Love tasting cheese, but lack the right vocabulary to describe the goodness?
The flavor of cheese depends on many factors, from what the animals were fed to the type of bacteria present during aging.
The many microorganisms and chemical compounds compose a different symphony each time, resulting in unique cheeses that reflect the biodiversity of land and the cheesemaker’s style.
Although there is no clear right or wrong in tasting, widening your vocabulary helps refine your palate and train your taste buds to choosing the good, clean and fair cheese. The more you’re trained on tasting the “good”, the easier it will get to perceive the artificial aromas and “off” flavors.
In other words, if you really train yourself, you can easily distinguish an industrial cream cheese from Robiola di Roccaverano. To see how, take a look at this video of Piero Sardo comparing the two cheeses:
Processed cheese does have some advantages over natural raw milk cheese: low costs, incredible length of shelf life, standardized looks and uniform textures. However, the diversity of flavors and aromas you find in an artisanal raw milk cheese is never obtained with industrial production methods.
Emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oils, food colorings, whey and sugar are often added to obtain a falsely tasty and consistent cheese. In general, the aromas and flavors perceived in a natural raw milk cheese arise from the microorganisms, herbs, animals, lactic acid and working conditions.
Take a look at the Slow Food approved vocabulary to be more fluent in cheese, and practice them at the many Taste Workshops offered at Cheese.
Balance: The balance of a cheese is the degree of homogeneity of the various sensations perceived during tasting.
Deformability: The tendency of the cheese, once in the mouth, to lose its shape or yield before breaking up.
Buttery: Cheeses with high fat content will have a buttery flavor. The flavor comes from diacetyl, an organic compound that gives butter its characteristic taste. In fact, some industrial manufacturers artificially add diacetyl to margarines or oils along with yellow colorings in order to obtain a butter-like product. However, diacetyl as a butter-flavoring agent is believed to cause long-term neurological toxicity. Buttery would be the right word to describe the Kopanisti cheese from Greece (Ark of Taste).
Soft: There are many factors influencing the softness of cheese. Usually, cheeses with high fat content end up being softer. This is because fat molecules get in the way of proteins, preventing them from packing too densely. High moisture during cheesemaking can also result in a softer texture.
Earthy: Earthy cheeses will have a rustic taste, with strong sensations of grass, soil or mushrooms. Many earthy cheeses get this flavor from the invisible bacterial flora that influence cheese during the production process. It is difficult to obtain this flavor in industrial cheeses. Traditional Caerphilly cheese from England (Ark of Taste), for example, develops a strong earthy note through aging.
Unctuous: An oily, slippery and smooth feeling on the rind. This word refers to a texture more than a flavor. It is an important word in our vocabulary to describe that fatty feel on some washed rind cheeses. Moena Puzzone (Slow Food Presidium) for example develops an unctuous layer after washing.
Nutty: Notes of chestnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. This is characteristic of many Swiss cheeses. Three compounds known as Strecker aldehydes are the main reason for nutty flavors to develop in cheeses. A range of other compounds, such as ketones, lactones, esters, alcohols, pyrazines, sulfurous compounds, carbonyl compounds, free fatty acids and salts have also been reported to contribute to nutty flavor. Cheddar and California’s Dry Monterey Jack (Ark of Taste) have a nutty flavor.
Sweet: Lack of acidity, a fresh milk aroma, and a pleasant odor. Mascarpone and Ormea cheese from Piedmont (Ark of Taste) are considered sweet.
Piquant: A pungent, sharp, almost spicy flavor typical of Gorgonzola and blue cheeses. Mountain Pasture Castelmagno (Ark of Taste) becomes piquant with aging. Another example is Bryndza Podhalańska from Poland (Ark of Taste).
Veining: As a result of the growth of the fungus Penicillium roqueforti, blue cheeses develop veining during ripening. With the presence of a little oxygen, the fungus easily germinates and grows on the curd. In cheeses made from raw milk, this fungus likely occurs naturally. In pasteurized production, veining is usually obtained by adding the bacteria to cheese through injection or spraying. The areas without veining are often called “blind spots”.
Silky/Creamy: A smooth feel with a rich taste and easily melts in mouth. Creamy cheeses are excellent to use in cooking. In industrial facilities, stabilizers such as carob bean gum and carrageenan are often added to obtain this feel. Serra de Estrela cheese from Portugal (Ark of Taste) has an excellent silkiness, due to the natural fat presence and high moisture.
Tangy: A very sharp, distinctive, and sour flavor which is usually associated with high levels of acidity. Lactic acid causes the refreshing sour taste. If the cheese is too sour, it has produced an excess amount of lactic acid. Goat milk cheeses, such as chèvre, often have high tangy notes. Cotija cheese from Mexico (Ark of Taste) is tangy with notes of pineapple. Canestrato Pugliese (Ark of Taste) also has a fairly tangy flavor.
Piney: Cheeses that are wrapped in barks will have a piney or woody aroma. This is because of a group of compounds known as terpenes. Many woods naturally contain terpenes and when wood is in contact with cheese, terpenes leak into the cheese, leaving a herbaceous aroma. Raw Milk Vacherin (Slow Food Presidium) has a strong piney aroma since the milk is traditionally heated on a forest wood fire.
In a nutshell, knowing your vocabulary for tasting cheese helps you identify the flavors you like and decide on the best pairings. But more importantly, it helps you recognize a good, clean and fair product blindfolded, if you are well trained.
Cheese is an event organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra. To discover what we do, visit slowfood.com.
McSweeney, P. L. H. Cheese problems solved. Cambridge: Woodhead, 2007. Google Books. Web.