To taste a cheese isn’t simply to eat it. To really taste cheese, and learn about cheese, there’s a lot more involved than popping it into your mouth like those little Totino’s pizza bites and swallowing. It’s a process. And the cool thing about it is that once you start to really taste cheese, you start to learn a lot about yourself and what you like and dislike. The same can be said of wine. When I first started tasting wines, I thought it was totally ridiculous to hear people talk about how the wine smelled like cherries, stewed tomatoes or leather. Seriously? It’s wine. Or so I thought. You can really train your nose to smell all these things, and with cheese, you can do the same with your taste buds.
As I am sure you all know, your sense of taste is very connected to your sense of smell. The tongue itself is limited in what it can taste, but with smell, you can detect all kinds of nuances. It’s kind of awesome actually, to think that it’s two senses working together that make up an awesome experience. Another thing is that everyone’s palette is different, which is why some people like things others don’t. You may have had a horrible experience with say, mushrooms, and the smell of a more earthy cheese puts you over the edge. You’re not gonna like it. Like me, for instance – I don’t eat meat, so some of the washed rind cheeses smell a bit too much like meat for my liking.
So don’t feel as if you should like something that I like. And the words I use to describe things are totally pulled from my own experiences. So remember all of this is subjective. The most important thing is to be able to identify what you enjoy, so you can get more of it! Here are some guidelines for tasting, and we’ll use these as we go along in the future.
I’ll be posting my tasting notes, so if you want to try cheeses later on, you’ll have a reference point.
First and foremost, before we even start tasting, know that cheese should be at room temperature, and left out from the fridge for at least an hour before tasting. That way the flavors aren’t muted by the cold at all. It’s usually helpful to pick cheeses that are similar in some way, so you can start to detect differences. Maybe try cheeses made of the same milk but different ages, or different milks but the same category. I write everything down so I remember. Keep a notebook, or tasting cards somewhere.
1. Background: Get a background on the cheese, which will help you start to identify certain similarities in groups of cheeses. What country is this from? What type of milk is this made from? How long has it been aged? What family does this fall into (i.e. what kinds of bacteria or molds are influencing the cheese?)
2. Look at It: You want to look at the cheese first, obviously. But give it a good look, not just a glance. You want to notice the overall presence of the cheese – the whole package.
- Rind: Pay attention to the rind. What type of family does this fall into? What color is it? Does it look edible?
- Paste: Is the paste (the inside of the cheese, inside the rind) runny? Firm? What color is it? Is it glistening? Dull?
- Cream Line: The cream line is the line right inside the rind. It’s basically a sign of a ripening cheese. Is it runny? Thin? Thick?
3. Touch It: Pick it up, and see what you notice.
Some adjectives that may help: Crumbly, runny, dry, firm, sticky, smooth
4. Smell It: What does it smell like? I mean really, really smell like? What does it remind you of? You can use any adjective you want here. Smelly socks? Feet? Mushrooms? Wet Hay? No, you’re not going crazy. The easiest way to describe cheeses (and wines for that matter) are based on things that you are reminded of. They make it more real, and allow you to remember things better. These smells develop based on many things – what the animal that produced the milk ate, how and where the cheese was aged, the natural smells that the bacteria produces, the type of cheese, if its rind was washed – a ton of things.
Some adjectives that may help: earthy, musty, pungent, sweet, floral, fresh
5. Taste It:
Finally, taste it. But chew it up a little, and coat your tongue. Let it sit for a few seconds, and then swallow. Notice what you’re tasting. There are a few things to ask yourself: What does it feel like, and what does it taste like? How long does the flavor last in my mouth? Do I like the rind or not? What does the flavor remind me of?
Some adjectives that may help: (mouthfeel) buttery, chalky, smooth, soft, grainy, toothsome, spongy, squishy; (flavor) acidic, earthy, grassy, citrusy, clean, buttery
Side note: The question is always: “Should I eat the rind?” Yes if: it is a bloomy rind cheese (white, fluffy looking rind), if it has no rind (duh), if it seems like it’s okay to eat. No if: it’s foil. (If you had to think about that, I don’t know what to tell you…), if it smells like ammonia, if it’s very hard, if it’s waxy or weird. In all honesty, nothing is really going to kill you. But some stuff is just nasty to eat.
Okay, so here’s an example for you. My favorite cheese ever: Gruyère.
Country of Origin: Switzerland. Mountain cheese, from the Alps. Cooked and pressed cheese.
Type of Milk: Cow
Age: 10 months
2. Look at it:
Rind: Not edible. Thick. Dusty, thick, hard
Paste: Slightly yellow paste, natural rind, semi-hard
Cream Line: None
3. Touch It:
Touch: Slightly move-able, firm, slick
4. Smell It:
Smell: Delicious. :) Nutty
5. Taste It:
Taste: Nutty, sweet, mild, slightly salty, mouthfeel is slightly grainy