One of the most important steps in the making of cheese is the aging process. It can be nearly absent, in which case so-called fresh cheese is produced. That's consumed right away and there are many fine cheeses of this type. But the majority experience aging of various lengths.
It isn't just the amount of time a cheese is aged, however, that contributes heavily to the flavor and consistency of the final product. Anyone can let a piece of cheese sit on a shelf. But, like fine wines, what leads up to the aging step affects that period, and what is done during is also critical.
Any good artist will begin with the end in mind. Knowing what sort of final product is desired, and how to get there, determines what is done at the beginning. So it is with cheese.
Cheese is produced from milk that is curdled by the addition of acid or acid-producing bacteria. But which kind of acid or bacteria is used has a strong influence on how the cheese will age. Propionibacter shermani produces the well-known Emmental or Swiss cheese, while the now-common penicillum mold is used in certain blue cheeses. Which is used affects the aging process.
Salt has been used as a preservative for thousands of years. It creates a chemical environment that many micro-organisms find difficult to survive, but which others find conducive. Exactly which type and how much, applied when, affects the aging process. An expert cheesemaker will give much thought to this portion of the process.
Temperature and moisture control are critical to the aging of fine cheese. At various stages the product will be heated or cooled. Even prior to making cheese, for example, milk is pasteurized - a technique in which the milk is heated enough to kill harmful organisms, but below cooking. This adjustment works in tandem with humidity levels and the moisture content of the cheese. A fine, fresh cheese will have a higher water content, a hard cheese will be dryer.
In the case of some fine cheeses, a spray is used not only to control moisture but to add organisms that affect consistency and taste. Blue penicillum mold affects both the ultimate taste and the consistency of the final product. A related strain is used to produce a camembert. The surface mold affects both the interior consistency and the ultimate taste. At this point additives can be introduced, such as spices that also affect the flavor.
All this has to be monitored and adjusted in just the right way to make a cheese worthy of connoisseurs. The affineur controls this process with the delicate sensibility of an artist and the precise knowledge of a scientist.
A fine cheddar may be aged for a few months or as long as two years, for example. An extra sharp cheddar may see even more time in the shed. Cheddar is technically a method of chopping, but the name has become attached to cheese of a certain color, consistency and flavor. The affineur has to observe, sample and apply years of experience to produce just the right outcome.
Even the type of rind plays a part. Some bacteria used will produce a natural rind as the cheese ages. In other cases, washing or the artificial application of compounds produces the rind. Which occurs is one part of the aging process that has to be kept in mind.
The ripening or affinage can take two weeks or ten years, during which microbes, enzymes, heat and moisture determine its fate. All these and more have to be carefully selected and controlled to produce a product to grace a fine table.