All things cheese in France

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Raw Milk and Affinage...are they sacrosanct?

There are two issues that continuously present themselves in conversations about cheese, which never find resolution.  

Are raw milk cheeses better than pasturised milk ones?

Is affinage (aging) an added value beyond the cheese making?

And while the world's problems won't be solved by answering these two quetions, in the cheese world, they never seem to go away.  You find many different opinions and some fervent advocates on both sides of the fence, each one with their own viewpoint worth considering. This of course points to a point of departure for the discussion about what makes cheese - cheese and what makes up the profession(s) that surround it.

The central question about whether milk in its original form, i.e.; with all its inherent chemical makeup versus milk that has had all that 'good' stuff removed and then a controlled version added back in, makes for a better end product

I have my opinions but have had it challenged a few times, particularly with pasterised milk Époisses, which of course only proves to me that there is no finite answer. This was brought home when I read an interview with a well known fromager here in Paris - Martine Dubois, a fromagère in the 17th arrondissement who always has amazing cheeses.  She is an interesting person who advocates for better understanding and dialogue within her industry.  When asked her opinion about the debate about raw milk versus non, she said:

"The question isn't really there. Sorry to bring down a myth, but a raw milk camembert can be bad and a camembert from microfiltered milk can be excellent. Here we are speaking particularly about Camemberts, but all cheeses are affected yet not all make as much noise. It is a war that makes you forget the main objective: the taste of the product. Also, we cheesemongers need to be able to be supplied with a constant quality: raw milk cheeses are more difficult to maintain and the quantities do not always match the demand."

Another point of contention was whether affinage is a real profession and is it separate from being a cheesemonger? These have come under some heavy discussion of late by a lot of cheese people in the US.  As to this question of affinage, which technically meaning refinement or finishing or as the master Max McCalman defines it "the art of aging cheese",  Madame Dubois had another pretty pointed opinion which was echoed by Randolph Hodgson, the owner of Neal's Yard Dairy in the UK. 

The question to her was - What is a fromager-affineur which means one who not only sells cheese but ages cheese. Here in France, I would have said that a fromager is not the same as an affineur.  One sells cheese, but does not necessarily practice the art of affinage. They could be one in the same and those who do both would provide more advantages to the customer.  According to Mme Dubois however this misses the point. She said:

"Another myth ... refining (aging), is the maturation of cheese. Today, almost no fromager (cheesemonger) ages cheese in his cellars. I have three caves, each at different temperatures and humidity levels, which are used sometimes to delay or finish aging, but cheese is much better left in its original cellar to mature where it is at home with the right humidity, the right temperature, the right environment and the suitable expertise. Moreover, and to go even further...we (fromagère) are cheese merchants, we do not make cheese, that credit goes to the producer."

I think a bit of splitting hairs is going on here. According to Mr. McCalman in his article The Art of Affinage in Cheese Connoisseur this month, affinage is the second step in cheesemaking regardless of who practices it. 

"Great affineurs make memories and poor affinage destroys the promise of greatness."  

A cheese not only needs to be maintained properly, but it must have started with superior milk, cheesemaking techniques and hygiene. Affinage is the process of monitoring the development of a cheese and none of those steps without the other can make a superior product. In otherwords, affinage can not make a great cheese out of a poorly made one. But assuming all that is in place, proper affinage practiced by an artist in the trade will allow; coax; nuture what was set in motion during the cheesemaking process onto the road of achieving the cheese's full potential.

So in my opinion, regardless of whether the milk was raw or pasturised, if the milk was of high quality and the cheesemaker practices his craft with the upmost attention, a cheese has the potential of being taken to its highest level of expression by a cheesemonger, fromagère or affineur who practice at least in some part, the art of affinage.