Cheeses are like children. They need to be raised right.
And this is where an affineur comes in. Very much a French concept, an affineur is someone who ages cheese – or raises them, to realise their full potential.
In order to do this, it is necessary to have a wide knowledge of cheeses, to recognise which will age well – ageing develops the flavour and aroma of a cheese, and strengthens its structure – and to know exactly how to treat it to bring it to its prime.
Sometimes, a cheese producer acts as his own affineur, making and then ageing his own cheeses.
More often though, an affineur is an independent artisan, like Pierre Gay.
Gay is a third generation affineur – his grandfather opened Fromagerie Gay, the family cheese shop in Annecy, in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region in southeastern France, in 1935.
“In my grandfather’s time, there was much less traffic to the shop. “Today, I don’t even have enough cellar space to keep all the cheese in!” he said, on a visit to Kuala Lumpur last year. He was in town spreading the cheese love at cooking classes and a special raclette dinner at French Feast in Tengkat Tong Shin.
Pierre Gay, at his family fromagerie.
* As the (cheese) wheel turns
Cellar space is important to an affineur, because that’s where the cheeses are aged after he or she receives them from a producer; the cellar – or cave, in France – is usually directly under the affineur’s shop.
Natural materials like wood, stone and straw are used to create the ideal environment in which cheeses can be aged, and cleanliness standards are the highest you can imagine.
And a cheese cellar must have different areas for different cheeses, because the good bacteria and mould that is good for one cheese may be anathema to another.
Much like a parent, there are many little daily duties to be carried out for the cheeses. If a cheese is too dry, it must be moistened. Too wet? It needs to be tenderly dried off.
Temperature is important, as is humidity, and both must be carefully controlled. Some cheeses must be washed or turned over every day, others every few days.
Anybody can do all these small things, says Gay, but the important thing is understanding why you are doing it, and the proper time – that is where the expertise comes in.
“I must be able to recognise whether cheeses have short- or long-term potential,” he said.
Some of the precious denizens of Gay’s cheese cellar at the fromagerie in Annecy he inherited from his father.
Gay sources and buys his own cheeses directly from various farms. On occasion, he has made great discoveries while climbing a mountain, seeing a little chalet and discovering that the people there make a wonderful cheese.
“But we have expanded also, to buy cheeses from around Europe,” he said.
And of course, the important thing is knowing when a cheese is perfect for the eating – a window that can span just a day, or a few.
Also, it’s a labour and so it needs love. “To many people, cheese is a commodity that operates on economies of scale. But I work with some small farms that have only five cheeses,” he added.
“Cheese is my life, not just my job.”
* Becoming an affineur
Many young people begin in the trade by working with a cheesemonger. To train as an affineur, you have to understand microbiology and chemistry, to understand just how cheese is “milk, transformed”, as Gay puts it.
Aspiring affineurs can learn all about the craft at the Écoles Nationales d’Industrie Laitière (Enil, or the French National Dairy Schools); Gay himself studied at the Enil in Aurillac, in central France, when he was 18. He says that each of the Enil schools specialises in one or two particular areas of cheese-making.
“When you understand one cheese, you will understand all, because you learn about the technicalities,” said Gay.
“At the same time, you can have all the technical knowledge, but every day is different, and so every day there is a new mistake.
“So it will take about 10 years to be a good affineur, a further five to 10 years to be a master.”
Gay with some of the cheeses he has aged, lovingly taking care of them in the labour-intensive process.
Why didn’t he go into cheese-making himself?
“I love it, but I don’t want to wake up at 2am every day to milk the cows!” said Gay.
Nonetheless, his subsequent jobs did see him putting in 12-hour days. After he graduated, Gay worked in factory labs in Chabert and Annecy, to learn all about the microbiology of milk, and how to analyse it.
Soon though, he was summoned home by his father, to help out at the family shop.
* The fromagerie family
“Family, it is like a hand – all five fingers are different, but they are all together on the same hand. And it is easier for us to work together, for information to be translated, because we are a family,” he said.
He took over Fromagerie Gay in 1989, but his father has remained in the business – he will be 89 this year and was still making cheese deliveries last year!
In 2011, Gay received the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) title, the highest honour for a tradesman in France.
The accolade hasn’t turned his head – to be a good affineur, he feels that the ego must be set aside.
“I have so many young people working with me now, and they love to learn, and to taste. There are no stupid questions in this business.
“If I am one of the best cheese masters in France today, it is because of the work that has been done before me, because all my life my father and grandfather explained cheese to me.”
Gay contemplating life and cheese – which may be the same thing, to an affineur. Photo: Pierre Gay/Dominique Lafon
Gay’s work below-ground is only half the story. The other half of the tale is above, in Fromagerie Gay itself.
It is here that the stories of the cheese must be translated for customers.
“Part of my job is to translate the person into the emotion, to know what kind of cheese is going to make that person happy,” he said.
“Think of me as a cheese psychologist!”
That translation must include taste and texture, as well as all the little back stories of each cheese.
“In my father’s and grandfather’s time, it was different – my father is a friendly man, but it was not done then to visit other cheese shops,” said Gay.
“Now, it is easy to go and talk to other cheesemongers. You may both sell Comte, but it will not be the same because of the different ageing, being from different farms.
“So there is no need for competition,” he said.
While the MOF title is life-long, Gay will not be resting on his laurels.
“It’s more like it raises the stakes of what I do – I can never allow my standards to drop. But it’s a good challenge – there are not so many affineurs, and we need up uphold our reputation.”