Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Say Cheese

I’ve been eating cheese all my life but last week I had a chance to learn how to taste it and talk about the experience. My host and teacher was Jean Mackenzie. She’s a goat cheese maker and she’d invited me, along with some other people, to her farm in Hiram to giver her feedback about her chevre.

The group of volunteer samplers included Karen Small, chef/owner of The Flying Fig in Ohio City; Shannon Welsh, the Cheese, Wine and Beer Merchandiser for Heinen’s; Geoff Stout of Euro-USA, a food importing and distributing company; Matthew Smith, chef/owner of Umami in Chagrin Falls, and two of Jean’s friends.

Mackenzie Creamery, her little artisan company, has gone from start-up to super successful in just three years. The fresh goat milk cheeses she produces have won prizes and are a favorite of local chefs and consumers. Jean had brought us together to act as an advisory board as she develops new flavors and varieties.

Telling her whether we liked or didn’t like what we tasted was important but it wasn’t enough. There’s a very precise language to describe the sensory properties of cheese, just as there is for wine. Jean had gotten some training in the method from the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese and she was our guide as we educated our palates and built a vocabulary for talking about our perceptions.

We did some blind tests, trying her cheese side by side with similar products from other sources, and were the first to try three new creations. We graded them on a numbered scale from strong to weak for sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and sweetness. We rated the texture and evaluated the overall appeal. Precision was essential. I found it surprisingly difficult to identify what was actually happening on my tongue, and so did everyone else at the table. But the intensity of the effort made for a really interesting and pleasurable couple of hours.

Jean collected the evaluation sheets she had us fill out and took notes during the lively discussions that followed each formal tasting. I can’t reveal what flavor she’ll soon be adding to her line, but I can say with some certainty that, based on what I had last Wednesday afternoon, it will be delicious.

Our group will meet again in the fall. That’s when Jean’s first batch of mold ripened goat milk cheeses will come out of the aging room that’s currently near completion. My mouth is already watering in anticipation.

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