7 Nov 2011

The art of affinage?

It's not just the washed rind cheeses in the maturing rooms of New York's cheesemongers that have strong personalities, judging by an interesting article in the New York Times. The people running the shops and making the cheese have equally robust views when it comes to the divisive issue of 'affinage'.

You can read the article for yourself here, but, to summarise, the New York cheese fraternity seems to be split into two camps. On one side are mongers like Murray's Cheese, who have built their own temperature and humidity-controlled cheese rooms so that they can practice the art of affinage - a European tradition which involves skillfully maturing and developing cheeses to perfection.

On the other are those that argue that mongers are dressing up simple 'cheese care', practised by all good retailers, as affinage so that they can charge customers more. Or as cheesemonger and author Steve Jenkins puts it in the article: “This affinage thing is a total crock.”

There's nothing a journalist likes more than a good old ding dong, so not surprisingly issues are painted in black and white in the article when in reality they are varying shades of opinion on the subject. That said, it does raise some interesting questions, such as, what is affinage and how is it different to just looking after a product?

In the UK cheesemongers and wholesalers such as Neal's Yard, Paxton & Whitfield and La Fromagerie all claim affineur status. Martin Knapp, the manager of Paxton & Whitfield's shop in Bristol, told me over Twitter that in his opinion, "if you change the nature of the cheese, it's affinage". 

The kind of things Paxton gets up to includes making its own truffle bries, soaking the French blue Fourme d'Ambert in sweet Monbazillac wine and ageing cheddars for several months to get a more mature cheese. Knapp also explained that Paxton takes very young or vacuum-packed cheeses that do not have any rind and stores them in a 'rinding room', which has the right temperature and humidity to encourage mould growth.

Where it gets confusing is that some of the stuff talked about by Paxton is done by all cheesemongers. Justin Tunstall at Town Mill Cheesemongers in Lyme Regis told me he turns his cheeses, allows them to breathe or covers where necessary, adjusts heat and humdity and trims and dresses them for display. That sounds like there are elements of affinage going on to me, but he classes it as just 'cheese care'.

It's this grey area that gets some people so hot under the collar. One deli owner told me: "There are too many cheesemongers who think they are the second coming of [legendary British affineur] James Aldridge when all they are doing is caring well for their cheese. I was astounded at the markup some wholesalers/affineurs put on a product for what will effectively be turning the cheese a few times in their 'maturing' room. I think it is a veritable pisstake."

It sounds like the cheese care versus affinage argument is not just an American one, but what do you think? When does cheese care become affinage? And are cheeses from affineurs justifiably more expensive?

12 comments:

  1. Call me bias, but I do think there is a place for affinage in the US, especially of American cheeses... here are my full opinion: Old School vs New School http://lactography.com/?p=358 and Ripening Debate http://lactography.com/?p=370

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  2. Hi Carlos, Thanks for making the first ever comment on Cheese Chap! Really liked your post on Old School v New School. 'Fake divisions' is a good way to put it and definitely agree that the consumer is a lot more intelligent than some are making out in this debate. Are you at this year's WCAs?

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  3. Well done for adding who James Aldridge was. Many of the new breed of 'affineurs' have never heard of him.
    There is a huge difference between a bonifide affineur and a 'bring it on eur'.

    James McCall
    james's cheese

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  4. I'll be at the WCA's. Call you later.
    James

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  5. I'm not an affinage expert but I certainly think there is an art and science to it. What Paxtons et al do to cheeses goes beyond the work of the milk producer and the cheesemaker. They add value and a different character to the cheese, redefine and enhance what may have been only latent in the original product. There is certainly a lot more to explore in the world of affinage, from the point of view of lacto-journalism!

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  6. Town Mill Cheesemonger an "Everyday cheesemonger", Patrick? That's a slight if I ever heard one. Rennet bags at dawn! See you at the WCAs. Good blog, btw. Justin

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  7. Oh gawd, sorry Justin. That's not what I meant! You are far from an everyday cheesemonger! I'm going to change the copy now. I don't care if that means these comments don't make sense!

