The more you dig into the amazing cheese universe, the more nerdy details and complexities you meet.
Take for instance the shelves on which the cheeses mature. Have you ever thought about which material the shelf is made of? And why this is worth giving a thought?
Shelves made of wood
Originally, cheeses matured on wooden shelves as wood was all around. In some cases today, the wooden shelf has actually become part of the AOP-designation. Take for instance mont d’or AOP: This seasonal cheese must mature on spruce boards (as well as having a spruce belt around and is finally placed in a spruce box). The tannins contribute to the taste and character of the cheese (which actually is no different from wine maturing in oak barrels).
The wooden boards are washed between each production but you cannot sterilize wood as it is a porous material. Remains of cheese culture from former cheeses will always be present and passed on to the next cheese residing on the shelf. And thus the wooden shelf plays a roll in the maturing process.
Once I met the tomme cheeses below in an Alpine dairy in France. When the cheese is ‘newly born’ (as to the left) they are placed in the cellar together with the elderly and grey cheeses (to the right). This is how the mould is spreading to the newcomers which aren’t sprayed or washed to get the mould. It is already in the room!
Symbiosis of moisture and wood
I need to mention another detail. Wood absorbs the excess moisture in the room and in the cheese – but it can also pass on moisture to the cheese in case it gets too dry. This moisture exchange does play a role in defining the texture and taste of the cheese. When a cheese matures, moisture dissappears – in a controlled way. When the cheese lies on wood, the wood absorbs the excess moisture and helps the cheese to form a rind. If a moist cheese is soaking in liquid it will instead create the perfect conditions for unwanted microorganisms. On the other hand, if the room is too dry, the cheese will absorb the moist from the wood and thereby prevent it from drying out. As simple as that!
Some years ago, it was decided due to hygiene factors to ban the use of wooden shelves in the maturing of parmigiano reggiano. But soon the cheese masters discovered that the cheeses didn’t develop the same taste and soul as before. The result? Wooden boards are back.
Not all types of cheese mature on wood. Some mould cheeses or washed cheeses lie on shelves of plastic, stainless steel or on a layer of paper or cloth. It all depends on what the cheese needs in order to bloom as much as possible.