Cheese Ageing – how to mature and look after cheese.
Advice for shop owners on how to mature, look after and age cheese; most cheese shops across the land will state that they ‘mature’ or ‘age’ cheese. But what does this mean, and can you do it yourself on a small scale?
A genuine cheese maturer (French ‘affineur’) will actually alter the cheese product and, hopefully, improve it significantly. Good examples of ‘affineurs’ in the UK are James McCall of James’s Cheese, who takes very young ‘Stony Cross’ made by Lyburn Farmhouse and by his method of maturing changes it into a very different cheese: the fruity, supple ‘Francis’. Another true ‘affineur’ is Neal’s Yard Dairy, which matures the rich creamy ‘St Jude’ cheese into the powerful, intense, washed-rind ‘St Cera’.
Different cheese types need different environments. The ‘washed rinds,’ for example, are more suited to higher humidity, ammoniated and warmer environments, which are the necessary conditions for the sticky orange rind to grow and flourish. If you ever visit a true ‘affineur’, therefore, you’ll find they have a series of different maturing rooms (or caves!) in which the environments differ, suiting different cheeses (Mons Fromages in France, for example, have six different caves). In France an ‘affineur’ will often specialise in one particular cheese – the Paccard family, for example, who only mature Reblochon. And, by-Jove, they’re experts at it!
But you don’t have to be an expert to take some principles of cheese maturing into your own shop, aiming to sell the cheese you stock in a tastier condition. Here are some tips for deli, farm and cheese shops over that can be applied to enable you to look after cheese better.
- Soft cheeses. Often packed in a wood box (e.g. Brie and Camembert), soft cheeses benefit from the humid environment that is held within the box. The key thing is to open every single box you receive and give the cheese a gentle squeeze – they will vary in ripeness even if they have identical batch codes or best-before dates. Then sort them by ripeness so you can supply the right cheese to each customer, depending how ripe they need it. At The Courtyard Dairy we keep most soft cheeses about 6-8 degrees Celsius so they mature nicely, but you can use a lower temperature to slow down the maturation and enable the cheeses to be kept for a longer period before they are fully ripe.
- Goats’ cheese in a box. Once again, the key thing is to unwrap the cheeses and feel them – if they’re too wet on the rind, or the rind is slipping off, leave them to dry a few days. If they’re solid and dry, wrap them up in thick wax paper, or use clear butchers’ cellophane if you want to be able to see the cheese!
- Washed rind cheeses. Keep them humid because that’s what their particular bacteria like: use extra wrapping and keep them in sealed boxes overnight. Using cellophane instead of Clingfilm works well to wrap these cheeses because you can still see the cheese (to sell), but the wrapping doesn’t sit quite as tight and smother the bacteria.
- Cheddars / cloth-bound cheeses. On the whole, these are easier to mature, but if you are keeping them for any length of time, they may need frequent brushing to limit mould and cheese-mite growth. In conventional fridges, you may find the aggressiveness of the chiller will dry them out; in which case it may be better to keep them in the cardboard box they arrived in. This will help to maintain a humid environment, protecting the cheese from the cold, dry air. But be sure to get the cheeses out regularly to be turned and examined – if they feel too wet, let that side dry out for a few days. Conversely if they have started to crack or show hairline fissures, the environment is too dry – they may need an extra layer of protection (e.g. wrap tightly in wax paper).
- This rule of leaving cheeses inside cardboard boxes applies to lots of other cheeses too, to help stop them drying out in your fridge. With Stilton, for example, you’ll notice this when the wax paper sticks to the rind and crinkles up – Stiltons are definitely best left inside their boxes in commercial chillers. Blue cheeses in general are best kept slightly cooler as this stops the blue mould getting carried away and making the cheese too bitter!
And don’t be afraid of mould on the outside of whole truckles – this is just the rind growing.
- Already-cut cheeses. Don’t forget that even more important than caring for your cheese when it’s whole and ‘maturing’ is the care you give it when it’s been cut. Be sure to ‘clean’ all your cheeses each day to keep them fresh (give the cut faces a gentle scrape all over with the edge of a blade) and ensure that they are ‘glass-wrapped’ – Clingfilmed tightly over the face, with no wrinkles, so it looks like glass! This will help them taste a lot better when they’re finally cut for sale.
There are no hard and fast rules in good cheese maturing, so if you want to take it to the next level it’s worth experimenting a bit! At The Courtyard Dairy, for example, we have been helping develop a new fresh goats’ cheese, received by us at seven days old. The classic way that we would look after a lactic-goats cheese like this is to dry it a little (particularly if the rind is wet to touch) before storing them in a warmer environment to let the yeasts grow (the wrinkly rind you get on the small goats’ cheeses); then, once they have established, mature them in a cool cave till they have ‘broken down’ and are at a perfect stage to sell. With the cheese we’ve been helping develop, however, we experimented with the initial trial batches we received: dried some, kept some warmer, carried out the normal procedure for our goats cheeses, washed some, etc. We quickly found that the best thing for this new goats’ cheese was to keep it wrapped in the fridge – certainly not what we’d normally do. The aggressiveness of the strain of yeast that was growing on this particular cheese, however, meant that the yeast had to be restrained, or the cheese developed too fast and an off-flavour crept in!
Always remember that cheese is a living product and therefore every single cheese that arrives at your premises will be different from the last one you received of the same type, and often different from other cheeses of the same batch arriving at the same time. Don’t treat every cheese the same: always check it first. When I worked for Hervé Mons in France he regularly drummed into me that more important than the actual maturing techniques themselves is that every single cheese of every batch received should be examined, touched/felt and looked at before determining what to do with it.