Monday, March 28, 2011

Tasting Cheese - so the flavour wont get lost

The theme of this weeks discussion is .... Cheese! On Tuesday evening, March 29 at the Ginger Hop in NE Minneapolis, a co-worker and I will bring our World of Cheese to a sold out room of 40 people.  I couldn't be more excited.  In preparation for this event, (Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance,) I thought I'd share the tools and understanding that makes cheese an amazing and tasty food.

Note: Cheeses are very individual and specific.  These are general guidelines.  No one has to follow these if you don't want to.  The idea is to elevate the taster's consciousness and the result will be more flavour and enjoyment from your food.

Cheese has a lot of history.  It's function started as a way to save the milk from the summer throughout the winter.  There are stories about following early recipes, about which caves and planks the cheese is aged on to impart its particular flavour, stories about black nosed highland sheep gettin it on with the lowland red nosed sheep...I basically just gave that story away, didn't I.  Nutritionally cheese has calcium, proteins, fat and minerals.  The bacterium in cheese helps the body absorb and digest the calcium, if its raw milk cheese, which is much more tasty.  The key to eating cheese is moderation.  If you eat too much your belly will puff out and digetive system will grind to a hault.  BUT, in moderation your tongue can enjoy the flavours and textures and your body will use the nutrients.  Win-win.

Now, for the tasting...
Name it

"Why isn't there a special name for the tops of your feet?"
Lily Tomlin
People forget this, but cheeses have names.  This tells you about where it originated, it can tell you what type of milk the cheese is made from, (goat, sheep, cow, raw).  There are names for the categories of cheese, (gouda, alpine, soft ripened,) names for the types of rinds, (washed, natural, bloomy, rindless).  All of these names help define what processes the cheese has been through.  Some names are protected by the country of origin.  When something is called a roquefort, you know it is French bleu, with milk from organically raised sheep's, Aged +3 months on Oak Planks in the Mt Cambalou Caves...right? A no-brainer. 


When sampling cheeses it is a total sensory event.  Some cheeses you smell before they get to you, others you really have to get face to face with it.  There is a surprising lack of correlation between the smell and the taste of the cheese.  This ties in your smell detectors with your taste buds.  Inhale and try to detect a few characteristics about the cheese.  Aroma adds to the complexity of the food, which can, in turn, add to your enjoyment of eating it.

Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.
Laurence J. Peter
This step is gathering information about the cheese based purely on superficial observations.  Check out the rind.  Is it hard, ashed, does it look like crocodile skin, or is it covered in wax? What does the interior look like? Snowy white goat cheese, smooth and dense like a gruyere, does it have hairy green veins or is it running all over the plate?  Note textures and colors. If the rind is cracked or goopy, the bloom is flat and not fuzzy looking anymore...then its past its prime.
Touch it
As a store selling cheese, the largest variable in the condition of your product is how its handled.  Some are delicate and others are made to roll down mountain sides and be alright to eat. At the Cheese Shop, before a customer asks me what's ripe today, I give the soft ripened cheese a light press with my fingers.  So cheese should just give in and leave a dent, if it does its way overripe and probably tasted ammoniated.  If you press on the pad of your palm, below your thumb, a ripe soft cheese should feel like that.  Structured, yet tender.  Semi-firm cheeses I like to give a quick pinch by the rind.  Assess what kind of give its giving me.  Hard cheeses are just hard, but some are creamier and others are fractured and crumble, (Saenkanter Aged Gouda, Parmiggano Reggiano). With the bleus, by touch is where you can tell if its a creamy bleu, (St. Agur, Montagnolo, Cambazola,) or a crumbly bleu, (most of the rest).  How does the knife cut the cheese?
Taste ... finally
When you're tasting cheese, let it sit on your tongue for a bit.  This allows the cold cheese to warm up, and releases the flavours.  When you gobble down cheese, all you taste is creamy, this way you have a chance at catching the subtleties.  Some people close their eyes when the food goes in their mouth.  This cancels out sensory distractions and concentrates on the tongue.  Does the flavour evolve? Does it have a bitter finish or smooth?  Is it assaulting, or approachable?  How does it feel in your mouth?  Does it dry it out, or make it water, (6-15 year cheddars have this effect on me.  Its sorta fun in a way).
Lastly, as with most tasting events, write down what you like and didn't like.  By the time you get to the 4th sampling, you forget about the first.  Don't worry, this happens to everyone.  Add in a little too much wine at the Cheese tasting and then its a lost cause.  Everything we've brought up here is something to write down, (ahem! like the name).  Write down things that will remind you of what it tastes like.  You don't have to be studious about it, but otherwise, and I see this all the time at the Cheese Shop, you start over from the beginning each time you go. Worse things have happened, but you may as well make progress with your palate.
Thanks for sticking with me.  There are a hundred other things to say about cheese.  If you're interested in signing up for a cheese class contact Surdyk's Cheese Shop and ask when my class is - wink! Otherwise tootle around on these sites and browse to see which ones you're attracted to.
Wish me luck.  Thanks for reading.