In cheese-obsessed France, the role of the affineur, or cheese ager, is as essential as that of the cheesemaker. "To put it at its most basic, the cheesemaker makes the cheese, while the affineur gives it taste," says Bernard Antony, the cherubic affineur for such Michelin three-star chefs as Alain Passard, Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Senderens and Alain Ducasse.
The work of an affineur largely happens in the cave, or aging cellar. Antony himself owns four aging cellars in the Alsatian town of Vieux-Ferrette, with various temperatures and humidity levels. (Soft cheeses require more humidity than hard cheeses.) The affineur stores newly made sheep, goat and cow cheeses in the cave, carefully monitoring the growth of flavor-producing molds on their surfaces. Depending on the type of cheese, he may brush the rind with salt or wash itwith brine (as with Munster), brandy (as with the odoriferous Epoisses) or wine. One of the affineur's most important tasks is to keep turning the cheese on its wooden plank or bed of straw; this distributes the butterfat throughout the cheese, and in the case of soft cow's and goat's cheeses, allows the damp parts on the bottom to dry.
Though it's unusual in a country where artisans often follow in a family tradition, Antony was not born into the business. As a young man, he managed a small general store in Vieux-Ferrette, where he sold vitamins, sundries, food staples and ladies' foundation garments. He also carried a few cheeses. One day, a customer who was a dairy farmer, François Semdlin, offered to introduce Antony to "the Pope" of affinage in Paris, Pierre Androuët, the man who had made the job of affineur into a revered profession. Androuët turned the 35-year-old Antony on to the world of artisanal cheeses and the secrets of aging.