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Careful ageing


The fine art of cheese ripening

Cheese ripening -- the love is in the detail:

The French know how delicious cheese should taste. Often it has first undergone months of ripening. Affinage, the French word for the ageing of cheese, is a perfect blend of traditional craftsmanship and modern technology.
And Hervé Mons is the guiding star when it comes to excellent taste. We asked him to explain his philosophy of ageing cheese.

Good cheese is impossible without superior raw materials.


The world's best varieties of cheese come from a small village on the border between the Auvergne and Loire regions in the heart of France.


Affinage, the French word for the ageing of cheese, is a perfect blend of traditional craftsmanship and modern technology. We asked Hervé Mons, the company’s CEO, to explain its philosophy.
Early in the morning as the sun casts its first rays over the raw Auvergne mountain range, Hervé Mons’s minivan negotiates the ascending switchbacks. He drives fast - very fast. It almost feels like you’re racing along in a Formula One car. The Frenchman laughs quietly and reassuringly: “There’s nothing to be afraid of, I drove in the Paris-Dakar Rally for 20 years.” The Paris-Dakar Rally is the toughest off-road rally in the world. Hervé Mons steers his car like he steers his cheese empire: with confidence and sensitivity. Mons Fromage in Saint-Haon-le-Châtel is known far beyond the borders of France. It’s the world of affinage that is so appreciated by gourmets, and the 53-year-old is apparently their guiding star when it comes to excellent taste. A Comté or Reblochon ripened in his cellar has as much in common with the plastic cheese found in supermarkets as an IKEA bookshelf has with a custom-made piece by Antonio Citterio.
On this particular morning, Hervé Mons is on his way to his milk supplier high in the mountains of Égliseneuve. In this remote region live Josiane and Henri Bapt, who for three generations have been raising Salers, an old French cattle breed known for its delicious milk. Obtaining this milk is hard manual labour. Following the natural cycle, cows start giving milk once they’ve been stimulated by a calf. Milking is done twice a day, seven days a week from April to November. Each milking produces 280 to 300 litres, or nearly 40,000 litres per month, which corresponds to about 4000 kilograms of cheese.
1. A cheese harp carefully cuts the curd. 2. In the historic lanes of Saint-Haon-le-Châtel, time seems to have stood still. 3. The cows are milked twice a day.
During the day the 60 Salers graze on the region’s lush meadows while their milk is curdled in a vat at 33°C, then skimmed by hand, pressed into round moulds and the moisture expelled.
Hervé Mons often comes here to interact with his suppliers (among others). “A close, friendly relationship is important,” he finds. His philosophy: “Good cheese is impossible without superior raw materials. These are milk producers who control the way their cows live and what they eat, which in turn affects how the milk tastes. We work with 130 raw milk farmers in France and Switzerland who produce milk according to the old tradition.” While he talks he pours a shot of still-steaming milk into a cup and tastes: a slightly sweet aroma of honey and nuts. It’s the basis for Saint-Nectaire Fermier, the highly aromatic raw milk cheese of the region.
Hervé Mons believes that every little detail in the production chain matters: “In addition to milk quality and cheese production, the climatic conditions during ripening also play an important role,” he explains. The heart of his company is an abandoned 185 metre-long railway tunnel in which five large wooden train cars store 100 tonnes of cheese at 94 percent humidity and 9°C. “Maison Mons” has three such tunnels. Hervé Mons talks about handling the cheese during its ripening with deep emotion and passion - almost as though he were talking about raising his own children. “For the flavour and consistency to optimally develop, each cheese requires very special care,” says Mons.
“The cheese must be carefully rubbed with salted water, brushed and turned. Two to three million microorganisms scurry around on the rind. It makes a difference whether the cheese is stored on wood, straw, paper or stone. All this affects its flavour, its aromas, its consistency,” says the expert who observes, monitors and controls the process together with his 28 employees.
All five senses are called into play, even hearing. Thumping on the rind helps to identify the cheese’s stage in the ripening process. It takes from four months to three years before the cheese wheel is mature, as which time it is beautifully packaged and sent off to urban gourmet meccas.

Who is Hervé Mons?


He's one of the best affineurs in France. His cheese is known to gourmets around the world. His cellars contain well over 100 tonnes of cheese. Hervé Mons, age 53, directs “Maison Mons” together with his brother Laurent. The two multiple prize winning affineurs have built a cheese empire that currently serves over 20 countries and has offices in Roanne, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, London, Stockholm and Madrid. That explains why this nature-loving Frenchman doesn't seem at all out of touch. During his rare days off, his favourite activities are cross-country running and mountain biking.

Where is Saint-Haon-le-Châtel?


Saint-Haon-le-Châtel is a beautiful, idyllic medieval village on the border between the Auvergne and Loire regions encircled by volcanic mountain ranges. The famous Volvic mineral water comes from this region.

A heavenly taste of the French way of life. Savoir-vivre.


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The quality of their products has long earned “Maison Mons” a worldwide reputation - without the aid of a huge PR machine. “We don’t need it, we’d rather invest in our quality,” says the Frenchman and a wreath of laugh lines appears on his face. “Word-of-mouth advertising is much more effective.” He makes a modest and natural impression, even though he's become a global player in the gourmet industry.
Personal recommendations by satisfied customers also have a synergistic effect that works to his advantage. This talkative businessman loves to interact with people. He’s happy to share his expertise with other cheese specialists, resulting in invitations to Japan and the U.S. where he regularly passes on his knowledge of affinage.

Isn’t he afraid someone could watch what he does and copy him? On the contrary: "In each country the cows live in different climatic conditions. This affects the raw material, the milk, because the cows are fed differently.” He continues: “This also has implications for processing. The heat in southern Italy is somewhat different from the heat, for example, in Switzerland. We can learn from one another and thus create the best cheeses ever made.” Hervé Mons’s dream is to found an international association of cheese specialists who - like sommeliers - regularly meet to share their expert knowledge.
He’s especially keen on sustainability. “I want the people who base their production on a similar philosophy but also enjoy good products to have a greater influence so that we can all choose to live more responsibly on our planet.” One small step in that direction would be if consumers would choose fewer mass-produced items and learn to appreciate fine quality - even if it’s expensive. What would be in it for them? A divine taste of the French way of life: “Savoir-vivre.”

Good storage is everything.


And it's just as important in your home

On wood


Wood, straw and paper are all composed of cellulose, which absorbs water. Professional affineurs age their hard cheeses on wood because wood draws out the most water.

On straw


Straw also absorbs water, but not as much as wood. That’s why it’s mainly used for soft cheeses, in this case Vacherin D’Areche, Gournoir and St. Nectaire.

On paper


Of the three, paper absorbs the least water, making it ideal for soft cheeses with a higher water content. However, it reduces the storage life after purchase to three to four days. At home as well, it’s best to store cheese in special paper and keep it in the vegetable drawer. Take it out of the fridge an hour before using. It tastes best at 16°C.
3
million microorganisms ensure that the milk turns into cheese.
56
percent water is the most that a hard cheese may contain. Soft cheese can be as much as 67 percent water.
5000
is the number of different types of cheese that exist worldwide. France is traditionally among the market leaders.
1,15
million tonnes of cheese are exported by Germany each year. This includes all types of spreadable cheese.
40kg
is the weight of the heaviest cheese wheels such as Comté, a tangy raw milk cheese.
23kg
is the average amount of cheese, consumed by Germans each year.

Look for additional inspiration in more stories and regional cuisines.

© BSH Home Appliances Ltd 2016
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