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Twelve years ago, I wandered into a cheese shop in Philadelphia, and it changed my life. The cheesemongers behind the counter were so friendly and receptive to my bumbling questions about the fuzzy lumps and cratered facades of the 300-some cheeses stacked around me that I vowed to taste them all. I was new to city life — fresh from Wisconsin — and dairy had become my default cure for homesickness, not to mention my entry into Philadelphia social life as a solo flyer in search of a new scene. Wherever I went, I took cheese. New friendships were ignited over blissful bries. I quickly formed a cheese-tasting band of rogue expats and grad students who joined me at the table over the course of a summer while we ate nothing but blue cheeses.
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Over the course of five years, I tasted roughly 350 different cheeses. I chronicled the process on my blog, Madame Fromage, and later in my book Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings. Since then, I’ve become a passionate curd mistress who hosts parties for visiting lactic luminaries, offers pairing workshops, curates restaurant cheese boards, and only travels with a dairy itinerary thanks to a tour company called Cheese Journeys, for which I co-host Gouda getaways and cheddar odysseys. None of this would have happened, however, if I hadn’t learned a special breathing technique. I call it the “yoga breath” of cheese.
How to Truly Taste Cheese
Picture this: You walk into a cheese shop where a provolone the size of a watermelon dangles from a hook over the register. It’s a Tuesday at 10 a.m. and the place is empty except for a couple of guys in aprons behind the counter who are milling around a freshly cracked wheel of Roquefort. You watch them crush bits of this iconic French blue between their fingertips, inhale, close their eyes, open their mouths, exhale audibly, and then chew thoughtfully. Grins flash across their stubbled faces, and one of them starts to speak in tongues: “Plums, freshly dried … then limestone, brine, definitely brine … whoa, fresh fennel!” You’ve just observed the yoga breath.
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I fell madly in love with cheese over a wheel of Roquefort and a breathing lesson. Just as wine sommeliers jam their noggins deep into their glasses before they swirl and sip, cheesemongers — professional cheese sellers — have a method of tasting (and judging) each cheese wheel. Let me teach it to you, and the next time you’re at a cheese counter, or facing an interesting hunk at home, give it a try. You’ll experience an all-around flavor explosion in your retronasal olfactory pathway — in other words, a deep sense of taste! Here’s how to taste cheese using the yoga breath method:
- Take a piece of cheese and warm it between your fingers for a few seconds. (Just like cold chocolate, cold cheese doesn’t taste like much.)
- Hold the cheese directly below your nostrils, and break it in half so that the aromas release right under your nose.
- Pop the cheese onto your tongue and close your mouth for a few seconds so it softens.
- Inhale through your mouth, over the cheese, and then exhale through your nose.
- Close your eyes and name the flavors that unfold.
The best cheese, like the best wine, takes your taste buds on a journey. In fact, curd nerds really do call it “the journey.” A great cheese will release different notes around each curve. To experience this, choose a well-aged cheese, such as Montgomery’s Farmhouse Cheddar, or a crackly bite of real Parmigiano-Reggiano. The general rule is that the older the cheese, the more flavor it’ll have developed. As you chew, pay attention to these signposts: What’s the initial taste of the cheese? Does a second taste unfold as you begin to chew? A third? Finally, notice the aftertaste. How long does it linger?
Among cheesemakers, a prolonged aftertaste is prized, as long as it’s pleasant. I’ve seen English cheddar-makers puff up their chests over a snooker table when complimented on the finish of their cheese. As one told me once, “The mark of a great cheddar is one you can still taste as you’re walking home.”
Hunt Down Great Cheese
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All cheese is made up of just four basic ingredients: milk, salt, cultures, and rennet. Yet, there are thousands of variations. Every recipe is a little different, and every step, even the way a cheesemaker stirs the milk and handles the curds, affects each taste and texture. The best cheeses transport us via taste bud to a new landscape. I usually distinguish these as “craft” cheeses, meaning they’re handmade in small batches, much like craft beer or single-origin coffee. You’ll find complex notes that extend far beyond what mass-market cheeses ever reveal — not that there isn’t a time and place for the occasional Cheez Whiz. If you want to find truly extraordinary cheese, here’s how to do it:
Head to a cut-and-wrap cheese counter. The best cheese shops display whole wheels from which cheesemongers cut and wrap cheese in front of their customers. This is referred to as a “cut-to-order” counter, rather than a counter that sells “pre-cuts.” You’ll get the best product from these types of shops, because cheese is freshest when it’s cut from a wheel. In other words, it retains its integrity.
