The Secret Language of Cheesemongers

ChrisatBedfordCheese / May 27, 2010, 12am
I will miss you.
I will miss you.

So a couple nights ago was the SERIES finale of Lost.  It will be no more.  Ever.  Never?What makes it more awkward is that now we aren’t going to have anything to talk about at the Shop since this one show has taken up a good chunk of our daily conversation.   But, because my mind is no longer occupied with the perils of the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815, I can calmly return to the world of blogging. (God, all of this sounds so terribly dorky.  ABC mini-dramas? Blogs? I promise we aren’t that nerdy.  Well….maybe.  Yeahhhhh….)

This week I thought I would add to the cheese-ipedia with some cheesemonger lingo that we throw around a lot.  Affineur, rennet, thermalized (although if you are a loyal blog fan you SHOULD know what that means), coagulate, hung over. So on and so forth. Sometimes people understand what we are talking about.  And sometimes, people have no clue what the words coming out our mouths mean.  But that’s another story.

I thought I would take a minute to explain what we are trying to say when we vocab word dump all over your cheese-loving face.  So let’s take a walk down dictionary lane with the word “Affineur.”

According to “Wiktionary.org,” the term “affineur” refers to “One who ages cheeses and purveys it.”  Wow.  Thanks wiki-whatever for being so broad and vague.  I mean, sure.  You gave me some tiny little basis to start on my quest for ultimate cheese knowledge.  But overall – NOT HELPFUL.

So what do we know about the word “affineur” already:

- It’s French (duh – those guys invented cheese and love to remind us of that every other minute of the day).

- They do something with aging cheeses and then “purvey” it.  (Purvey?  What century is this.  Where did we just go.)

Let’s venture further.  Together.  Cute.

The word “affiner” in French means “to refine or to make finer.”  And the word “affinage” means “ripening.”  So. If you add word A to word B…you get “affineur” – one who refines the ripening process to create perfect little wheels of cheese.

Look at this affineur.  He has great hands.  So big and strong....alright creep-o.

Look at this affineur. He has great hands. So big and strong....alright creep-o.

In other words, an affineur is an expert at aging cheese.  But why do you need an EXPERT to age cheese?  Don’t you just put a blob of crap in a mold and let it sit in the hot sun for three weeks, coagulating and getting all yummy and BUBBLY??!

No.  C’mon guys.  Why would you ever think it was that simple.

Coaxing milk into cheese is a tricky process.  Everything affects the cheese making process.  Humidity. Heat. Any sort of bacteria lurking around in the cheese cave.  (Oh yeah – that’s another thing.  Affineurs spend a lot of time in caves.  They are bats.  Yes.  They fly around the cheese with their little wings and fangs and flop around from wheel to wheel checking temperature.  But seriously – the cheese cave is simply a dark, temperature and humidity controlled room (usually around 5o to 55 degrees) designed to hold wheels of cheese that are aging.  Sometimes they are actually caves.  Sometimes basements.  Sometimes they aren’t even underground.  But that’s what we call these aging rooms – caves.)

Cheese producers are the ones who start the cheeses out – milk the cows, add the rennet, add the necessary secret blend of herbs and spices…and then they ship the cheeses off to the affineur to make sure it turns out the way they want it to be.  And good affineurs can age the cheeses in certain ways to make sure the product is totally dope and better than anything else out there.

The affineur makes sure that the humidity and temperature and bacteria present are perfect for each type of cheese.  They make sure that the rind forms in the right way.  They flip and rotate the wheels so that the butterfat in the milk gets evenly distributed.  They wash and brush certain wheels in brine or wine or beer or bat juice to give different cheeses different flavor profiles.  They decide how fast the cheese is going to age, where, on what kind of wooden plank (different types of wood draw unnecessary moisture out of cheeses) the cheese is going to sit on, and when the cheese can leave the cave and be lifted by millions of little bat wings and delicately smooshed into our cheese case.

If it wasn’t for the affineur, you could sum up the cheese making world in two words – shit show.

They are the guys who make sure that your Gruyere tastes like Gruyere and that Loire Valley goat cheeses taste so tangy and fresh and crumble just so on your palate!  They are like cheese artist ninjas who like to hang out in caves!  They are totally the Dungeon masters in D & D!

I actually have no idea who this little yoda thing is, but he pops up a million types if you Google search dungeon master...

I actually have no idea who this little yoda thing is, but he pops up a million types if you Google search "dungeon master..."

One popular example of an affineur is the snuggly and very French, Herve Mons.

Cheese experts love to sniff things.

Cheese experts love to sniff things.

Herve Mons is a third-generation cheese ager and basically a P.I.M.P. in the cheese aging game.  He has caves in the Rhone-Alps and does international distribution of French cheese!  He knows cheese better than anybody and because of him we get delicious Camembert, Gabietou, and Tommette des Alpes.  Here is a video about him that a national supermarket chain that I won’t name put out (but you can give yourself a pat on the back when you figure out who put it together.  And it features one of our favorite reps, Laure!  She’s da bomb and I’m jealous of her cheese knowledge.  And her job.  Give me a job, Herve….)

Ok. Well. I think I’ve successfully covered this topic. Pretty cool, right! So now, when someone at the shop mentions the word “affineur,” you can tell us to shut our snooty mouths up and just hand over the sample. And if you say it’s because of the blog I might love you. Because I think my mom reads the blog more than anyone (hi mom!) and I wonder if any strangers out there actually do.

So until next time loverz!

And Julia – I hear your request for RECIPES! We are working on it. We are perfecting our pictoral process and deciding on what exactly to make. But I promise it’ll be DELICIOUS. And you’ll probably get to eat it. Shweet.

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