Cheese is a living product and must be treated as such, with many factors informing the care of the various varieties made today. An understanding of the seasons, how the animals are fed and cared for and the microbiology of cheeses is essential for consistent success. Each cheese must be checked individually – inspected, touched, squeezed, sniffed – to determine the best treatment. The right materials must be chosen – wood, straw, paper, stone, earth, steel – to keep the delicate balance of friendly bacteria. Humidity is added or removed to improve rinds and control moulds. Temperature is tweaked to encourage or slow development. Cheeses are turned, scrubbed, brushed, wiped, washed or wrapped according to their needs.
Different cheeses demand different conditions and this job means juggling the nuances of artisan production that change, not just from one day to the next, but between each individual cheese. A lifetime of experience is required to truly manage these variables, built on constant dialogue with producers, to determine exactly when each cheese has reached its peak. But the result is well worth the effort – complex, layered flavours, the very best texture from the outside in and wonderful fragrance.
The art of refining cheese does not have the same history in Britain as it does in countries like France, where the profession has a long history. Some will significantly alter and improve the nature of the cheese, while others focus on storing it correctly, gently coaxing it into its best expression. While the number of these dedicated shopkeepers may be small in the UK, their passion is great.