A Master’s guide to getting started with cheese tasting
If Maître Fromager Noemie Richard could marry any cheese, she would choose Saint Agur, a blue cheese from the Auvergne region in central France. “It’s got the intensity of blue cheese with forest-y notes, but it’s also got the creaminess and a kind of sweet note on the palate, which makes it very balanced — it’s powerful and sweet at the same time,” she says.
With years of experience under her belt, describing cheese at this level comes naturally for Noemie. But while it takes time to become a Master, anyone can grasp the basics of cheese tasting, she explains.
We caught up with Noemie, ahead of her Eight iconic cheeses tasting workshop at Kindred, and asked for her advice on how beginners can get started with this delicious discipline.
Noemie Richard pictured in the Butterwick room, Kindred
Wine lovers will be familiar with the concept of terroir, which describes how the environment the wine is made in affects its taste. Terroir is also important for cheese. As well as considering the cheesemaking environment, terroir here also includes how the traditions and culture of that area affect the finished product, too, Noemie explains.
This information can give you a sense of how the finished cheese will look and taste. For example, the mountainous Alps region in France specialises in hard cheeses, while soft-ripened cheese such as Camembert comes from Normandy, where cows are able to pasture all year round.
A basic understanding of how milk becomes cheese is also essential, says Noemie — in fact, it was the very first thing she learned when she started out in the industry. Milk is the basis for all cheese, and knowing how it can be processed and refined to create different styles and varieties of cheese can give insight into texture and aroma. “The key thing to understand is: how do you direct the [cheesemaking] process and the recipe, so that you can get the cheese that you want?” she says.
Once you’re able to understand how all of these factors affect the properties of the cheese, the next step is learning how to describe them.
“Many people don’t understand the difference between aroma, smell, and taste, and simple and complex flavours,” says Noemie. “[Humans] are a machine designed to taste products. So we need to understand how this machine works, so that you can use the right descriptors.”
Different senses provide our brain with different information, which results in various sensations that we experience: a sweet taste, a sour smell, a bright colour. But it’s not always clear to us where that sensation is coming from, which can result in us misunderstanding a flavour or smell.
The most common mistake beginners make is to describe a cheese as “sweet” or “salty” by only smelling it — in fact, these aromas are detected through sensors in the tongue, Noemie explains. For products that have a flowery taste, this sensation comes from smelling or by chewing the cheese.
It’s helpful to learn how sensory receptors work by studying, but palette training mostly comes down to practice. If you consciously think about the sensations you’re getting from eating a cheese — what does it look like, what does it taste like, how does it feel in your mouth? — you can start to put words to these feelings. This works to train your brain to make associations between sensations and vocabulary, and over time, you’ll become better at recognising the properties of what you’re eating.
It’s not all about smell
Cheese is commonly associated with strong and sometimes pungent aromas — there are lists and thinkpieces galore about “stinky” cheese. But while smell is an important aspect of cheese tasting, it’s not the only thing you should be looking out for.
Noemie advises looking for balance within the cheese, between its different sensory properties. “If you have a very strong [smelling] cheese, but it is soft and fresh, to me it’s not going to be well balanced,” she says. “You want to have a strong texture as well if you have a strong aroma.”
Sadly, this is why goat’s cheese — with its strong flavour and a very creamy base— often gets a bad rap. “[The base] is too soft for this strong taste,” Noemie says.
Getting to grips with the science of tasting can certainly help you to better understand why a cheese is the way it is, but what’s truly most important is that you’re enjoying yourself. Eating cheese is supposed to be fun, and there are no prerequisites whatsoever to getting involved.
Plus, Noemie adds, if you’re enjoying yourself, training your palette becomes something to look forward to rather than homework. “If you like food, if you’re a foodie, then it’s very easy.”
Noemie Richard is the Maître Fromager of the Guilde International de Fromagerie and an internationally leading figure in the industry of cheese.
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