In a word: taste. Taste and taste and taste and taste.
People I've spoken to seem to think that there's a trick to learning about cheese, like an educational program into which they can launch. Knowing the intricacies of the different styles, milk types, and cheesemaking processes are important, of course, but the steepest learning curve around is one that educates your palate.
Cheese is like wine in this way; the best way to understand the incredible variations among the types is teach yourself to distinguish among the variations in flavor profile. And the only way to do this is to try (and try again). While it may be great to know about the minutiae of cheese, like the different rennet types, cow breeds, and ripening techniques, it's going to be the knowledge of what a cheese tastes like that will serve you most when it comes to enjoying cheese in a more profound kind of way.
The best way to start tasting is by having comparison tastings. You may have to invest a bit of money, but buy small pieces. Start with what you know, and go from there. If you love cheddar, for example, take your love further by trying different cheddars side-by-side. You'll learn how clothbound cheddars have variations among producers and regions and ages, and how traditional English styles are so immensely different from rindless American cheddars. Make a commitment to these cross-comparative tutorials and buy according to style, country, milk type, or age of cheese. That is, try to find one uniting element in the cheeses you try in order to provide a basis for comparison.
Comparison tastings highlight the small things that make some cheeses better than others. And this is perhaps the most critical knowledge of all. Tasting the best of what's around will make you more sensitive to what may be less than stellar. (And don't you deserve the very tastiest?) With a comparison tasting, you'll learn more about how to verbalize what you're tasting, too, since the differences among the cheeses will become more apparent with more cheeses that you're comparing.
Realize, though, that tasting is quite different than eating. Tasting involves full employment of all the senses (although perhaps not hearing). Touching, smelling, and looking at your cheese will inform your palate just as much as tasting itself. Eat slowly. Close your eyes. Smell your cheese and pontificate. Let the cheese linger on your palate. Swallow and wait for the finish. Do you like the cheese? Why? Is the cheese reminiscent of any other cheeses? And what words could you use to describe its taste? The more you understand about the different flavors and textural qualities of a cheese, the more you'll be able to be discriminating and educated at a cheese counter.
Most importantly, the more you inform your palate, the more you'll understand about your likes and dislikes. I've always said that knowing what you don't like is just as educational as knowing what you do like. Being an educated consumer is as empowering as it gets.
Continue reading this column and all of the great cheese books around, but taste, too, and more than one cheese at a time! It's a rare experience to actually taste with mindfulness, and doing so while knowing that it's the best thing for your personal cheese education will make even the most unassuming cheese pack a bit more punch.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Image: Nora Singley)