Spruce and Pseudomonas – cheese ageing

gabietou-cheese-mons-fromagesBlimey, I could hate Americans. But not for any other reason than Hervé Mons has a promotion on at the moment with Gabeitou. It’s a delectable cows and sheeps milk cheese with a vegetal flavour and texture not dissimilar to Morbier. But in preparation for the promotion at Mons Fromages we have been taking all the farmers’ production for the last few weeks  and maturing it so it will be ready to start sending to America next week. Tastes lovely, looks great, but over 600 to turn, change the spruce boards, and wash every week, on top of our normal workload of cheeses to manage – you had better like it, America!

The spruce boards on which our cheeses rest are an important feature in a top affineur’s (cheese ager’s) cave. Although not cheap (and not light!) they have a natural biofilm, which is encouraged here by our cleaning methods, which keeps bad bacteria at bay whilst allowing the cheese to breathe. On the subject on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ bacteria (perhaps a future George Lucas film?), I asked how they maintain the balance (which is regularly checked). A classic French answer – “good products”; but from my experience of working here I know it is also because of how we pay attention to cleaning (there is no fumigating kill-all here!), the components we use to aid different bacteria (e.g. straw, paper, wood, stone, steel), humidity, temperatures and air flow; in fact the caves have established a natural perfect atmosphere after 40+ years of having the world’s finest cheeses resting in them – so much so that when they created the new tunnel they transferred hundreds of cubic metres of air from the age-old caves to help start it off.

The regular checking of each cheese ensures those that could cause problems are quickly removed. In-between my regular cheese flipping and Selles sur cher pseudomonasturning, something caught my eye – a batch of Selles sur Cher – but nuclear neon green. The quality control manager (Eric) examined them with a knowledgeable look, simply shrugged in a Gallic way, and said “Pseudomonas”.  A bacterial problem caused at the milking parlour or production site. So I thought I’d dig deeper – was it a common problem? How does he deal with it? What are the common problems? He smiled (a knowing smile that a master gives their apprentice when the world is complicated and unfortunately there isn’t a simple one-sentence answer).

As he begrudgingly placed the Selles sur Cher in the bin he explained that everyday posed a new problem; the wonders of artisan and small farm production lead to better flavours and interesting cheeses, yet also small daily problems because the methods of farm production are not controlled like those of larger efficient cheese-producing factories. Experience here seemed to be the key; the ability to identify the problem and continuous dialogue and visits to the small producers work brilliantly; and this is evident with the next batch of Selles sur Cher, which sits there content in its cave with no trace of the nuclear neon green – problem solved.

All is still going well here at Mons Cheeses, I’m getting to taste an amazing array of different cheeses also at different ages, determining when each has affined to its peak; my palate is improving and my knowledge is increasing.

St nectaire cave at monsThe master fromager of Fauchon (a famous Paris Boutique) stayed with us for a few days and that was thoroughly interesting: although he has only been in the industry a few years, his knowledge and ability to explain tastes is impressive, as good as any sommelier I’ve ever worked with. He came to study and converse with Hervé for a week as he has entered the competition for MOF (Meuilleur Ouverier de France) this year. The competition awards craftsman of France who excel in their field and is only given every four years (Hervé was the first ever recipient for a fromager/affineur).

I looked at the guidelines and it’s like running the gauntlet; the French I work with even call it “running the challenge”: the depth of knowledge as well as the quality of products, cutting and presentation is immense. But I’m English – as my test I’d rather chase a piece of Gloucester cheese down a hill. (Click here to read about Andy doing just that!).

Read more about the science of the cheese caves here.


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