Have you ever gone up to a cheese counter, picked up a hunk of cheese, and asked the cheesemonger there “What is this cheese like?” Their responses try to tell you something about the qualities of the cheese – the taste, texture, type of milk – there’s common words and truths about taste that we rely on to describe cheeses. Words that most people can identify in their mind as a particular taste, and they know whether or not they like that familiar descriptor. Of course, the type of milk – cow, goat, or sheep – is a constant. Words like nutty or sharp have a distinct taste – they seem to be divergent. However, a cheese can be both nutty and sharp at the same time. It’s a peculiar paradox.
In Madeleine L’engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, the characters end up on a planet of beasts with no eyes. They’re gray furry blobs that communicate by thoughts and feelings – they don’t have the sense of seeing. The main character Meg tries to explain things like light or sight to the creatures, and putting these concepts into words eludes her.
Essentially, all cheese has the same basic starting points. Milk. Starter cultures. This is how yogurt is made, and ricotta, and mozzarella and aged cheeses take their first steps with these ingredients. It is how they are aged, in what kind of molds, as well as the starting point of the milk, that begins to diversify the flavors and bring about aspects of different cheeses.
It really is remarkable how wide-reaching and completely different cheeses can be with the same basic starting ingredients. These variances are owed mainly to terroir – a term used to attribute a cheese’s unique flavor profile to the environment in which the animal producing the milk feeds. The environment and what they are eating translates to the milk, which translates to the cheese.
So herein lies the difficulty of describing taste. We use specific words to describe them, but there is no one common perfected language used to describe each and every cheese. This in part is due to the fact that when you eat cheese it’s not only what you’re tasting that matters – it’s the way the cheese feels in your mouth. It’s how it interacts with what you’re drinking. For example, a chalky aged goat cheese tastes even better when it’s paired with a lightly sparkling white wine or a dry chardonnay. The wine brings out the richness and fruitiness in the cheese, so that it becomes an even better experience than enjoying just the wine or cheese alone.
So acknowledging all of that, where does that leave us? Terroir of cheese can tell us a lot – if the cheese is earthy, buttery – we know that the animal must’ve been eating something that lent it those aspects. But, as an animal is a living creature, it grazes and it goes to the next pasture and finds its next meal. So day to day, their milk is changing and those multitudes are going into the artisan cheese that you pick up and ask “What is this cheese like?” We can tell you – but the best thing to do, in my opinion, is to taste.
All photos taken by Hillary Anderson.