For those of you who only buy cheese in vacuum packages, rinds removed, you may not realize what a full wheel of aged cheese looks like, just out of its subterranean dwelling-place.
For a natural-rinded cheese, “home” is a dark stone or cement cellar, 5 feet under ground and a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit, 85 to 95% humidity. Aged cheese loves to hang out here, perched on a plastic grid shelf or (more traditionally) a hard pine slab.
Over the course of 60 days, this cheese will transform from a moist and soft curd cake to a dry-on-the-outside, smooth and firm creamy paste on the inside consistency, with the beginnings of its complex taste profile emerging. The longer it remains in the cellar (or cave, as we call it), the more the flavors deepen, the moisture continues to migrate out of the cheese, and the paste turns from sliceable to shave-able/grate-able. We love our cheese at about 6 to 9 months old — what great character and mouth feel!
The rind of the cheese is host to a wide bouquet of beneficial microflora, ranging from various Geotrichums, Mucors, and Sporotrichum aureum to Oïdium aurautiacum (I know, you didn’t really ask for this detail)….they are all key to helping cheese have a nice long shelf-life, and for flavor development. Don’t worry about their scary-sounding names, your food contains lots of microflora and they are a good thing:) In visiting lots of cheesemakers and cave environments, as well as talking to other cheesemakers, we’ve really come to appreciate the value of a colorful and sturdy “skin” on the cheese. It’s the essence of artisanal cheese. Learn to love it!
Thanks to Marc Druart, my professor at the Vermont Institute of Artisanal Cheese, for the identification of surface molds and cultures. He is highly knowledgeable and a very skilled cheesemaker.
This is Marc’s collection of photos for aged cheeses:
Many of them are likely older than 120 days, whereas the natural-rinded Gouda in the top photo, fresh out of our cheese cave, is only 80 days old.