How to be a Student of Cheese
AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK, without fail, someone will approach my cheese counter with the intention of buying a wedge or wheel of a cheese that they have tried recently. The conversation goes something like this:
“I had this cheese last week at a party and it was the best I’ve ever had, ” the customer says.
“What was it called?” I’ll ask.
“I don’t remember.”
“Oh. So…what country was it from?”
“Hmm…I’m not sure. It might have been French.”
“I see. So was it a goat, cow, or sheep’s milk cheese?
“I’m not sure.”
“Okay…was it soft or hard?
“Sort of in between.”
Needless to say, this exchange—which I’m certain happens at cheese counters everywhere—is frustrating for all involved. Yet it doesn’t have to be. Every cheesemonger has model customers who come in often to try new things and can articulate what they want and why. Here’s how to be that customer.
First, get a small notepad (or use your pocket PC). When you try a cheese, jot down its name. While you’re at it, take down the following details: country and region of origin; the milk it was made from (cow, goat, sheep, or a combination); any distinguishing characteristics (blue, washed rind, or texture, for example); why you did or didn’t like the cheese; and the date you tried it. The date can be important later in finding the cheese because great cheeses vary with the seasons. A cheese made from milk gathered in the spring, for example, when delicate new growth is erupting in the meadows, is different from the same cheese made from milk gathered in the fall, when the animals are eating dry brush.
To really appreciate cheese, it’s also worth understanding a bit about the physiology of flavor. Much of what we generally think of as taste is actually communicated to our brains through the olfactory nerves, meaning the nose is engaged. On our tongues, we experience only four basic things: bitterness,
saltiness, sourness, and sweetness, as well as a fi fth element, umami. Western taste scientists now recognize umami as a depth of fl avor or heartiness on the palate. Created by the chemical glutamate, which can be naturally occurring or used as an additive in foods (i.e. monosodium glutamate), umami has long been recognized in Asian cuisines. (Some cheeses, such as Parmigiano- Reggiano and Roquefort, naturally contain glutamate and offer that umami experience.)
Beyond these five taste sensations, everything else we experience as flavor is actually in the nose. For example, the taste we identify as “pear” is a combination of the sweetness of the fruit, the scent of pear, and the mouthfeel. Without your sense of smell, you’d be unable to distinguish between a pear
and an apple.
Food enthusiasts develop a memory for smells and then use this lexicon to frame the experience of a new cheese. Comté, for example, one of the most popular cheeses in France, is often described in terms of coffee, pumpkin, or walnuts. This is not because the cheese tastes like coffee, pumpkin, and
walnuts, but because these olfactory qualities are often present and serve to distinguish one wheel from another.
When you taste a cheese, pay close attention to what oenophiles call the “retroactive olfactory experience.” These are the sensations, the smells, that erupt when you exhale through your nose while tasting. Try this trick and pay attention to complexities— the nuttiness, citrus notes, acidity, and anything else that comes to mind, be it wet leaves, a dank cellar, or whipped cream. Write them down. After a few months of documenting, patterns will begin to emerge. You might discover that you prefer goat cheeses from the Loire Valley produced in the spring, or that you enjoy tangy sheep’s milk cheeses from Spain when the weather is warm.
More importantly, your enjoyment of cheeses will be greatly enhanced. You’ll begin to see how cheese pairings come together with food and wine, and why cheddar and apple pie is a classic favorite. When you approach a cheese counter there’ll be no guessing game. Moreover, you’ll be more likely to go home with something to really enjoy—and leave behind a grinning cheesemonger.c
Mark Trumble has been a cheesemonger for fifteen years and is currently the manager and buyer for the cheese department at A. Russo & Sons in Watertown, Massachusetts. He oversees an inventory of hundreds of cheeses and also conducts classes on cheese and wine pairing in a variety of venues.
Photo: Ogden Gigli