Developing a Cheese Palate
Developing a cheese palate takes time, and it takes complete immersion in a vast variety of dairy. When I started working at Cowgirl Creamery at the age of 20, my palate was quite simple: I could taste salty, fatty, and sweet notes in cheese, but much else was lost on me. How could I taste the nuance of a cheese's flavor and texture if I only had it once before? My curiosity and my appetite got the best of me in those days. I tasted each and every wheel we cut open on the counter, because I wanted to know the product from batch to batch.
The most exciting thing about specialty cheese is that there is still a controlled amount of variety from each batch of cheese from the cheesemaker. Cheese made with summer milk tastes different than cheese made with winter milk. The way the cheesemaker washed each wheel of cheese in the cave may vary slightly, and thus the population of cheese microbes that contribute to the flavor of the wheels may also slightly vary. It's the human and nature element that makes tasting specialty cheese so exciting.
Cheese is a complex fermented food, and microbiologists are still uncovering its complexity every day, which means that even if a cheese is absolutely consistent in its flavor profile, it still has enough nuance to make the tasting experience exciting.
How to Taste Cheese
Trust Your Sense Memory
We all start somewhere on the tasting spectrum. The amazing thing about tasting cheese is that it includes smell and aroma, and we have all been exposed to our fair share of aromas in our lifetime. A cheese can taste of hay not because you have nibbled on a stalk yourself. It can taste of hay because you've walked through a field, or a barn filled with haystacks.
When I first stated seeking descriptors for cheese flavors and textures, I would close my eyes and blurt out the first thing that came to mind from my memory. If in my mind's eye, I saw an apple or a stream, I knew I could say that the cheese had apple and mineral flavor notes.
Taste and Smell Everything that is Edible (Do Not Eat Wax or Plastic)
I once learned from a French cheese maker that the best way to taste a tomme is to break the paste of the cheese, smell the aroma that is released, and then spread the curd on your tongue and breathe out. I would also taste the edible rind and compare it to the interior paste: this will give you a lot of insight on the character of the overall wheel, and how the exterior affects the interior.
Know Your Cheese Style
Once you become familiar with the variety of cheese styles, you can understand how the structure and make of each cheese falls into a flavor and texture profile. This will help provide parameters for your tasting, so you can get past the basic flavors, and dive into the nuance.
American Bloomy Rind Tasting
Today, we are starting with the bloomy rind category, all cow milk varieties. It is a vast category, and consists of Camembert and Brie-styles, as well as triple creams (bloomies with extra butterfat content from the addition of cream before the milk sets to curd). We tasted three American bloomy rinds that are rich with thick white rinds of penicillium candidum. I often find that the American bloomies are more heavily rinded then their traditional European counterparts. That balance between rind and paste is a science unto itself: traditional French styles have a way of exhibiting a orange hue as they age, which is an outside indicator that the cheese is à point: at its full aroma and flavor. That type of ripening is not as common with American styles because their rinds are thicker.
Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery
A triple cream cheese, the flavor is straightforward and rich, with notes of melted butter and white button mushrooms. The texture is smooth, and spreadable.
Cottonbell from Boxcarr Handmade Cheese
This whole cow milk cheese is denser in texture when it is medium young, but can become quite gooey with age. The rind has a certain spiciness and minerality to it, whereas the paste is more tangy and less buttery than Mt. Tam.
Devil's Gulch from Cowgirl Creamery
This whole cow milk bloomy rind is deeper in color than the other two cheeses, which often reflects the cows have eaten large amounts of green foliage that increases the beta carotene in the milk. It is also washed in a Muscato wine and sprinkled with crushed heirloom peppers. Because of the wine wash, the cheese is slightly higher in acidity, and thus a little tangy and fruity in its flavor, like a sweet, young white grape. Because there is not as much butterfat in the cheese, the grassy characteristics of the milk are more flavorful. It is still unctuous in texture.
All photos by Jess Hitt.