Affinage is a fascinating mix of science and magic – the ageing and nurturing of cheese to reach its full potential. The skill and artistry of eight affineurs has been tested over the past year in the Academy of Cheese ‘Affineur of the Year 2022’ competition and last week Clare and John had the opportunity to taste the cheeses being judged at the live finals event in London’s China Exchange.
Affinage is a stage of the cheesemaking process often overlooked in this country. British cheesemakers typically age their own cheese on site, with just a few wholesalers (most notably Neal’s Yard Dairy) operating maturing rooms to ripen cheese in their own style. In Europe the role of an affineur is more widely recognised. An affineur will collect young cheeses from their individual producer for ripening in a central affinage space, ‘une cave’ or cellar. The French word ‘affinage’ means ‘to refine’. Cheese is a living, breathing substance which is constantly evolving. Delicious cheese starts with high-quality milk and good cheesemaking but skilled affinage is crucial to its final flavour and texture. Affineurs will manage the temperature, humidity and airflow around stored cheese. They will also turn, brush, wash, pierce and / or coat a cheese to develop the desired result over days, months and even years.
Over the last twelve months the Academy of Cheese has been running its inaugural ‘Affineur of the Year’ competition. Identical truckles of Quickes’ Cheddar made by Mary Quicke in April 2021 were distributed after one month to eight competitors across the country. Each truckle weighed 27kg and arrived clothbound. After that its care was in the hands of each competitor to do as they pleased, whilst Mary matured a control truckle on her farm in Devon. The team at Lincolnshire Poacher ‘poacherised’ their truckle, stripping it of cloth and coating it in the breathable plastic layer that is painted on to each of their Poachers. Whilst No. 2 Pound Street washed their cheese in coffee stout, Brindisa took inspiration from their Spanish heritage, smothering their truckle in olive oil and paprika. Neal’s Yard Dairy and Cambridge-based Rennet & Rind were both more traditional in their approach, keeping their cheeses clothbound whilst they carefully played with temperature and humidity. Constant tweaking of conditions and hands-on care led several competitors to bond with their truckle to the point of naming it!
It was such a treat for Clare and John to sample the competition cheeses side by side. Alongside wide variation in texture and taste of the truckles, there was also commonality from their shared origin. To much excitement ‘Priscilla’, the truckle matured by Rennet & Rind, was crowned winner by both the panel of expert judges and the public vote. With a deep savoury flavour and chewy texture, particularly close to the rind, this truckle had evolved away from its expected grassy tang towards mellow meatiness. Many congratulations to Perry Wakeman on being crowned the UK’s first Affineur of the Year.