a deep knowledge of the cheese itself: from which farm it came, the diet of the animals who contributed to the cheese, the conditions in which the cheese was made, and the tendencies of specific cheeses to react in certain ways. With this broader sense of things, an affineur can more efficiently troubleshoot. But there's a lot of guesswork involved.
The job of an affineur is super tactile: affineurs handle their cheeses every day, washing, brushing, flipping, patting, turning and plugging. Only when they're this familiar with the cheeses can they think like a cheese. An affineur's office is a "cave" (pronounced "cav," in French), or a cellar. It's cold underground; these affineurs have heart!
Perhaps most importantly, at least to the consumer, an affineur must have a great palate and be able to pick up on flaws or deficiencies in cheese. It's up to the affineur to know the product and know if it isn't fit for sale, and also to taste when the cheese is perfectly ripe, or a point, pronounced "a p-wan," French vocab term number 4, are you counting? Traditionally, it's quite common for an affineur to work closely with cheesemakers to help perfect their product for market and to communicate specific deficiencies to the makers themselves. It was a happy day for the American cheese world when brothers Mateo and Andy Keehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont decided to build cellars of their own and adopt a European model of affinage, the first of its kind in the States.
It seems to us that affineurs are the unsung heroes of the cheese world, the do-gooders behind every earth-shatteringly delicious wheel. So the next time you have a great wedge of stinky, soft, or blue, just remember who helped to make it that way. He or she is probably just a little bit chilly, somewhere below ground level, and thinking of you, too.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.