How Cheese Is Aged
As cheeses age, they bloom with the essence of everything that's come before: the sunshine collected by plants, the plants themselves, the water and air of the environment, the animals producing the milk, milk treatments, starter cultures, molds, and the techniques of the cheese maker. But far from simply storing a finished product in a room until it's magically declared done, cheese aging is an art form in and of itself. If the carefully cut, drained, pressed, and molded curd were allowed to sit in one place, it would form large wet and dry spots, and the flavors would pool toward the bottom.
Role of the Affineur
In France, cheese agers hold the title affineur, which means they are the ones who carefully select the appropriate conditions for each type of cheese to age properly. They select a room or cave with enough air circulation, the right temperature, humidity, and mold spores (if necessary).
Once the cheeses are in the aging room or cave, the affineur tends to them regularly to assure an even distribution of moisture and rind development. An affineur regularly checks that all conditions will promote the development of the desired cheese. To walk into a cheese-aging room is to be surrounded by row after row of highly stacked wheels of cheese, each tagged with their date of entry into the aging room, and all at different stages of ripening.
Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, is where different rules governing food production come into play. In France, a cheese-aging cave or room is devoted to one cheese, and only that type of cheese will be aged in that cave or room. Many of these rooms are filled with spider webs and are very cave-like, but, as mentioned earlier, these rooms hold the mold spores that contribute to the cheese.
Sometimes, instead of seeding their milk during the starter-culture phase, the French allow the cheese to bloom with mold while being aged. In the United States, however, cheese makers are required to age their cheese in sterile conditions, and aging rooms must be washed quite regularly. While this allows different cheeses to age side-by-side, it also requires the step of seeding during the starter-culture phase.
Most people believe the crunchiness they experience in Parmigiano-Reggiano or an aged Gouda is salt. In fact, the crunch comes from a breakdown of amino acids that happens while the cheeses are aged. These crystals do taste salty, but this is because of the salt added to the curd prior to forming and aging.
One of the most famous aging rooms is Neal's Yard, a cheese warehouse in London, England, that distributes artisanal and farmstead cheeses from England and Ireland. The facility is specially designed to continue the aging process of cheese once it arrives, and the warehouse works closely with its cheese makers to be sure each cheese is sold at its peak.
Some cheeses, like Goudas, are aged for several years. During this time, carbon dioxide gas from the starter cultures forms eyes, or holes in the cheese. Some amino acids also break down and form small crystals. If you compare a young Gouda, say six months old, to a four-year-old Gouda, you'll notice that the young Gouda is fairly smooth and uniform in texture and doesn't have the crunch of the amino-acid crystals. The four-year-old Gouda will be riddled with small holes formed by gases and subsequently filled by these amino-acid crystals.
When the Grubb family began making their award-winning Irish Cashel farmstead blue cheese, they used Mrs. Grubb's knitting needles to perforate the wheels of cheese. Fortunately, Mr. Grubb is a retired engineer, who's since invented a machine that automatically perforates several wheels at a time with long needles.
Recall that blue cheeses don't develop a rind. This makes the task of aging blue cheese a little different. As mentioned, hoops are used to collect and solidify the curd during the forming stage. After much of the whey has been drained off, the forms are removed, and holes are punched into the wheels with long metals needles or spikes. This allows air to work with the Penicillium roqueforti spores to create the beautiful blue-green molds on the inside and outside of the cheese.
To keep the wheels from degrading or turning to mush, they are turned quite regularly. Many blue cheeses are aged for two months or more before being ready to eat.
For the artisan cheese maker, aging can also be a time to flip and rub their semisoft to hard cheeses with olive oil, or homemade wine, or a mixture of herbs, spices, and/or oils. While their cheeses age, you'll see them in the aging room, rubbing the surfaces with the utmost care.