The Tasteful Monger
It is such a pleasure to be the Official Cheesemonger of Cheeselandia! Ever hear of a cheesemonger? The definition of a monger is one who purveys, in this case, cheese. A cheesemonger’s responsibility is learn as much as possible about cheese and tell its story. From the curating of the case, to merchandising, handling and romancing, all these are the skills of the cheesemonger. We do this to honor the makers, the animals, the Cheese itself. We do this for the Customer. It is our pleasure. We are at your service.
Truly, one of the most interesting things about learning cheese has been developing and training my palate, acquiring the ability to appreciate cheese in a discriminating way. What I am talking about is the desire to get right in there with all kinds of cheese, understand it and develop a vocabulary that communicates its characteristics to my customers. It’s like an artist who paints a picture of a tree in a meadow. There are lots of greens and each one helps develop the nuances of the image, defining the leaf from the grass. The artist knows the names of those colors and the cheesemonger knows the names of the flavors and aromas. We take the subjective experience and give it language to create an objective experience. In other words, it gives us something to talk about!
Did you know that there are folks who get their PhD in Sensory Analysis? Talk about a deeeep dive. They get all sciencey, learning the names of the flavor chemicals and the microbes that produce them. The cheesemaker is also adept at the science of flavor and when they create the recipes that they use to make their cheese, they select cultures and techniques that develop flavors and textures. We don’t actually need to know all those specifics in order to gain a rich appreciation for the diversity of cheese. All we really need is our curiosity, some cheese and our five senses and a little guidance.
I’d love to take you on an exploratory journey, kind of a fun exercise that will help you interpret a cheese experience. For me, there can only be one place to start, and that is with Cheddar! For so many reasons. First of all, it’s my number one favorite cheese. I’m from Wisconsin, it’s in my DNA. Perhaps people expect a more “sophisticated” response when they ask me what my favorite is, but I assure you there is plenty to explore here. Cheddar is such a friendly and familiar cheese, so easy to enjoy and lends itself well to the novice who wants to develop their palate and their vocabulary. Taking the opportunity to examine it closely will open up a whole new recognition of these familiar characteristics. The range of flavor and texture is broad within this style, there’s lots to capture our interest.
Go ahead and select three of your favorite Wisconsin cheddars. Haha, not an easy task. There is a proud tradition in this state and really to do that tradition proper justice here would be impossible, to say the least. What I do ask you to do is to search out cheddars that have a clear maker. Widmer’s, Hook’s, Carr Valley, Red Barn Family Farms, Deer Creek Artisan, that is a super short list. You get bonus points if there is a Master Cheesemaker involved. Dairy case or cheese shop offerings that are private labeled by the seller do not always have a clear provenance. That is not necessarily a bad thing, it just makes it way more fun and relevant when you know the person who makes it.
Next, be sure that your cheese is room temperature. That really allows all the perfume of the cheese to open up and the texture of the cheese relaxes. This is important!
Once your cheese is warmed up, arrange those in a certain order. Proper tasting goes from mildest to the most robust. You can gauge that by age. As cheddar ages, the moisture content decreases, the flavors concentrate, and the aroma becomes richer.
The first step in the sensory analysis is engaging the sense of sight. Have a good look at your cheese and notice it. Observe the texture. Does it look smooth? Does it look shardy and crumbly? Are there crystals, either on the surface or within the cheese? What about the color? Orange? Straw yellow? Creamy white?
Step two, feel the texture. Pick up the piece of cheese, give it a squeeze. Is it firm? Hard? Pliable? Later on as you taste it, there will be further observations, as you analyze the cheese using your tongue and teeth. Smooth, crunchy, softer, denser.
As long as you have it in your hand, bring it to your nose for step three, the smell test. Now things are getting interesting. Here is a list of vocabulary, and as you inhale see what words fit!
Sweet, fruity, caramel, nutty, milky, buttery, sour/acidic, sulfur, grassy. Anything floral?
And at last, the taste. Put that little sweetheart in your mouth, and allow it to linger awhile. Roll it around a moment, and as you do, close your mouth (good manners and good tasting) and breath out through your nose. This really allows the full flavor to be perceived. Again, go ahead and apply descriptive words that will help you define the experience. Here’s your list, and don’t be shy about using the same list we used for aroma. Clearly, there is plenty of room for overlap, but this list offers some more options. What fits?
Roasted, brothy, bitter, salty, oniony, celery/vegetal, butter, cream, hay, acidic, caramel, nuts, tangy
If you are lucky enough to score a bit of the bandaged Bleu Mont cheddar from Willi Lehner you can add a few more interesting words, like flinty for texture, and earthy and musty for flavor and aroma. That’s musty in a good way!
Did you notice that I have avoided the word sharp? I’m not a fan of it. It is overused and becomes shorthand for anything with a big flavor. Learning to go beyond that word when we describe cheese gives us the opportunity to expand our cheese lexicon to words that have a more specific meaning. We can be more precise and think a little harder about the cheese in front of us.
Hopefully you have engaged in a deeper relationship with cheddar, gotten to know it better and fallen a little more in love. We can take this sensory evaluation experience and bring it with us as we explore other cheeses. When we study one cheese, we really study them all.
Liz has been mongering for over twenty years. You can see her live and in person most days at Kowalski’s Woodbury (MN) location.