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Tips and tricks for tasting cheese like an expert

A cheese judge smells a slice of gruyere.

Denis Balibouse/REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

For quick reference, I write down the date of tasting, the name of the cheese, its age, producer, variety of milk and whether it's raw or pasteurized.

Appearance

What colour is the rind? Is it moist, dry or cracked? Smooth or ridged? Thin or thick? What does it make you think of - tree bark, velvet, earth? What colour is the paste? And what is the shape of the cheese: wheel, pear, block?

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Aroma

Close your eyes and wait for your first impression. Aroma will help determine taste. Smell the cheese with the rind and without. Note the intensity.

Texture

Is the paste firm or runny? Are there eyes in it (small holes like in Emmenthal)? Does it crumble when it breaks, or is it supple? Is it rich, silky? Does it coat the mouth?

Taste

Does the cheese have a bitter finish? Is there a sweetness to the paste? Is it tangy or salty? Sharp or mellow? Are the flavours balanced - salt, sweet, sour, bitter?

Common descriptors

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Fresh/lactic: A tangy, sour-cream impression.

Earthy: Think of fresh-turned soil, a river bed or the musty outdoors.

Barnyard: It smells like a barn, "cowy" or musty. Rather than repellent, this is usually a positive trait.

Fruity: Sweet and fragrant. Can evoke a specific fruit (Granny Smith tang or sweet, bruised apple) or just a general sense of ripe fruit.

Grassy: Think of being outside, a mown lawn, clean hay. Often linked to the milked animal's diet.

Ammoniated: the smell of ammonia can signal a cheese that is off or overripe. It's common with soft-ripened cheese (such as Brie). A bit of ammonia is okay: Let the cheese sit, open, for half an hour and it should dissipate. Okay to eat, but usually a fault.

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Mushroomy: Smells and tastes like fresh mushrooms. Often found in bloomy rind cheeses.

Savoury/umami: Meaty, salty, complex - more of an overall experience, like the satisfaction found in Parmigiana Reggiano. It comes from aging.

Goaty: The tangy flavour of a goat-milk cheese.

Nutty: For taste and aroma. Sometimes the taste will be specific, like hazelnut. Common in gruyere and other Swiss-type cheeses.

Vegetal: Impression of vegetables - cooked or fresh. Can be as specific as asparagus or horseradish.

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