21 August 2019

Affiner, affinage, affineur

Affinage is the French term for the process of bringing cheeses to their optimal degree of maturation. It's one of the important processes in cheese-making. The person whose profession or trade is "ripening" or "aging" cheeses is called un affineur or une affineuse. The time it takes to affiner a cheese can vary widely, from a period of a few days or weeks to as long as several years. The methods and results vary depending on the characteristics of each variety of cheese.



Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano), for example, is ripened — dried, in this case — for at least 12 months and for as long as five years. The goat cheeses of the Loire Valley region are sold in several stages of ripeness: frais (fresh), demi-sec (medium hard), and sec (hard, dried).

Cantal cheeses, one of France's first and oldest cow's milk cheeses — the Romans discovered it when they conquered Gaul 2,000 years ago — are ripened to several different stages before being marketed: you can get cantal jeune (young, ripened for 30 to 60 days), cantal vieux (aged for at least 240 days), or cantal entre-deux (medium, "between the two" other styles, ripened for 90 to 210 days).



For cheddar cheese, which was supposedly developed in England after Romans took the cantal cheese-making method there, those stages of ripening are called mild, sharp, and extra-sharp in North America. In the U.K., the corresponding terms seem to be mild, medium, mature, and extra-mature.

This is a long post about cheese-ripening because Walt and I use a lot of Parmesan cheese in our cooking, but we would also like to use the cheese called Pecorino Romano, which we don't have a good source for here. I'm sure you can find it in Paris and other big cities, but not out here in the countryside.

Pecorino Romano is a cheese made from ewe's milk. The ewe, if you don't know, is the female sheep, as the cow is the female bovine. So in Italy and Europe, Romano cheese has to be made from sheep's milk. It is aged and grated like Parmesan, but with a different taste of course. (On the left, pasta with pesto and my ripened and grated sheep's milk cheese.)

Well, in the U.S. it's not so simple. American Romano cheese can be made from sheep's milk, cow's milk, or goat's milk. It's an industrial product.

We can easily find ewe's milk cheeses here in our Saint-Aignan supermarkets. It dawned on me a couple of months ago that I might be able to "ripen" a soft, mild piece of ewe's milk cheese until it really dried and hardened enough to be grated like Parmesan cheese. The ewe's milk cheese we get is mostly made in Basque country and the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France.

The ewe is called la brebis in French, and the cheese is called fromage au lait de brebis. One commercial cheese is called Etorki, and it's aged for 50 days before being sent to market. Another is Ossau-iraty, a farmstead AOC/AOP ewe's milk cheese that is ripened for 80 to 120 days, depending on the size and weight of the cheese being ripened. Other famous ewe's milk cheeses are Roquefort and traditional Greek feta...

My affinage experiment worked. I can't remember which ewe's milk cheese I bought — it might well have been a piece of Etorki. I cut a thick slice of it and just wrapped it in a paper towel and put it in the refrigerator. Then I basically forgot it for a couple of months. It could "breathe" through the paper towel, and refrigerators are notorious for drying foods out. At the end of this fridge-based affinage, the chunk of cheese had really dried and hardened. It didn't go moldy. As you can see, it grated the way Parmesan does, and take my word for it, it tasted good in pesto on pasta.

11 comments:

  1. Several years ago, just like you, I found that way to harden Swiss cheese in the US without it getting moldy. The cheese sold under plastic wrap is almost too soft to be grated and gets moldy very fast when opened. But, as you say, when wrapped in a paper towel the cheese breathe and after a while dries up nicely; it can then be stored in a container without any chance of getting moldy.

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    1. I have had goat cheeses like Selles-sur-Cher wrapped in paper and stored in the refrigerator go hard and dry after a certain amount of time, so I didn't see why it wouldn't work with brebis as well. I bought some cheddar a while back, and I didn't like it much. So I've wrapped it in a paper towel and put it in the fridge, hoping it will be better grated after it dries out.

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  2. Bravo pour ces infos ! On voit qu'en fin gourmet vous ma√ģtrisez bien le sujetūüėČ

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  3. Very interesting experiment -- glad it worked for you!
    And, now that I just learned from you that Romano is sheep's milk cheese, I learn today that maybe what I get to eat, here, in the U.S., is not LOL. I'll be taking a closer look at the grocery store, from now on.
    My favorite Cheddar cheese, to date, was one aged four years, bought in Vermont, at an educational farm, called Shelburne Farms, not too far from Burlington. To me, the texture is a little more crumbly, and the flavor has a buttery finish... really good. It's rare to find Cheddar aged like that, around here.

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    1. I think Vermont cheddar is one of the best cheeses made in the U.S. Do you have any cheese shops or a Whole Foods store near you? You might find good Vermont cheddar there.

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  4. Cantal will always be my favorite!

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    1. It was so interesting and so much fun to see how Cantal cheese was made at that dairy farm down near Salers. It was certainly not an "industrial" cheese. I also really like Comté cheese, and I plan to go over to the eastern Franche-Comté region one of these years to see how it is made. Cantal is more like cheddar, and Comté is more of a Swiss cheese.

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  5. I really enjoy posts like this where I learn something new and get some more French vocabulary. I had no idea that that's why cheddar is mild to extra-sharp. Your pasta dish looks great!

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    1. I only recently came to understand what mild, sharp, and extra-sharp mean when applied to cheddar cheese.

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    2. To corroborate what you said about cheddar, I found this on the web : Sharp is the term that indicates how cheddar changes in flavor and texture as it ages. Mild cheddars are aged 2 to 3 months, sharp 6 to 9 months, and extra-sharp 1 1/2 to 2 years old. As cheddar ages, it goes from mild to tangier with more complex and deeper flavors.

      Does the word sharp only applies to cheddar?

      For some reason, probably the orange color, I stayed away from cheddar until I tasted some, very pale so probably very young, that I really liked. Il ne faut jamais dire fontaine je ne boirai pas de ton eau!

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