How to Taste Cheese

When it comes to food, everyone knows the tastes and textures they like or don't like. Some can't stand onions and others pick out the green peppers. Some like their cheese hard, blue and strong and some prefer soft brie. That's just the way it is. But I've often wondered, if you like cheese, just how should you really taste cheese?  Put another way, how does one develop a taste for cheese? Wine aficionados have a whole ritual around the tasting of wine - there's the art of pouring, then the swirling which develops the "nose," and all of this leads to the actual tasting, which sometimes involves spitting the wine back out. This ritual  engages all of the senses and develops an experience more complex than simply stimulating the taste buds. So when it comes to cheese, what are the tricks?

I was perusing Chez Pim's fabulous food blog the other day, and I happened upon her account of a class put on by Cowgirl Creamery which featured Jean d'Alos, a French cheese affineur. Here's Pim's description of his cheese tasting advice:

Mr. d'Alos recommended a multi-sensory process of tasting a cheese, starting from looking at the cheese, the color of the rind, the texture, considering whether those were appropriate for the type of cheese being tasted.  Next we rubbed a small amount of cheese between our fingers, feeling the texture and smelling the fragrance coming from the cheese heating up between the fingers.  Then each of us tore off a small piece, put it on our respective tongues and pressed it against the palate the mouth to aerate the cheese without biting into it, slowly letting the taste of the cheese disseminate throughout the mouth, tasting the flavor, the mouthfeel and the texture of the cheese in the mouth.  Then, finally, we were allowed to actually eat the cheese, chew, swallow, and all.

Here's another account of the same class posted by Anne over at The Cheese Diaries. The multi-step process both blogs describe draws you into the experience of tasting in a way that focuses all of your senses. Like so many other things in life, it seems that the process involves focusing one's mind (the ritual aspect helps with that, no doubt). Once you're able to do that, you've esssentially cleared a space for yourself to really notice tastes and textures, which leads you down the path toward developing a vocabulary for what you're experiencing. This tasting process is quite different than the way we normally tend to taste food - either it's "eeeewwww, gross," or "mmmm, that's great." That's not to say that wine lovers or cheese lovers don't have likes and dislikes (otherwise there wouldn't be food critics), but I'm realizing that sometimes default taste patterns create barriers to experiences that we might enjoy, if only we learned to open our minds. This cheese tasting advice shows the way.