I have a cheese journal. And it’s private. That might seem odd, considering many of my notes get published in this column. But by then they are refined. I look back on my first tasting of a cheese and compare it to later tastings. I think about how I can best convey my impressions to someone who is reading about the cheese and not tasting it with me. I don’t need to share scribbles like, “Good with cherry pie?” to the outside world. That was a comment I wrote next to Bleu de la Moutonnière on first taste (and though I am now sharing…yes, I’m slightly embarrassed.)
But that note meant something – it was a first impression. The blue cheese was creamy and had a saltiness that would be nice with something tart and sweet. For me, in that moment, cherry pie popped to mind. And that’s the key – when keeping track of cheese tastings, the descriptors must mean something to you. They must spark recognition when you find a cheese write-up from six months later. Keeping a cheese journal has multiple functions – most obviously, you can keep track of cheeses you like. You’ll notice over time that the same cheeses might taste different. Maybe you loved the nine-month Louis D’Or but were lukewarm over the 18-month version. Or maybe you just want to keep track of great cheese plates when you eat out.
I spoke about “cheese language” with Allison Spurrell, co-owner of Les Amis du Fromage in Vancouver and a member of the Confrerie des Chevaliers des Fromage de France (founded in 1954, its role is to preserve fine-cheese traditions) “I think that the language of cheese can be complicated – there’s the technical language (cheese making) and the tasting language and … I don’t know that there’s always a consensus in the industry. I can tell a customer that a cheese is grassy, thinking that that sounds delicious, and they sometimes just say, ‘no thanks.’”
She tells me that many people come into Les Amis scrolling through cheese notes they keep on their smart phones. She recommends at least writing down general flavours you like. “That way the next time you come in, you can experiment and go one step beyond the last cheese you tried, or you might not like the washed rind style of a cheese but you liked the vegetal notes. I can help you find something like that in another style. And sometimes keeping track of what you don’t like is more telling than what you do.”
Cheese Expert and Culinary Educator, Anne-Marie Shubin makes an important distinction between two kinds of tastings. One type of tasting is for pure enjoyment, a visceral experience when a cheese experience might even touch your soul. The other type of tasting is a dissection – one where you sit down and make more specific notes. No crackers, no bread, just the naked cheese.
The most basic mistake people make, says Ms. Shubin, “is not giving the cheese enough time on the palate. Don’t swallow until the cheese has reached body temperature and let it linger on your palate. You need to let the cheese go through all its phases of flavour.” In essence, suck on the cheese as if it were a piece of toffee and concentrate on the texture and the flavours as they develop, change and linger.
“Try to explain what comes to mind – words that will help you with pairings or accompaniments rather than just writing ‘nice’ or ‘I like it!,” says Ms. Shubin.
At cheese competitions, judges use a scoring system based on several categories. The cheeses are evaluated on their total score for criteria like appearance, aroma, texture and taste. This is a great way to break down your own notes.
“A scoring system is the simplest way to keep track of your cheese, “says Ms. Shubin. A scoring system is faster than detailed notes, especially when you’re in line at the cheese store. At minimum give an overall rating and write down the style of cheese (firm, washed-rind, blue). Even these quick notes make a great resource for putting together a cheeseboard.
Most importantly, trust your senses. Allow yourself to write down the first word that comes to mind. An “earthy” aroma can be damp leaves, or wet stones or “the garden we had as a kid.” And if the cheese has taken you to that garden, it has probably touched your soul. But that’s between you and your cheese journal.