You don't have to be a certified cheesemonger to know how to talk cheese. At the California's Artisan Cheese Festival, Lassa Skinner, retail director of the magazine Culture: The Word on Cheese, spoke about how to conduct a cheese tasting on a basic level. Like wine, it begins with the varietal (of milk), continues to the body (the rind and cheese's texture), and ends with sniffing and savoring (the flavor). According to Lassa, when in doubt about the name of the cheese you recently had at a restaurant or party, describing these four components will help your cheesemonger guide you in the right cheesy direction.
There would be no cheese without the milk! Each milk imparts a different flavor and texture, and with more tasting, you'll be able to distinguish the varieties without even looking on the label. Here are the types of milk you should know:
- Goat: Grassy and sour, popular goat milk cheeses include chèvre and crottin.
- Cow: Cow's milk is used in most cheeses you know and love like brie, gouda, and blue cheese.
- Sheep: Nutty, sweet, and tangy, pecorino romano and manchego are just a few of the most popular sheep milk cheeses.
- Water buffalo: Mozzarella di bufala comes from the milk of the water buffalo.
- Blended: Some cheesemakers mix the milks in cheese combos like goat-cow or cow-sheep.
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If you're guilty of cutting off the rind, stop! Unless it's a wax rind, assume you can and should consume it. It contributes to the overall flavor of the cheese and provides a textural contrast to the creamy interior. These are a few common rinds:
- No rind: It's tricky, because sometimes there is no rind. Such is the case with fresh cheeses like chèvre, mozzarella, ricotta, queso fresco.
- Wrinkled rind: The exterior of these cheeses look sort of like a brain, with a wrinkly exterior caused by geotrichum candidum, a specific strand of yeast used by cheesemakers. Crottin is a popular example.
- White rind: A thick white rind signifies penicillium mold in cheeses like brie, camembert, and triple cream cheeses.
- Wax rind: Used to preserve the cheese, wax rinds, like those on Dutch gouda cheese, should be cut away before consumption.
- Natural rind: There is no mold or other additives. Exposure to the air dries out the outside of the cheese and forms a natural rind. A few examples include tomme and stilton blue cheese.
- Washed rind: Get ready for a nose-hair-curling stench! As the name implies, the cheese is washed in some mixture of brine, beer, wine, and/or brandy. This encourages bacterial growth and forms an orange exterior in cheeses like époisses or taleggio.
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Texture The texture of the cheese can refer to two things:
- Visual consistency: When you cut open the cheese and look inside, does the cheese appear soft (fresh cheeses), semisoft (brie), semifirm (gruyère), or hard (parmesan)?
- Mouthfeel: Find an adjective that describes the texture as you taste the cheeses, such as spongy, creamy, curdy, crumbly, grainy, or crystallized.
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Flavor Describe the flavor of the cheese using these techniques:
- Smell vs. flavor: Like wine, sometimes the scent and flavor are synonymous, and other times, they are complete opposites. Before tasting the cheese, give it a good whiff and compare the scent to the taste.
- Basic adjectives: Start with basic flavors to describe the cheese, like salty, sweet, sour, or acidic.
- What the animals ate: Especially when it comes to softer, younger cheeses, the flavor of the milk shines through and tastes like whatever the animal ate, whether it was grass, hay, or wild flowers. Sometimes the animals will get a hold of wild produce in the pastures, like Spring onions or mint.
- Similes: Does the cheese smell as stinky as a gym locker or a sweaty pair of socks? Does the flavor remind you of beef broth, a stick of butter, toast, or even walnuts? The fun of tasting is to liken the cheese to memories of foods or strong smells you've experienced.