Just over 12 months ago (where on earth did that time go?) I introduced you, my lovely readers, to Valerie Henbest, from The Smelly Cheese Shop, and her very special maturing room which was designed in conjunction with the internationally noted affineur Hervé Mons. Mons is a third generation affineur who set up his first shop in the Rhone-Alps in 1983. Other shops quickly followed, he was joined in the business by his brother Laurent in the 1990’s, awarded the prestigious “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” in 2000 and now his cheeses appear in the finest restaurants round the world, as well as on some royal tables.
Last month Hervé made his first ever visit to Australia where he was guest international judge at the Sydney Royal Cheese and Dairy Produce show, after which he travelled to Adelaide to spread the word on his craft. Along with some of Adelaide’s splendid cheese makers, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend an evening with Hervé among the racks of rare vintages in the Max Schubert Room at Penfolds Magill Estate Cellars, being walked through a few of the finest examples of his craft paired with some of Penfolds best handiwork. With Valerie as his translator, the genial Hervé shared his knowledge and experience generously as we blissfully worked our way through a selection which included the Hervé Mons Saint-Sauveur, the Hervé Mons Roquefort and a triple tasting of the classic French favourite, Comté including Hervé’s own affinaged Comté.
I recalled an article I had read in the New York Times from October of last year suggesting that affinage was something of a fad and a way of extracting more money from the consumer, but listening to Hervé it is clear that his commitment, skill and understanding of the product is no deception. His staff are involved in every level of the cheese production of his suppliers. He contracts his own veterinary surgeon to watch over stock, supervises and checks the feeding regime of the cows, oversees the milking routine, ensuring that the milk comes from the selected herd and is only from particular milking sessions and assists in the management of hygiene. Most importantly of all, for the producers, he pays for the cheese as soon as it is made. Many of his producers are small suppliers who would otherwise have to hold on to their product while it is maturing and then find a market for it. By contracting to sell their product to him, the growers know they have a reliable and secure income.
Hervé is able to select the best possible of the available cheese products which he then stores in his caves encouraging optimal ripening and maturing using temperature, turning, brushing, scrubbing and washing, thus developing the texture, aroma, rind and taste – “letting each cheese speak”. This all takes place in and old railway tunnel which he has transformed and which now houses nearly 100 tonnes of about 190 different cheeses, each cared for by hand and none sent out before they are at or close to their peak. Here in Adelaide we can enjoy his products at this peak because of the facility which Valerie has developed at The Smelly Cheese Shop and the confidence Hervé has in her skills.
The art of affinage is gaining momentum in Australia as consumers become increasingly more interested in their food, where it has come from and how it was made. While we have some of the nations best cheese makers right here in South Australia (yes, Kris Lloyd from the Woodside Cheesewright, I’m looking at you) we can choose to enjoy some of the very best the rest of the world has to offer too. If you are thinking of treating yourself this weekend, Valerie Henbest has shared this stunning recipe using Hervé Mons Roquefort cheese (available at The Smelly Cheese Shop) and which also makes the most of the fresh figs which are ripening now. I think this one will blow the socks off any dinner guests you might be expecting and would make a brilliant first course or an amazing dessert. Make sure you use a good quality dark chocolate of at least 70% cacao and if using for dessert, try using reduced balsamic for the drizzle, or honey.
Recipe: Black Figs filled with Roquefort