Savor the Story
A good cheese tasting has great narratives
A dairyman has a distinctive smell. I grew up on a dairy farm in England and was reminded of this olfactory memory during a recent cheese tasting that took me back to childhood teatimes with my grandfather and his after-milking scent. Ah, such is the charm of a well-guided, engaging tasting—it gives cheese context and offers us an experience, not just a flavor sampling.
The “tutored tasting” (British vernacular) that prompted my reverie was held in a converted loft in London and starred a wheel of Salers AOC, a mountain cheese made by the hardcore dairymen of the Auvergne region in France. I barely knew the cheese, but in the space of an hour, I learned of men battling gravity and driving rain, perched on single-leg stools at four in the morning to milk their cows before beginning a day of cheesemaking. Along with my cheese-retail colleagues, I sampled a typical Auvergne breakfast of porridgelike soup made of Salers, bread, and water and washed it down with a glass of red wine. We also savored large pieces of the cheese, comparing it with others made in a similar way in different parts of the world.
All the while, Salers conjured for me a deep sense of damp mountain turf—one accompanied by the particular musk of dairymen. I found myself transported by the story and sensations of the cheese.
However much you love a cheese, its taste is better and more memorable when the story behind it comes to life. I have attended and hosted guided tastings to suit every cheese lover, and I have even conducted these events at singles get-togethers and bachelor parties. Tutored tastings conducted by a cheese expert are the ideal format, but don’t be shy about organizing a do-it-yourself tasting at home. If you love cheese, the preparation is easy and interesting.
Here are some tips for getting it right:
Limit the parameters. Instead of a broad category like Italian cheese, for example, choose a tighter focus such as southern Italian or Italian Pecorino. The comparison of the cheeses will be more meaningful, and there are more chances to include rare cheeses.
Think carefully about the number of cheeses served. An in-depth comparison of two cheeses might be too selective, and a busy board of fifteen too confusing. Generally, I find that a collection of six to eight cheeses is about right.
Search for interesting background information. Online cheese retailers don’t have the benefit of handing out taste samples, so they rely on good stories to sell a product. Look to them for interesting cheese bios. Alternatively, start a discussion of the cheese on an online forum (such as culture’s Facebook page). You might get a firsthand account of a cheese or photos of it being made that you can share at your tasting.
Plan food and wine accompaniments accordingly. They shouldn’t compete with the cheese or the parameters of the tasting. Good cheese and wine retailers will be able to help with recommendations.
Lead the tasting. No matter what cheeses you serve, help guests appreciate them by conducting a full sensory evaluation of each type. Look at a cheese’s texture and color. Touch it to note the consistency. Take a whiff and describe the scent. Finally, taste a small amount of the cheese and let it soften in the mouth, slowly releasing its flavors.
Relax and enjoy. After all, with a gathering of friends and a table full of good cheese, there’s little that can go wrong.