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How to recognise cheese flavours

BY Emma Young

10th Jul 2023 Food Heroes

How to recognise cheese flavours

Ever wondered what the difference is between mozzarella and brie? Camembert and edam? Emma Young is here with her new book, The Cheese Wheel, to demystify cheese

Few foods can be as much of a mystery as cheese. It may taste great in restuarants, but balancing which cheese to pair with something like wine can be confusing. 

Enter The Cheese Wheel, Emma Young’s book that aims to teach you “how to choose and pair cheese like an expert”, so you too can understand cheese like a cheesemonger.

woman preparing cheeseCheese can seem complicated, but it doesn't have to be. Credit: Gorondenoff

In the book, Young explains her cheese wheel model, a system designed to help you understand cheese. There are 112 examples of cheese in the book, each from a different part of the world, so the system is designed to make the daunting task of cheese buying easy. She explains that the wheel has six categories of cheese, ranging from washed rind to semi hard to blue cheese and more.

In this extract, Emma describes how to train your palate and recognise cheese flavours.

Flavour and aroma

Person picking up cheeseAssociating cheese with a memory can help you distinguish one cheese from another. Credit: Михаил Руденко

I like to think about flavour and aroma in memories. This is how our brain processes them and this is how I remember them. Our olfactory memory refers to the recollection of aromas, so this isn’t just me being a romantic. When I am analysing a cheese, I will frequently find a very specific flavour—an association from a past eating experience. For example, a Tomme de Savoie, which is fruity . . . but not just fruit . . . strawberry . . . but not just strawberry . . . strawberry laces. Specifically, the strawberry laces I used to eat every Saturday morning at orchestra rehearsal after three hours of practising the clarinet.

"Flavour is personal, and flavour is a lot about experiences too"

Have you ever tried a cheese on holiday which tastes amazing, but when you bring it home to a cloudy January morning, it only tastes “good”? Context has a large impact on the way you taste food.

Tasting involves focus and, if you are stressed, on the phone, working on a project or distracted in any other way, flavour becomes more meaningless and harder to identify.

How cheese works with our senses

Woman sampling cheeseA lot more goes into eating cheese than just tasting it. Credit: Tay Jnr

Taste and smell are molecular senses. This means that when we are smelling and tasting, we are detecting molecules in the air (in our nose) and in our mouth.

When we smell a cheese, or anything for that matter, we are inhaling airborne, volatile molecules, which travel into our nasal cavity and are processed by two patches of sensitive skin in the front of our head. These volatile molecules are only a selection of molecules available in a foodstuff. 

"When we smell a cheese, we are detecting aromas from the paste and rind"

These vary considerably according to batch and producer variation, ageing room, mould growth, the feed the animals have eaten and many more variables. This is why cheese is so complex and why its aroma and flavour changes all the time. 

Tasting cheese

Woman gives man cheeseTasting cheese is a complex process. Credit: nortonrsx

When we taste a cheese, we are detecting more molecules. Our taste receptors are primarily on our taste buds on our tongue. 

"When we taste a cheese, we are allowing that food to interact with our taste buds—The flavour molecules in foods are dissolved in the saliva"

When we are tasting a food, we are not just deciding whether we like it or not, although this is very important. We are extracting information from the food we have put into our mouth, to determine whether that food is suitable for our nourishment.

Cheese and meditation

When I taste as a cheese judge, I need to focus. Think meditative cheese tasting. This is the perfect scenario to taste, but do not worry if this is not a state you can get into (or even want to) each time you eat a piece of cheese. Sometimes I do not want to analyse flavours, and that is completely OK. Sometimes it is good just to enjoy food without thinking about why you are enjoying it.

The Cheese Wheel Cover

The Cheese Wheel: How to choose and pair cheese like an expert (Ebury Press) By Emma Young, £14.99

Banner Credit: Cheese board (Avtor)

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