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Max McCalman on Affinage

13920 Max McCalman on Affinage
An article written by a cheese guy would uncover more facets of the mysteries of affinage than one written by someone outside the industry. The recent article in the NY Times made for interesting reading: the pitting of the affinage naysayers and those who are strong proponents of the practice(s). The article concluded with evidence the cheeses that were given extra care were superior to those that had not; one of the cheeses in the latter group was inedible. Whether it was admitted or not there are plenty of things that happen to cheese once it is formed; some of those things are beneficial while many others can be seriously detrimental. Simple aging involves a number of processes that occur on their own, yet careful monitoring of these processes is critical.

An immature cheese has less character than a mature cheese. To bring that young cheese to where it reaches its optimal level of ripeness includes several skill sets, several beyond what the cheese maker generally provides.

While some established cheese mongers claim their cheese-handling task is simple: to avoid screwing up a good cheese, this alone involves far more than temperature and humidity-controlled storage. It is no wonder that many people don’t like cheese. Lazy and imprecise cheese handling (or simple neglect) can yield a lame gustatory experience.

When I call the Artisanal Cheese Center a “day school” for cheese it barely scratches the surface of what we aim to accomplish in nurturing our cheeses. The critical first few hours and days of a cheese are almost always left to the cheese maker. After that the “finishing” is left up to the retailer who then sells it to the end-consumer. Perhaps a better analogy is to call our enterprise a “finishing school.”

To “elevate” a cheese is not rocket science. Some people who handle cheeses seem to have the knack. Under the tutelage of one of those experts a cheese can reach its optimal peak. Without those skills and talent a cheese can easily succumb to the catacombs.

17AFF Max McCalman on Affinage
Whether we care to admit it or not, affinage is practiced by a growing number of Americans. Along with the growing appreciation for cheese here, there is a greater need for this expertise. This is one reason the American Cheese Society has endorsed a certification effort for cheese handlers. By this time next year we expect there will be several individuals who have attained this certification. A big part of this will include knowledge of good cheese-handling practices.

Cheese is a living food, a near-perfect food, but it is also a perishable food. The affineur must include safe handling in their cheese studies. Fortunately cheese has some built-in qualities which make it a safe food, safer than most other foods.

For the person who said Portugal and Ireland were newcomers in the cheese world, they should be advised that cheese has been a food staple in both those regions for almost as long as it has been in Italy and Spain, since well before any of those countries were known by those names. What is now called France is as much a newcomer as is Portugal.

What is happening with affinage here in the US is encouraging. With these developments I expect artisan cheeses to taste better and better. Good affinage speaks for itself.

Max McCalman

For more information on Max or the Art of Affinage, please visit us at

Spread the curd!
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