In our new series on Canadian Cheese, cheese lover Ashley Linkletter explores why now is the time to get excited about Canadian cheeses. In today's introductory column, Ashley guides us through the cheese tasting process.
To fall in love with cheese is to truly appreciate both the sublime simplicity and painstaking craftsmanship behind the cheesemaking process. I believe that Clifton Fadiman said it best in his 1957 essay “The Cheese Stands Alone” when he wrote,
A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk's leap toward immortality.
After working with cheese for over 10 years I have wonderful news for any cheese lover, regardless if you’re merely cheese-curious or a dedicated turophile: now is the time to get excited about Canadian cheeses!
Local and artisanal cheeses are gaining popularity across the country. Whether it’s a Mennonite farm in Ontario producing seasonal sheep’s milk cheeses or an organic dairy farm in the Kootenays making unpasteurized alpine-style cheeses, there’s a brand new generation of cheesemakers in Canada willing to master the classics and add their own personal touch to the finished product.
To say that cheese has always been a passion of mine would be an understatement. I spent most of high school working at Smith Cheese in London, Ontario’s Covent Garden Market and then over four years working under mother and daughter team Alice and Allison Spurrell at Vancouver’s les amis du FROMAGE.
It was at les amis that I truly got an education in cheese and wine, developed an entirely cheese-based vocabulary, and truly found my niche in the big world of food writing. My greatest pleasure came from helping customers select and taste cheese for parties or, better yet, just for the sake of treating themselves to something delicious.
If I could offer only one piece of advice to someone looking to buy good cheese, I would tell them to go to a deli counter or cheese shop where tasting is permitted.
For example, if I were to tell you that a brie was buttery and milky tasting with a clean finish, that would only be describing how it tastes for me. Like any of the other senses, taste needs to be experienced by the individual in order for it to have meaning. Of course, if you have a reputable source and a favourite cheesemonger with similar taste it can be fun to blindly purchase recommendations.
The How of Tasting Cheese
When tasting multiple cheeses — and this is important — try to work through the cheeses beginning with the mildest and ending up with the strongest. A good cheesemonger will indicate the ideal order in which to try samples so that your taste buds aren’t muddied by overly strong flavours.
If a blue cheese is in the mix it should always be tasted last; the sharp saltiness and slight aluminum taste of the blue veining will overwhelm almost all other cheeses. I tend to leave super-rich triple creams until closer to the end as well, since many people compare the taste of triple cream brie to blue cheese.
The Importance of Temperature When Tasting Cheese
Ideally cheese should always be tasted at room temperature as cold temperatures can drastically dull even the most overt flavours in cheeses. However, this is usually impractical for trying cheese while you’re in the store. If a cheese tastes unexpectedly mild, ask the cheesemonger how much stronger-tasting it gets if left to sit out for 30 minutes to an hour.
When tasting certain cheeses that are made in smaller batches or that are seasonal in production be prepared to notice a difference in taste from wheel to wheel. The terroir of wherever the cheese was produced, especially in Canada, will shift throughout different times of the year. Take note of any taste — including floral, herbaceous, grassy, and earthy undertones — that might have changed since the last batch.
Just Enjoy the Cheese!
Most importantly though, besides buying cheese from a reputable seller, is to have fun with cheese tasting and to not feel intimidated by selection. I’ve noticed throughout my time as a cheesemonger that people often think there’s a definite right or wrong way to buy and enjoy cheese when really all that matters is that eating your favourite cheeses is a joyful and pleasurable experience for yourself and anyone you’ve deemed lucky enough to share with.
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