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 Let’s Talk Cheese: A Series by Chef Jess

Chef Jess Everson at Park City Culinary Institute

Is it because I love the science behind it? Is it because I love to eat it? Or maybe it’s the terroir’s effect on cheese. Terroir is the French term for earth or soil and in regards to cheese, it’s referencing the environment around the milk-producing animal – the grazing grass, the soil composition, and even the humidity in the air – that will affect the final cheese results.  Or because there are nearly 1000 different kinds of cheese (with undeniably countless variations of each of those cheeses)? OR… maybe it’s all those reasons. I will be sharing all about cheese regularly on Park City Culinary Insitute’s blog.

To the untrained palate, a cheese can be just a cheese. But let’s take a step back before we just throw that chunk of cheese in our mouths. When I begin a cheese tasting my mind is always brought back to the 2007 Disney classic Ratatouille when Remy is teaching his brother Emile how to taste cheese and Emile just tosses the whole chunk of cheese in his mouth compared to when Remy tastes it and the ensemble of flavors he is experiencing and the love affair with food that he has, but I digress. What I am trying to say is don’t be an “Emile”. Now, onto the cheese.

First, let’s talk about what makes up our taste palate because to understand tasting the cheese we first need to understand what taste is. The five primary flavors detected by our taste buds are salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami, which is a savory or meaty flavor. They are self-explanatory by themselves but talking about them all in harmony is a tad more difficult. A good cheese, like a well-composed dish, should have a balance of flavors. Imbalance and over-salting are the most common defects in less than ideal cheeses.  

Some if not most of these flavors will develop naturally within a cheese.  Salt will be added to cheese to enhance most of the natural flavors in the cheese. Sweet and sour are flavors in the cheese that most of the time begin to develop before the ripening stage even begins. The lactose within the milk is, after all, sugar and the lactic acid created in the beginning stages of the cheese-making process will help develop that sour flavor. Some cheeses will have a slight natural bitterness to them but like spicy hot, bitterness should be a part of the symphony, not the conductor. Umami is a bit of a tricky subject sometimes. Umami can be defined as mouthfeel; it has a separate chemical effect similar to salt that enables it to have the ability to either enhance or suppress other flavors.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the primary flavors, we can talk about tasting the cheese. Here are some simple steps to follow when trying to assess a cheese.

First, it would be to look at it, after all, we eat with our eyes before anything else. Looking at the cheese will give you a lot of great hints as to what is to come. You should be looking at the colors and textures as well as the rind and if possible, the interior of the cheese. For example, on Muffato, a natural blue vein cheese will be wrapped in herbs that naturally grow around the region it is produced so you will know you might pick up some herbaceous notes when tasting. Or may see an imprint of a basket in a brown rind and can probably expect a manchego.Cheese

Next would be to feel the cheese. The springiness, the resistance, the natural break or crumble to the cheese. This will help give you a clue as to if the cheese is in good condition or if it has been poorly stored.

We are getting closer; now we smell the cheese. This part can be fun yet deceiving sometimes. Cheese may have a real stinky rind yet be mellow and buttery on the palate. Or it could smell rather mild and end up being a stronger cheese. You should also make sure your hands are clean and free of any strong odors such as perfume or lotion.

Now we finally taste. Before you indulge, be sure to have a clean palate, then take a swig of water or eat a small piece of white bread or baguette. Take your time when you put the cheese in your mouth. A small bite at first ensures the cheese touches every part of your mouth as taste buds in different parts of your mouth register different flavors. Note all the flavors and try to determine if the cheese has a balanced flavor, think about the texture and mouthfeel. A good cheese’s flavor won’t diminish as soon as you swallow it, it should linger and leave a pleasant lasting impression.

I hope this crash course helps next time you are at a cocktail party and can educate a couple of people on how to properly taste and assess cheese. Happy eating!

– Chef Jess

Chef Jess Everson teaches the Professional Certificate in the Culinary Arts and the Cuisine Certificate at the Park City Culinary Institute. Chef Jess enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge of food with other people.


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