As anyone who has ever tried two different versions of the same cheese side by side knows, tasting cheese can be more than simply biting into it. To become a more discerning cheese consumer, you need to assess cheese properly before buying. Pay attention to aromas and appearances – and never hesitate to ask for a taste!
A cheese’s appearance can tell you a lot about the type of milk, its style and overall condition. Note the visual attributes of the cheese: what color is the rind? What color is the pate*? Cheese made from goat milk will be much whiter in appearance than cheeses made from other milk types. What type of rind does it have: bloomy, natural, waxed or washed? Are there any unusual fissures or holes? Of course, it helps to know what characteristics you’re looking for – so the next time you buy a new cheese, ask your cheesemonger about its appearance.
*Pate, pâte, or paste, a term for the interior body (non-rind portion) of cheese, described by its texture, density, and color.
The smell of a cheese conveys both its style and condition. If the first rule of cheese aromas is: “stinky” cheese does not mean “spoiled” cheese, then the second rule is: cold cheese does not reveal its full aroma. If tasting a cold cheese, start with clean, unscented, hands and break up the cheese in your palm. This will warm the cheese and expose more surface area-- both important for releasing the cheese’s aromas. Then take a good whiff and exhale through your nose.
When you taste a cheese, take your time. Breathe in, chew slowly, exhale through your nose. Allow yourself time to observe the flavor curve from the initial taste through the finish. Often, the difference between mediocre cheese and excellent cheese is in the finish – and you might not experience it until 30 seconds after first taste. Great cheese is definitely not fast food. Whether a cheese is mild or pungent, the cheesemakers’ goal is to achieve balance among the five human taste areas: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. If it tastes right to you, eat it! Trust your palate: life is too short to eat cheese you don’t enjoy.