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Color: straw yellow, almost green. Smell: characteristic, nice, herbaceous, fruity like cassis, ribes, sambuca and nettle. Taste: typical, dry and very aromatic. Wine is easy to describe because there is a known code. But how can you describe the unique taste of the soft goat robiola cheese from the Langhe region or a French Vieux-Boulogne? The truth: delicious cheese remains a mystery for which there are no words. At the beginning of the new millenium, the need for a new cheese alphabet became clear. In 2000, two Irish researchers, Jane Murray and Conor Delahunty of the University College Cork, started investigating: five centuries after its invention in Somerset, cheddar, the famous English cheese, already has 21 terms to define it, which means there is room for many sensorial interpretations.
Here they are: salty, acidic, bitter (typical feeling of caffeine, or quinine), astringent and balanced. What is a balanced cheese? Mellow, smooth, clean, with no constituent lacking or in eccess. And pungent? It almost penetrates your nasal tubes, sharp smelling or tasting, irritating. And creamy, fruity, buttery, rancid, sweet, smokey. And also caramel: associated with burnt sugar and syrup. Moldy: mold, carty, dirty, stale, musty. Nutty: like peacans, wallnuts, hazelnuts. Mushrooom: like fresh mushrooms. Processed: a blend, shallow, artificial taste. Soapy: smell and taste like detergent. Sweaty: like sweaty feet. And cheddary, to describe the typical taste of cheddar, especially it its aged.
Then came Mary Ann Drake, director of the North Carolina State University Sensory Service Center, with a cheese flavor wheel. There are basic tastes: bitter, sour, sweet, salty and umami, which refers to the chemical feeling factor elicited by certain peptides and nucleotides.
There are eleven Aromatics, from easy ones – such as Cooked or Fruity – to more particular ones. Like Waxy/Crayon, similar to candle wax referring to aromas associated with medium chain fatty acids, or Scorched, the ones associated with extreme heat treatment of milk proteins. If Bell pepper evokes freshly cut green vegetables, Brothy means it tastes like boiled meat or canned potatoes, and Cowy/phenolic recalls barns and stock trailers, indicative of animal sweat and waste. Different from what researchers define as Animal/Animalic, which are aromatics that remind of farm animals and barnyards. Going further: Catty, an aroma associated with tom-cat urine; or Fecal, with complex protein decomposition.
Don’t feel like tasting cheese anymore? Of course not! There is a debate going on what’s appropriate to say or not to say. There are many different interesting words that refer to cheese. What’s the difference between “Age” and “Aged”? The first one refers to the process of aging the cheddar, the second one refers to the aromatic edge of vintage cheese described as sour, astringent and pungent. And going in alphabetical order, we have Ashy/sooty: cold campfire. Biting: slightly burning, prickling and/or numbness of the tongue and/or mouth surface. Brine: saturated brine used during traditional ewes' milk cheesemaking. Butyric: baby’s vomit. Fresh fish: as implied. Goaty: humid animal hair. Grain: sweet and dark grains. Metyl chetone/bleu: blue tinted cheese. Musty: dump room or very old book. Musty/dry: closed air spaces such as closets. Rennet: natural lamb curdle. Savory: meat broth, roast, Marmite. And again Soy sauce, Sulfur, Toasty, Vinagery, which are self-explanatory. The glossary of the English cheese keeps getting more comprehensive and we can only expect more curious terminologies in the future.