Search for cheeses labeled “small batch” or “farmstead.” Farmstead cheeses are basically single-origin cheeses. They’re made on the same farms where the animals are milked, often by a single maker. These makers tend to care deeply about the entire process, from planting quality pastures, to caring for their animals, to producing the best cheeses possible. I find that small-batch, handcrafted cheeses are usually the most interesting and flavorful, and I value the ethos behind them, so I don’t mind going to Earth’s end to seek them out.
Ask about seasonal cheeses. Like vintage wine, cheeses reflect the year and season in which they’re made. Behind the rind is a record of rainfall, temperature spikes, changes in feed, and even subtle variations in plant species from one part of a pasture to the next. The best cheesemongers will know which cheeses are best at particular times of year. (Hint: In spring, ask for Loire Valley goat cheeses, and in fall, sniff out a rare wheel of gooey Vacherin Mont d’Or wrapped in spruce bark.)
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Pick pasture-based milk. The menu on a farm directly affects flavor. In the words of French cheese authority Patrick Rance, “Just as old vines give the richest wines, old pastures yield the richest milk.”
Building a Cheese Board for Pairing
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If you’re stumped about what to serve, first ask yourself: What will we be drinking? Do I have a special jar of jam squirreled away? Is the meal I’m serving spicy? Consider the flavors of your food and drink pairings first so you can use cheese to round out the tastes of a special bottle of wine, or a heavy or light menu.
If you’re planning to serve foods with bold or spicy flavors, such as charcuterie or red wine, let your cheese board be a background canvas. Lean toward rich, mild cheeses that’ll have a softening effect, such as a sheep’s milk manchego and a fresh round of buffalo mozzarella. Add good bread, olives, and a savory jam, and you’re done.
If you’re serving a funky beverage — orange wine, saison, or kombucha, for example — experiment with funky cheeses, otherwise known as “washed rinds.” The surfaces are usually sticky and orange to prawn-pink in color, due to being rubbed down with brine or booze. Think taleggio, Grayson, and Pont-l’Évêque cheeses. These moist bits are great with walnuts and marmalade.
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If you’re serving cheese for dessert and contemplating a sweet beverage, such as dark beer, barleywine, bourbon, or port, lean on salty cheeses, such as aged Gouda, Stilton, or a hunk of young Pecorino Toscano for balance. Set out a hunk of honeycomb or a bar of dark chocolate, and you’ve got a naughty nightcap.
Of course, you can follow the classic advice on cheese boards and choose a mix of milks and textures, but I prefer something a little more personal. I like a focused proposition: three cheeses, no more, consisting of something familiar, something far out, and something from a local maker. Here are the basic elements of a dream board:
Pick a cheese you love and want friends to taste. For instance, if you love cheddars, orbit the cheddar realm and try a different one each time you entertain.
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Find a cheese that flirts with you at the counter. Maybe it’s wrapped in leaves, or has a stripe of ash? This will give everyone at a party something to ogle and Google.
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Explore some local terroir. Ask a cheesemonger to recommend something from your state or region. If you like what you taste, look up the maker on social media and drop them a line. People in cheese rooms usually adore hearing from other lovers!
OK, cheese adventurers, just a few final tips. Always go for quality over quantity. If you’re on a budget, buy small amounts of cheese (ask for 1/4 pound), and fill the board with plenty of bread, jams, and veggies. Leave your hunks whole, and serve them at room temperature. And finally, when you slice a wedge of cheese, cut from the tip to rind to form triangles. This way, you can taste each cheese from the center of the wheel to the edge, where the most flavor lurks. OK, you’ve been anointed. Go forth and explore!
Tenaya Darlington is on the English faculty at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She also serves as Cheese Director at Tria, a trio of cheese-centric wine bars. Her next book, The Milky Whey: A Cheese Lover’s Guide to the Galaxy, is due to collide with Earth in spring 2021.