Cheese has been tickling taste buds for millennia. From ancient shepherds to modern-day affineurs, the evolution of cheese and its tasting techniques is a story rich with culture and character. Our forebears didn't just create cheese; they crafted history. Imagine medieval monks, adding brine and alcohol to their dairy, or Renaissance cheesemakers experimenting with different moulds. Each era brought a new chapter to the cheese chronicle, and we're here to savour every page.
Do you want to be able to taste cheese with the same attention to detail that affineurs such as I do? Well, you’re in luck. Today, we're exploring the proper techniques behind cheese tasting - an experience that’s as flavourful as it is fun. So, let's cut through the rind of tradition and dive in.
Understanding Cheese Families
Let's meet the cheese family, shall we? Each member brings its own personality to the table:
- Soft Cheese: Like Baron Bigod, these cheeses age from the outside in, their bloomy rinds hugging the creamy goodness within.
- Firm Cheese: Mayfield and Moreton and other firm cheeses are aged just enough to be distinct but not too hard-hearted.
- Hard Cheese: Enter Sparkenhoe Red Leicester and Cornish Kern, a testament to the bold flavours and firm textures of the well-aged.
- Blue Cheese: Meet The Duke and Cropwell, where mould creates magic, weaving sharp, salty notes with creamy, crumbly textures.
- Washed Rind Cheese: Think of Rollright and Yarlington, this cheese is bathed in brine or alcohol during maturation for a pungent twist.
The Art of Taste Assessment
By learning to taste cheese methodically, you'll not only gain a greater understanding and enjoyment of the cheese, but you'll also acquire the skills to articulately describe it using more evocative vocabulary.
Our perception of flavour is shaped by an interplay between our senses of taste and smell. We have five key areas of flavour:
- Sweetness: Sensing sugars such as fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, maltose and others.
- Sourness: Tasting the acids commonly produced by bacteria, which can create positive sour flavours such as the tang in lemon juice or vinegar.
- Saltiness: Balances out against bitterness and generally enhances the flavours around it, particularly sweetness.
- Bitterness: The right amount of bitterness cuts through rich and sweet flavours perfectly.
- Savouriness (or umami): It approximates fat and protein, which provides slow-release sources of energy.
When tasting cheese, we first pick up on initial flavours that hit us right on the tastebuds before we’ve even taken the cheese out of our fingers. This is where one of the five key areas of flavour will reveal itself to you and maybe have a special accent to them, such as a fruity sweetness or a nutty bitterness. From here, more complex flavours start to enter the fold as the initial flavour starts to subside. A good example of a complex flavour is Old Winchester, which evolves from a cheddar tang into a frankly dazzling caramel butterscotch finish. Divine!
Using All Your Senses When Cheese Tasting
Have you ever heard of the phrase, “you eat with your eyes?”. Taste and smell may be the ways in which we determine flavour, but there are other senses we should pay attention to as well.
Before eating, inspect the rind and observe its appearance and texture. A hard, moulded rind looks, feels and smells much differently than, say, a washed rind that has been soaked after the fact in beer, brandy, cider or whatever concoction the cheesemaker chooses. These conscious decisions affect the entire experience of eating the cheese, so why not take it all in and appreciate the immense effort the cheesemaker has put in?
The same goes for the interior of the cheese. Touch the interior to get a feel for its texture, also known as the paste, which can give clues as to what you can expect the mouth feel of the cheese to be. Will it be a crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth texture like Spenwood or Wensleydale, or a soft, rubbery feel like a Barn Bigod? Find out by feeling out the paste.
Next is the smell, and though most people give every cheese a sniff, I’m talking about a deep smell. Smelling cheese deeply is important because it tells us the cheese’s intensity, ammonia presence and what aromas and notes we can unearth. Start by sensing the cheese’s intensity by holding the cheese at arm’s length and slowly bringing it towards your nose. The further away you can smell the cheese, the more intense the cheese is.
When smelling cheese you are trying to identify other aromas, such as dairy smells, fruit or floral smells, vegetable or leafy smells, minerals or chemical smells. If you smell ammonia, it’s usually a sign that a cheese is overripe and spoiled. Whilst these aromas don’t specifically determine the quality of a cheese, many cheeses have common profiles that you will get to recognise and look out for as you smell and taste more of them. As you smell more cheeses, you’ll be able to distinguish between different smells and build a deeper understanding.
Cheese Tasting Etiquette
Now, for some classy cheese manners:
- Room Temperature: Cheese needs to breathe. Let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before indulging.
- Clean Palate, Clear Mind: Sip water or nibble on neutral crackers to reset your taste buds.
- Cutting with Care: Remember, cheese equality matters! Ensure each slice has its fair share of rind and cheese.
- Strength Sequence: Organise your cheeses from mildest to strongest, so that you don’t get overwhelmed by a powerful blue.
How can you do this without tasting it? Well, age is often a good indicator of a cheese’s potency, but if this is still a bugbear, discuss it with your local cheesemonger. At Rennet and Rind, we’re certainly happy to construct a good order for your session of cheese tasting, as well as suggest additional cheeses that would fit nicely into your batch. Come and visit us at our store in Stamford, Lincolnshire and we can give you further tips on how to taste cheese like an affineur.
And there you have it, folks! Whether you're a cheese newbie or a seasoned connoisseur, there's always a new flavour to discover, a new texture to explore, and a new descriptive word to use. Embrace the cheese adventure with enthusiasm and a healthy appetite for learning, and you’ll see artisan cheese in a new light.