The aromas and flavors of cheese are uncountable. Every variety of cheese has its own set of sensory characteristics, and they can be different from country to country or from farm to farm. The task of knowing all of these flavors so that regular people like us can better understand them is the job of the cheesemonger. Sure, farmers, cheesemakers and cows get all the credit for amazing cheese, but without expert cheesemongers like Greselda Powell, from Murray's Cheese in New York City, we likely wouldn't know about any of them. Francis Lam visited Powell to learn more about the inner-workings of a cheesemonger, and to have her guide him through sensory panel of cheeses. Learn more about Powell in this Meet the Monger blog post from Murray's Cheese.
A CHEESEMONGER'S JOB
Greselda Powell: What we try to do is help customers develop a vocabulary. When they try a cheese they like, we ask them what makes it good, what does it remind you of, is there a connection to something from your memory?
This flavor and aroma wheel is broken down into particular sections. It could be lactic, which is something very milky tasting – does it taste like butter or yogurt? It could be vegetal; we have cheeses that remind you of cauliflower and broccoli. Camemberts tend to be very vegetal. It could have a floral taste; we have this one beautiful Cheddar from Missouri called Flory’s Truckle, and when you bite into it, you taste all of these floral flavors that just explode in your mouth.
It could be fruity. It could be like toast. It could be animal-y and gamey. It could be something spicy, like it reminds you of cinnamon or nutmeg or Christmas flavors that you get when you make a gingerbread. So, you just try to connect these flavors with something that you can find in that cheese.
Francis Lam: It helps build vocabulary.
GP: It helps build a vocabulary. A lot of our customers feel a bit overwhelmed. But, as a cheesemonger our goal is to get them to relax and introduce them to the joy of eating cheese. We break it down for them in order for them to feel comfortable when they walk out or at least they have them feel comfortable enough that they know they got good piece of cheese that they can take home to eat and watch Netflix and put up their feet. Get a nice tawny port and listen to some Al Green.
Francis Lam and Greselda Powell consdier the wonderful selection of cheeses available at Murray's Cheese in Greenwich Village. Photo: Erika Romero
FL: [laughs] Which one goes well with Al Green?
GP: Okay, this is what I tell my customers. There is this one blue cheese that we get during the holidays; it’s called Rogue River Blue.
FL: From Oregon. I randomly know that one, and it is amazing!
GP: It’s amazing. Get that, a port, turn down the lights, “Love and Happiness” by Al Green – that’s all you need. [Both sing song and laugh.] We have fun here at Murray’s.
FRANCIS’S SENSORY TEST
FL: I'm excited to start this. This is cheese number one.
GP: Just sort of feel it. What does it feel like to you?
FL: It's slightly rubbery. Soft. Not a whole lot of tension. It cracks or it wants to crack; it’s not wanting to bend so much, but it's a little bendy. Now I break it open.
GP: And start smelling. What do you smell?
FL: I definitely smell a saltiness. Like a standing-by-the-sea kind of saltiness. I smell a little bit of what in the wine world they gently call “barnyard.”
GP: Barnyard is a very good description. Try tasting it.
GP: Thank you.
FL: I don't get any of that barnyard-y, animal-y flavor at first; it comes through later, more in the middle. I'm getting to the end and it's riding out in a way that is buttery but not extremely buttery.
GP: Yeah. This cheese is called Pyrenees Brebis; it’s a sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrenees region of France. I like calling it Manchego’s French cousin. Manchego is also from the Pyrenees region but in Spain. When you look at the way these two cheese are made, what you’re looking at from a different perspective is the terroir from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees region versus the French side.
FL: The weather and different grasses and flowers.
GP: Right. I think it has the nuttiness of Manchego, but I think this has a little bit more complexity and that creaminess. The other thing I like about this cheese is that it’s very approachable, very snackable. And since it’s also sheep milk cheese, one thing that we always notice with sheep milk cheese is that they tend to be more nutty in general. When they do the blind tasting at The Cheesemonger Invitational, if you get something that tastes a bit hazelnutty, chances are it could be more of a sheep milk cheese.
FL: It helps narrow it down. That was my question about that contest because to do a blind tasting contest, do you just memorize every cheese or is it more about figuring things out as you're tasting?
GP: There are times in which you can use certain keys to narrow it down. When you start looking at goat it’s going to be a little more grassy. And we talked about nutty for sheep. Cow is going to be a little bit more creamy, more buttery. So, that helps you narrow it down.
Let's go to the next one. What do you smell?
