I've been hearing the same question for years: "What's the best way to learn about cheese?" The answer will make your taste buds happy.
Taste. But what exactly is tasting, and what makes it different than eating?
Tasting employs nearly all of the senses. It’s a mindful, analytical experience. As you taste, pay attention to the similarities among cheeses that you like. Being able to verbalize your preferences will make you a more informed cheese buyer when you approach a daunting cheese counter. It's all about educating your palate so that you can define what you like. And you'll learn what you like by tasting a ton. In the process, by learning what you don't like.
Tasting is a step-by-step process:
- Look at your cheese. A stark white cheese is probably made from goat milk, while one that is deep yellow is a rich and buttery cow’s milk cheese. Sheep milk cheeses tend to fall somewhere in between. Cheeses with white, fluffy rinds will probably taste like mushrooms and sweet cream. The area directly beneath the rind on some cheeses appear creamier and softer than the center, indicating its high level of ripeness.
Do the cheeses you prefer the most have hard, funky-looking rinds, or smooth, nearly waxy exteriors? Ask yourself these visual questions and make note of the answers. Analyzing the rind, the color of the inner paste, and the visual characteristics of cheese texture will inform your palate. If you can verbalize what you like visually, you'll be able to hone in on what styles of cheese you like most.
- Touch your cheese. Pay close attention to the texture of the rind and interior. Is it high in moisture, or dry and crumbly? Is the inside chalky, but the rind soft? The more detail you take in, the more you’ll enjoy the nuances of each bite. Again, make note of what you like best. Soft cheeses tend to be younger and higher in moisture, while harder cheeses, by nature, are aged longer and are lower in moisture. These are important features of any type of cheese.
- Smell your cheese. Smelling is more important than actual eating, since the tongue can only detect bitter, sour, sweet, salty, and umami. The nose, on the other hand, carries anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 different smell receptors. Think about what you’re smelling: is it fruity, grassy, or gamey? Creamy, nutty, or tropical? Sure, your tongue may tell you that the cheese tastes sweet and slightly salty, but it’s the nose that picks up on the details, thus heightening your experience of the cheese.
- Now, take a bite. Let the cheese linger in your mouth and analyze what you’re tasting. Breathe out through your nose, which will stimulate the retronasal passage and trigger sensation and reaction in your brain. As you swallow, wait for the finish, and think. Did you like the cheese? What words would you use to describe it?
Having an educated palate is the best way to make the most of cheese. And that, ultimately, is as important an education as any.
(Image: Nora Singley)