Frequent visitors to Adelaide’s popular Central Market will be very familiar with the well-known and respected “Say Cheese” and “Smelly Cheese” shops found next to each other, near the escalators. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the secret weapon that makes “The Smelly Cheese Shop” such a remarkable and important asset for Adelaide’s cheese lovers. We all know that the French are serious and passionate about their food, jealously guarding the appellations of their finest products and placing strict regulations around the production of them. Here, in Adelaide, there is a French woman who ensures that the great cheeses of France (and Italy, Switzerland, etc.) receive the kind of respect and care necessary to ensure that, when you buy one here, you will be enjoying it’s flavours in their prime and as close as possible to the way it’s maker intended.
Valerie Henbest, of “The Smelly Cheese Shop” presides over the only dedicated “maturing room” of it’s type, for cheese, in Australia. Many of the finest French cheeses are handed, by their makers, over to an Affineur who guides and supervises the aging process of the cheese in caves or maturing rooms. Reproducing the cave environment, the precisely engineered features of the room mean the temperature is kept static, the humidity is optimal and the air is rotated naturally without the use of fans or air-conditioners. The Smelly Cheese maturing room was developed in conjunction with Australian Affineur and foremost cheese maker Richard Thomas and the internationally famous ‘big cheese’ (I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t stop myself) of Affineurs, Herve Mons of France.
Tenderly cradling a large wheel of cheese, Valerie tells me that cheese is a living, changing food whose development is arrested by the normal process of being stored in a refrigerated cool room. A maturing room gives the product the chance to age gracefully, developing it’s full potential along the way. Further, like fine wine, fine cheese needs time to recover after traveling long distances by sea to get here and the maturing room serves as the ideal place for this process to take place.
Valerie has her own Affineur-in-training who washes the cheeses with a brine solution and turns each one weekly. Different flavours can be impregnated into the cheeses by washing them in differing solutions, with some Affineurs using brandy or wine solutions to add flavour . Valerie also reports that they respond well to a little gentle singing! Imported hard cheeses (and some special local ones) spend a minimum of 3-4 weeks in the maturing room, with some taking up to 6 months to reach their peak and others maturing for as long as 24 months to develop their unique qualities. The room can hold approximately 5 tonnes of cheese – which represents a very significant investment in time and care.
The art of the Affineur is a very old tradition in France and it takes much time, skill and understanding to guide each cheese to it’s own level of perfection. The cheese boards of Adelaide are uniquely placed in Australia to take advantage of our own development of this French practice. And the next time you are enjoying a fine, imported, aged hard cheese – spare a thought for Valerie gently crooning to her beloved cheeses!