“It is not a lot of tools to work with – but it’s enough,” says soft cheese maturer Emi, at the entrance of one of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s five soft cheese maturation rooms. Beyond the threshold sit racks bearing dozens of squat cheeses, in various shades and shapes. There are no physical implements, as far as I can see – but then the tools to which Emi is referring are no more visible to the naked eye than the fungi and bacteria in the cheeses. “We use temperature and humidity to guide the cheeses in the right direction; to control how much moisture they contain, the kinds of rinds they grow and the rate at which they develop. These five rooms all have specific temperature and humidity environments, and we can start or stop different processes depending on where we put them.”
Emi gestures to a cheese called Dorstone, which is just starting to show the first signs of the wrinkly geotrichum rind developing on its smooth, ash-dusted exterior. “When they first come in, they are bald,” says Emi, “but there’s a healthy community of fungus in the cheese to begin with, because it’s been inoculated – in this case, with geotrichum, but other cheeses will boast different cultures, or different strains of cultures, or different combinations of cultures.” Some cheesemakers inoculate with commercial strains; others with whey left over from previous makes.
Rinds are pretty, for the most part, and they do wonders for flavour – but their primary purpose is to prolong the life of the cheese “by controlling the deterioration process of the paste”. That’s why, upon arrival at the Dairy, the soft cheeses often start off in the warmer, more humid room. “You want to grow rind quickly, because it’s stronger that way. It means you won’t get as many secondary moulds,” Emi tells me. Not that secondary moulds are really a problem, as long as the cheese is well made. “They’re harmless. They’re perfectly edible. Often, they’re even the same family of mould as the intended mould, but they’re aesthetically less pleasing,” she continues – gesturing towards some blue spots on an Elrick Log. “This is a mixed rind cheese, which is inhabited first by geotrichum, then penicillium. The blue spot is penicillium too, and it’s edible and natural – but it’s a different strain, and because mould has a bad name in the UK, customers are more inclined to question it.” Though the team could spray the cheese with specific strains of these cultures to guarantee “a pristine white rind”, their preference is to reassure customers that mould – even blue mould – is invariably a positive thing for certain cheeses.
Every batch of every cheese is different, and the rinds will mature and grow accordingly. Emi’s talent rests in knowing when and where to move a cheese, and for how long. The cheeses are moved from room to room “constantly” she says. “All the cheeses are moved according to how and where the rind is growing.” If the rind starts slipping and coming away from the cheese, it’s moved to the drying room to stabilise it. “We want the rind and the paste together throughout the process. The rind breaks the paste down and develops flavour compounds.”
If the rind grows too fast, it’s often sent to the cold room to slow. Some rinds actually grow best in the colder room: the thin, wrinkled rind of the snowy, Camembert-like Tunworth blooms best in colder conditions. St Jude also prefers colder conditions for most of the two to four weeks it takes to mature. Other cheeses are moved between rooms with different climates to “stress out the rind” with constant, deliberate changes in temperature, “creating the tight, noodle-y rind you find on cheeses like Dorstone”.
These manipulations by the cheese maturing team are among a vast number of variables that will influence the outcome. “The shape, the style of make, how the curds were cut and ladled, the cultures – all these choices people make can create completely different textures and flavours of cheese.” We’re in the fourth room now, and the array of soft, sunset-coloured cheeses is easier on the eye than on the nostrils: the smell of ammonia is overpowering. “That is what is helping to grow this peachy kind of rind, which is a washed rind, and bacterial rather than fungal: we wash the cheese with a brine solution three times a week until the rind develops. The ammonia is being produced by the cheese, and because they are all in this warm environment together that helps them grow the rind faster.”
Not all the cheeses sold at Neal’s Yard Dairy demand such hands-on intervention. Away from the five soft cheese maturation rooms, an entire railway arch is devoted to hard cheeses. Here, large, sturdy wheels line wooden shelves stretching up to the rafters. They arrive with their rinds fully formed and in some instances bound up in cloth. With these cheeses, the art of the affineur is to try them, assess the flavour, and decide what order to sell them in. Their rinds will continue to develop, but they are more of a reflection of the farm and the maker than they are the maturing rooms. Emi points to a wheel of Montgomery’s Cheddar from 2019. “It has a cloth on it, which is traditional for Cheddar – and the cheese has been rubbed with lard which creates a protective barrier to hold the moisture in the cheese,” she says. This, too, will have influenced the development of the rind.
Sometimes the rind can give away a slight variation in the cheesemaking process: Emi points toward a slightly lumpen part of the wheel, which “doesn’t look good...There’s just a patch underneath the rind where there’s less salt and more moisture, and that has changed the way the rind has developed.” In the past, producers wouldn’t have known the science behind what had worked and what hadn’t: they went by instinct and experience, says Emi, “but now microbiologists can tell us a lot more about what is actually happening at each specific stage”.
That said, scientific understanding offers no cast-iron guarantee when it comes to cheesemaking – at least the sort of cheesemaking that relies on craft, fresh, often-raw milk, and a degree of intuitive knowledge. “You can know something scientifically and still not be able to achieve it. Just like if you give three people the same recipe and ingredients, they can come up with something very different, the same goes for cheese.” Being able to sense almost imperceptible changes between milkings and between cheeses is the challenge of being a maker and a maturer – but it is also the joy.