The reality of work in the tunnel is more backbreaking than romantic. Every week, nearly 100 tonnes of cheese must be turned, washed and brushed. Unlike larger and more mechanised maturing caves, here every cheese is turned by hand. This means that the affineurs are able deal with each cheese as an individual case, varying levels of liquid and pressure applied when washing and brushing, or deciding that some cheeses need to remain unturned.
The work is intensely physical: the ‘gros pieces’ (large hard cheeses) weigh between 30 and 40kg, and are stored on heavy spruce boards which reach to the tunnel’s ceiling. They are brushed, washed (in a water and vinegar solution) and turned quickly and methodically by the affineurs, who, inevitably, tend to be strong young men. As someone who goes out of her way to avoid physical exertion, having turned a few token (40kg) Salers at a decidedly unhurried pace I was quickly relegated to working with smaller cheeses.
Working St Nectaire, one of our staples at Mons UK, became a familiar task. These un-cooked cows milk cheeses from the Auvergne are stored on straw mats, and need regular attention as they can reach their optimum maturity fairly suddenly. Each cheese must be lightly brushed by hand to remove any ‘cats hair’ mould and turned, so that moisture that naturally gathers at the bottom of the cheese, is evened out. At the same time, I would lightly squeeze each cheese, looking for the telltale ‘give’ that indicated that the paste of the cheese was reaching the smooth dense texture of a St Nectaire ready to leave the tunnel and find its way to the customer.
As an introduction to affinage, it was as good a place as any to start. The work is repetitive and must be done quickly, yet constant attention must be paid the state of each cheese. The success of this process relies on the senses of the affineur. It is very hard to describe the feel of a cheese that is ‘ready’, and it’s actually very hard to teach another person what that feels like. But give me 1000 St Nectaire to turn in a day and by the end of it I will - I did - begin to understand the subtleties of touch, smell and sight that are at the heart of successful affinage.