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  8. Affinage (ripening) of cheese is an 'essential part' of cheese 'making'. In this production process you have caillage (coagulation), moulage (molding), égouttage (dripping), ressuyage (draining?), sechage (drying) and finally affinage. Affinage of freshly made cheese can be done at the creamery or somewhere else where adequate infrastructure, knowledge and experience is present to mature the cheese to full character and flavor.
    Cheese 'caring' is nothing more or less than taking care of already ripened cheese, so that customers can taste the cheese à point. That's what good cheesemongers are doing.
    Some of them put ingredients in or around the cheese or wash it with all sorts of (weird) liquids. In my experience these operations rarely add value to the cheese. It has more in common with the art of cocktail making than with the art of affinage.
    There is no reason why it must be a rule that cheese ripened by an affineur should be more expensive than the one ripened at the producer's place. Like everything else it is up to the customer to judge the quality-price ratio and whether or not the pricing reflects rather the marketing than the quality.

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  9. Ana Gomez of www.flavoursofspain.co.uk asked me to post this because she couldn't for some reason:

    It is a difficult question as affinage is different for each producer & country. In old ages they didn’t base good cheese on that and i have seen very good cheeses turn down using the word. People use it because they think is cool. It has to be a good understanding behind and take into consideration the story of the cheese, the country and the producer behind.

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  10. This was really a great post and a wonderful response to the New York Times article. I think it's important to recognize the fact that affineurs serve an important role freeing up the working capital of small cheesemakers. I'm excited about this idea and the conversation surrounding it, so I'm planning to write a post of my own soon.
    Thank you for the inspiration!

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  11. Kurt, you are making a good point: Affineurs serve an important role freeing up the working capital of small cheesemakers.
    Well said!

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  12. Difficult one - affinage is such a grey area. I have to say most people who say to me they're affineurs/matruers i view with a sceptical eye.

    I think the issue is compounded by confusion about what an affineur is.

    For me their people within France and the UK who are not affineurs/maturers but store cheese well and maintain it how it should be: Paxton's, Neal's Yard, La Fromagerie, Fine Cheese Co., and i've no doubt others whose stores I haven't seen. This to me isn't affinage - the product doesn't change and take on a new charcteristic (as James rightly says). However it is a good thing!

    Then there is the re-labelers - the worst type, who claim to be affineurs but really just put their name on it and claim they have changed it.

    Then there are genuine affinuers - many are specialists in particular areas or cheeses: Paccard for Reblochon, Xavier Morin for Auvergne cheese. Having seen real affinage in practice (at Mons) I think it does play an important role in France:
    Free's up captial and time (flipping, turning, brushing cheese) so the farmer can concentrate on animals and cheese-making.
    Enables tiny and remote cheesemakers to exist - affineurs will drive halfway up a mountain to collect a months worth and then deal with the batches appropiately, so the cheesemakers can operate up on the mountain tops.
    Changes the product. At Mons I can remember comparing the exact same products aged by us and by the producer - there was always a notable difference: Mons area of expertise was ageing cheese and they definietly imprved the cheeses in their cave.
    Enables control. If you by the cheese as young as possible, you can control more of the devlopment and quality.
    Affineurs also have a direct link with the market, and in Mons case work very closely with cheesemaker to improve the product.

    It was definitely a skill at Mons and involved a lot of art/science to get the treatment and ambience right for each cheese; it had taken Mons years to perfect this.

    I think in the UK the fine cheese industry has evolved differently (it's downfall/rejeuventaion, farm size, it's less remote and has emphasis on the producer rather than the cheese name ie not Ste Maure but Montgomery's). Consequently producers have generally aged the cheese themselves and their is therefore less of a need for affineurs in my opinion.

    Obviously there are exceptions, e.g. James Aldridge...

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