Who Cut the Cheese?

2006.Oct.12 Thursday · 6 comments

in Food & Recipes

“Cheese is milk’s leap towards immortality.”

– Clifton Fadiman, Radio Show Host, Information Please (1938-1948)

Cheese tastingBuenos Aires – A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in a series of cheese tastings sponsored by ArgentineWines.com. I’m not exactly clear the purpose of these tastings – I thought I was – but it seems that each week (there are five, and I missed the first one) we sit down and taste three cheeses. We spend about two hours doing so. Then we retaste them all up against three or four wines. We spend about another half hour or so doing that. Now, you might ask, just exactly what is it they’re doing for two hours tasting cheese… and only three cheeses to boot? Well, it’s been a fascinating process. We’re tasting them using an analytical format that involves all five senses and really gets pretty in-depth. And, of course, there’s a fair amount of joking around.

We start with the visual – what shape is the cheese, what color, what sort of rind or covering does it have, what does the surface look like, does it have holes in it when it’s cut into, what sort of “microstructures” does it have when you break a piece off. Then we get all tactile with it – elasticity, friability (for lack of a better term, it’s crumbliness) and fragility, how hard or soft is it, how humid is its surface, if you try to ball up a little bit of it does it stick together, how easy is it to chew, does it dissolve well, how does it feel in the mouth. Of course, we smell it and later taste it – and this is where it truly gets fascinating. I’ve done this sort of thing with wine for years, but never sat down with a cheese in front of me and had to try to come up with words to describe what it tastes like.

The various aromas are divided into “families” – lactic, vegetal, floral, frutal, roasted, animal, spices, others. Those are further divided into subfamilies, and from there into the individual flavors. When you have to think about it there are clear differences in the smells, for example, of milk, cream, yogurt, butter, browned butter, etc. It’s also pretty interesting to realize what a range of aromas an individual cheese has that go into the overall experience. The taste part is focused more on how the aromas change when you’re chewing the cheese rather than just smelling it, along with things like salt, sweet, bitter, sour, umami – the new standard of five tastes, plus things like picante, or spicy; and sensations, like refreshing or burning, acid or alkali…

And, we even end up with “listening” to the cheese – quite simply, does it make noise when you chew it – primarily crunchy or squeaky noises.

Now, not that I’m remotely a cheese expert. Nor that I’ve even begun to really taste my way through the world of cheeses. I’ve had lots of them, but beyond the process, what has been great for me is tasting cheeses I’ve never tried before. Out of the last three weeks, one of the three cheeses each time has been one that I was completely unfamiliar with. Not one of them is listed in the generally encyclopedic look at the world of cheese that is Steve Jenkins’ Cheese Primer. In fact, out of a 548-page book the only mention that Argentina gets is a dismissive sentence about parmesan from Argentina and Uruguay. Not one other mention of any cheeses of South America is even made. Argentina produces approximately 7.3% of the world’s cheese, something worth considering.

Trebolgiano cheese (with a gruyerito in the background)So, the three new cheeses I’ve “discovered”?

Fynbo – a cheese originated on the isle of Fyn Fynbo in Denmark, it’s a cylindrical semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that had all sorts of interesting flavors in it – the shining note for me was an intense aroma of buckwheat, sort of like buckwheat pasta cooked in lightly browned butter.

Pategras – a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese in the Gouda family. I’m not clear if pategras is actually made in the Netherlands where Gouda originated or if it’s more of a South American take on the cheese. This is creamier than a traditional Gouda (which is also available here) and is used more with desserts. It’s got a delightful flavor like freshly roasted peanuts, along with a creamy sort of finish.

Trebolgiano – a hard grating cheese in the Reggiano family – as best I can tell only produced in Argentina, rife with crystals from aging, and an interesting color that borders on reddish (this is the cheese pictured here). An amazing range of flavors that kept us discussing for quite a long time – dates, yogurt, beef extract, roasted tomatoes and celery – it was like one of Willy Wonka’s meals in a gumball.

One or two more tastings to go, hopefully each with new discoveries!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

asadoarg October 12, 2006 at 18:13

Fynbo is a gooood. I use it a lot as a substitute for mild/medium cheddar or monterey jack. Kind of sits right in between the two on taste and texture, for me at least.

Katie April 15, 2011 at 16:43

I’ve never seen trebolgiano here, but now I really want to try it! I agree with asadoarg that fynbo works well as a substitute for a mild cheddar/monterey jack. It’s my go-to cheese when I make Tex-Mex!

dan April 15, 2011 at 21:53

As of a week or so ago, the Disco near me had a wheel of the trebolgiano from Ilolay – I think they were selling it for $200/kilo.

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