FL: It’s not quite lemony, but there's like an acidic fruit.
GP: There is a bit of fruitiness going on there. To me, I small a little bit of sourness, like maybe buttermilk or yogurt of something very lactic. Let’s try tasting it.
FL: It's funny because I do taste a lot of that tang, that sort of cultured buttermilk tang. Almost like a chocolatey-ness.
GP: Very good!
FL: It's making the quarters of my mouth start to water and salivate from the acid. It’s also super delicious.
GP: This is a French Alpine cheese, which I really enjoy. When you think about Alpine cheeses – you know, with the cows going up and the Heidi world in the Swiss Alps – they are made the same way as your Gruyères and Emmentals. Alpine is a classification of cheese, and it's basically about how it’s made. They heat up the milk and then curds through the whole process.
From a customer standpoint, when people don't know the word Alpine, they always say, “I want a Swiss cheese. Or a Gruyère cheese.” As a monger we associate those to Alpines. So, we try to steer them from the familiar of a Swiss to something like this, which gives you other flavors like lactic and buttermilk. You tasted chocolate, which is really cool! And, the different Alpine cheeses – even though they made the same way – they all have different taste profiles, so that allows us to open up a customer's palate to different possibilities.
FL: How do you know it's an Alpine cheese if you're just tasting it?
GP: The first thing that we were noticing was that milkiness and the lactic, so we know best chances are it’s a cow milk cheese. And when you were looking at how it was structured, the way it breaks off, that’s also a characteristic of Alpine cheese. So, again you’re looking at how it bends or breaks for the characteristics of that type of cheese.
FL: That's wild.
GP: These are great for fondues, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, anything that you're looking for as a melter. That’s what Alpines are designed for. I love the flavor, and it makes a great grilled cheese sandwich.
FL: It’s got the tiniest bit of funk. And I could see that if you heated up, you bring that funk out a little bit; that could be really cool.
GP: It’s interesting you talk about funk because if a person is afraid of funky cheeses we can introduce them to the world of funk using this Alpine cheese.
FL: It’s a Bruno Mars cheese. [Both laugh]
GP: Speaking of funk, we're going to the next cheese, and it’s the George Clinton of cheese.
FL: I love that it's squishy in the hands. It’s squishier than Play-Doh.
GP: It’s pasty.
FL: It wants to bend when you're turning and twisting. And when you actually rip it open, it’s a bit stringy and sticking together like it doesn't really want to rip very much. I smell brine or a mold. I smell salami.
GP: Yes. It's almost very meaty. When you taste it, you need to try it with the rind.
FL: There's a hole in the middle of it meaning I get a lot of taste experience in my mouth and palate all the way around my mouth, but the very center my tongue almost feels like a little island you can perch on and not be overwhelmed.
GP: That’s a good description.
FL: My overwhelming sensation is mushroom-y and forest-y.
GP: This is called Fiacco di Capra; it is an Italian goat's milk cheese. This type of cheese is called a washed-rind cheese and what other people would consider calling stinky cheeses. Just a little bit information on what happens with the washed-rind cheeses. You take this young cheese and you either wash it with a saltwater brine solution – or maybe a beer, wine or whatever – and you continue to periodically wash it and turn it. If you look at the front of the rind, it seems rather orangey. That orange is a particular mold called B. linens [Brevibacter linens], and that's what is developing on this cheese as you wash. That what give is a meaty taste.
FL: It finishes very animal-y.
GP: Very animal-y and very gamey; that's the characteristic of a washed-rind cheese. Gaminess, funkiness, people always say stinky feet, I say it's like that bag of Fritos that you left in your locker in junior high for like three weeks – that type of funkiness.
FL: Is that better than stinky feet? I guess. [both laugh]
GP: Look at the color of this cheese compared to the other ones. This is a bit whiter compared to the other two. Goat’s milk cheeses tend to be white. The orange color in the rind tends to mean that it’s a washed-rind. The fact that it feels very tacky is another clue towards a washed-rind. If you make it the same way but change the milk you can see how that profile changes.
FL: That's another way to start, again, piecing together a pattern for how you learn about these things that is not just sheer memorization.
GP: When you start thinking about goat, which tends to be a little bit more barnyard-y, sheep tends to be more nutty, cow tends to be more buttery, a little bit like sweet cream. Those are some of the little clues. And as you start learning these it helps you figure out which direction you're going to. And then hopefully either you can narrow it down at least get a fifty-fifty chance of getti
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.