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The Zen of Cheese Tasting

2015-03-11 11.13.49

The other day there was a lull behind the counter in the shop.  It was after a rush, and cheese was everywhere waiting to be rewrapped and stored. Normally, unless there’s some new cheese I’m unfamiliar with, I go into autopilot, wrap the pieces while my mind is running over the latest episode of Vikings on Hulu, or whether I’ll be able to talk my eternally-tired significant other to go try the latest ramen place after work.

For the most part, new cheeses are rare, and so the cleaning up process is pretty straight forward.  I’m even less likely to taste  them if the cheeses are from what I consider ‘middle of the road’ cheeses –  that is, cheeses that are perfectly respectable, but don’t inspire passion.  In other words, they aren’t Vacherin Mont D’or, but they also aren’t loaf Havarti orBavarian Blue.

For me, Cheeses like Roncal, Ossau-Iraty and Manchego fall into this category.  Nothing wrong with them, but nothing that inspires passion either.  And that exact trio just happened to be sitting out in front of me, awaiting rewrapping.

But this time, the cheeses had been sitting out during a prolonged rush.  They’d come up to temp, and for some reason, I decided to try the Ossau.  I grabbed the cheese planer, cut myself a razor thin slice, popped it into my mouth and pressed it against the roof of my mouth to let it dissolve.  And then I just waited.  I was glad I did.

By tasting the cheese properly, instead of tasting it cold and without giving it sufficient time for its flavor to bloom, my usual bland short story turned into a novel.  Flavors of grass, rosemary and heather mixed with elements of salt, olive oil and that rich, loamy earth-funk of the cave had created an unexpected story that spoke of Basque country, scrubby herb-laden hillsides, sun, sheep and time.  The cheese had rewarded me for trying it properly, and it spoke of terroir.

That jolt was enough to make me try the other two in the same way, and I was equally rewarded.  The point here is that it doesn’t really matter what I tasted, it’s HOW I tasted them.  When I took the time and trouble to let them, they literally came alive.

It suddenly dawned on me that I, a guy who works as a Cheesemonger and has in a past life run a sheep dairy and made cheese, was now often “not-in-the-moment”: I wasn’t letting the cheese speak to me much of the time.  Assuming I’m not unique, a little refresher course in how to properly taste cheese may be in order.  So sit back, listen up, and pay attention (it really isn’t all that hard – it’s just the remembering to do it that’s the hard part).

The Zen of Cheese Tasting (or How to Do it Like a Pro)

1. Let the cheese come up to room temperature.  Cold kills flavor.  Tasted cold, the basic tastes of milk, fat and salt will be there, but all nuance will be lost.  And for subtle cheeses like artisan cheeses, nuance is what it’s all about.

2.  Use an appropriate tool to cut off a small piece.  I prefer a cheese planer since it cuts a thin piece of cheese that won’t overwhelm the palate.  If it’s a soft cheese, use a spreader.  If it’s a really hard cheese, use a cheese point to chunk off pieces, but make them on the smaller side.

3. Try the cheese naked. This one might be obvious, but just in case.  No fig or nut-laden crackers or bread or chutney.  Let it tell you what it needs first.  You can sexy it up later if you want.

4. Now for the fun…the tasting.  Place the cheese against the roof of your mouth, push your tongue up against it and just stop.  And wait.  Let it start to dissolve.  This may even take a minute or two.  But resist the urge to chew.  Let the cheese break down a bit and it will start to open up even more.

5.  Work it around your mouth.  Once it’s softened, work it around the roof of your mouth with your tongue until it’s a loose paste.  After all, that’s what the edible inside of a cheese is called-the paste.  So make it one.  It will further blossom in your mouth.

6. Now swallow. But no chaser, yet.  No beer.  No wine.  Just sit back and concentrate.  What’s the cheese telling you?  What is its voice? Let it create a mental picture in your mind.

7. Enjoy.  Now you can drink.  Or add that bread.  Or even repeat the process if you’re so inclined, to either reaffirm what you just found out or to open even more flavor.

But you’ve now gone somewhere and learned something that you hadn’t before.  And hopefully, with that knowledge comes appreciation.  For the cheesemaker who made it, the animal who gave the milk, and the place and history that dictated what that particular combination of milk, rennet, and cultures would turn out to be.

Do you have to do this every time?  Of course not.  Mindfulness is a tough thing to pull off all the time.  But if you can remember to do it even 20 percent of the time you’re eating cheese (and hopefully 100% of the time you’re in a cheese shop looking for new finds), your cheese world will build itself from a hut into a country estate, if not a veritable mansion.

This stuff ain’t cheap, so get your money’s worth.  Get Zen with it, and it’ll get Zen with you.

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