Cheese maturation: art or science?

In November 2016 a robot called Tina the Turner burst onto the British cheese scene and – inevitably, with that name – into the British media. Headline writers had a field day with the pun-tastic robot which, by automating the turning of Cheddar wheels, seemed set to revolutionise the process of maturation – or affinage, to give it its French name. Clips of Tina had a touch of sci-fi about them, as she cruised shelves of Cheddar wheels, her red light blinking, flipping 100 big cheeses every hour. Yet the reality is that, even with the invention of Tina and robots like her, the work of the cheese maturer has not really changed in hundreds – even thousands – of years.  

“There are better facilities now, but the fundamentals remain the same,” says Gareth Hewer, who leads the team that matures and tends to Neal’s Yard Dairy’s hard cheeses once they reach the maturation arches. “We’re still washing some cheeses, brushing others, playing with temperature and humidity.” And for the time being, they’re doing the turning by hand, cheese-turning robots like Tina being a relatively rare phenomenon still, particularly in the UK.  

Here, farmhouse cheese “has historically been matured on farms,” says Gareth. “Maturation was never separated into an individual practice, as it is in France and Italy.” There, hard cheeses – think Comté, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino – have, for centuries, been handed to dedicated maturing facilities at a young age. L’Affinage or la stagionatura is its own discipline, distinct from cheesemaking yet closely related: affineurs/stagionatori and cheesemakers are in constant communication. Yet in Britain, Neal’s Yard Dairy is one of only a handful of companies that act as both cheesemongers and cheese maturers. In addition to storing and selling cheese, they also grade it and offer feedback to cheesemakers. In many instances, they take the cheese at a young age and mature it according to their own instincts, experience and knowledge. 

There are some basic rules, says Gareth, “and we know the underlying science behind it. But to a certain extent we have had to learn through trial and error how different British cheeses evolve, how far we can push them, how to adapt maturing methods to different styles, milks and makes.” Some cheeses, such as Cheddars, are tasted and selected at an early stage by the Neal’s Yard Dairy buying team. They then arrive ready for sale, having been aged to full maturity on the farm. This makes Gareth’s job one of maintenance rather than intervention. The wheels are turned regularly to prevent any build-up of moisture (of particularly significance in soft cheeses, because of the higher water content, but still vital in hard cheeses) and brushed to remove cheese mites. “It’s my job to keep them happy and stable,” he says. Others – such as the soft cheeses St Cera and Riseley, and the hard cheeses Mature Red Leicester, Mature Lancashire and Brunswick Blue – require a little more hands-on involvement from Gareth or Emi Kinoshita, his colleague on the soft cheese side of things. 

“The Brunswick Blue comes to us about a week old, before it has a rind. After a series of experiments, we found that if it sits in a warm environment for around eight weeks, that creates a healthy rind with the texture that we and our customers are looking for. After that, it’s put into a cooler environment to stop the breakdown,” says Gareth. The Riseley and St Cera, meanwhile, are washed-rind versions of long-time favourites Wigmore and St Jude. Though Neal’s Yard Dairy continues to store and sell Wigmore and St Jude as they arrive, some of the younger cheeses are kept back to be ‘washed’ a briny liquid. “This alters the pH of the outside of the cheese, and encourages different moulds to grow and interact,” says Gareth, “resulting in different flavours and textures.” Once they reach a stage where Emi or Gareth deem them to be at their best in terms of flavour and texture, the cheeses are ready for sale or cold store.  

Again, this is a delicate interplay between art and science. Temperature and humidity is tightly controlled – an advantage purpose-built facilities like the Dairy’s Arches have over the caves and cellars – and the appearance and pH of the cheese are regularly recorded. Yet as helpful as that is, “that data doesn’t tell us anything without people to tell us whether or not the like the cheese. That is why we taste so much, and taste together as a team, and talk regularly to our customers about flavour.” One of the hallmarks of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s approach to maturation is quality control, Gareth continues. “That emphasis on tasting means you have a good sense of what that cheese should be like – or could be like. It helps you to connect a defect you recognise through tasting with a potential decision or mistake that occurred upstream that might have caused it.” Doing that is a fundamental part of working in maturation at the Dairy, he continues, but it is phenomenally difficult. “The number of steps involved in making and maturation are enormous.” 

Assessing the quality of a cheese and how best to ensure it achieves its full potential is not a skill that can be learned from a book. “At the current level of understanding of the microbiology of cheese – which is still relatively simplistic – you would never be able to know enough to base maturing decisions or making suggestions off the back of it alone,” says Gareth. 

It’s just as well: “I was terrible at science at school,” he laughs, but he has “a finely tuned instinct, and Neal’s Yard Dairy occupies a world where the ability to taste and evaluate will always be of foremost importance.” Of course, maturation is both science and an art, and you could take either route, “but the best is both together,” Gareth continues. “If I had to pick one, I’d say you’d get better results by treating it as an art.” And there’s not a robot in existence that can do that.