By Harold McGee
Ripening is the stage during which microbes and milk enzymes transform the salty, rubbery, or crumbly curd into a delicious cheese. The French term for ripening, affinage, comes from the Latin finus, meaning “end” or “ultimate point,” and was used in medieval alchemy to describe the refining of impure materials. For at least 200 years it has also meant bringing cheeses to the point at which flavor and texture are at their best. Cheeses have lives: they begin young and bland, they mature into fullness of character, and they eventually decay into harshness and coarseness. The life of a moist cheese like Camembert is meteoric, its prime come and gone in weeks, while the majority of cheeses peak at a few months, and a dry Comté or Parmesan slowly improves for a year or more.