Cheese Tasting & Appreciation
Having a well-developed sensory vocabulary goes a long way in helping to describe the nuances of cheese flavors to customers. In addition, telling the “story of the cheese” and using clear, enticing descriptions can enhance the tasting experience. California cow’s milk cheeses offer a range of flavors, textures and styles. Using sensory words to describe the cheeses will help when communicating about them and in determining personal preferences.
The Flavor Dynamics of Cheese
When we eat, we use all of our senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. These senses translate into our responses to the appearance, aroma, texture and flavor of what we eat. The language we use to describe the flavor dynamics of cheese refers to these sensory experiences.
When first looking at the cheeses, note the nuances in color, ranging from pale white to ivory, to buttery, golden or blue-streaked. Notice the moisture in the cheeses, causing them to range from soft and spoonable to firm or crumbly. Words that describe appearance are: soft, runny, hard, crumbly, dry, moist, smooth, rough, crusty, moldy, white, yellow, ivory, orange.
The aroma of cheese is created by many factors, including the cow's feed and the butterfat content of the milk, as well as type of starter culture and enzymes that the cheese recipe contains. The length of time the cheese has been ripened or aged helps to intensify its aroma, as does the amount of salting it receives.
Before putting a piece of cheese into your mouth, sniff it as you would a glass of wine. Take the first bite, breathing a little air into your mouth so the aroma fills the whole nasal passage. Notice any scent that distinguishes the cheese. Aroma and taste will combine to give you the flavor of the cheese. Words that describe aroma are: mild, delicate, milky, fresh, creamy, salty, sweet, strong, pungent, earthy, moldy.
Cheese ranges from very soft to very hard, with semi-soft, firm, and hard somewhere in between the two extremes. The higher the moisture and milk fat of a cheese, the smoother the mouthfeel. In addition to smooth (Monterey Jack, high-moisture Mozzarella, Queso Panela), cheese texture can also be creamy (Mascarpone, Fromage Blanc, Crescenza, Teleme), crumbly (Feta, Cotija), very hard (Dry Jack, Aged Gouda), or stringy (low-moisture Mozzarella, Oaxaca). Texture is also an indication of ripeness with many soft-ripened bloomy rind cheeses; the riper the cheese, the softer or creamier it will be.
Rub a tiny piece of the cheese between your fingers to feel the difference between soft, semi-hard and hard texture. Notice the moisture or dryness of each sample. Don’t chew and swallow quickly, but move the cheese around in your mouth to expose it to all your taste buds. Notice that some will coat your mouth and others will leave a clean palate.
Words that describe texture are: soft, firm, hard, moist, runny, crumbly, granular, creamy, buttery, rubbery, waxy, oily, chalky, spreadable.
Food has both flavor and taste. You may find that a cheese tastes quite different in your mouth from the way it smelled when you held it to your nose. Flavor is the quality that is usually a blend between taste and smell sensations. Taste refers to the sense perception we receive via the taste buds: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Food scientists now accept a fifth taste, umami, the savory taste often associated with L-glutamates naturally occurring in foods such as mushrooms, meat and seafood, as well as in milk and cheese. Drying or fermenting foods seems to concentrate their “umami” flavors. Notice umami when comparing a young cheese to its aged counterpart.
Slowly working the cheese around your mouth, notice which tastes are apparent first, then which tastes develop later and which, if any, linger. Words that describe taste are: sweet, mild, milky, buttery, delicate, salty, sharp, acidic, tart, tangy, lemony, bitter, nutty, piquant, smoky, yeasty.