This week I’m assigning you homework. But it’ll be homework to look forward to. Let’s geek out while we eat cheese and analyze why we find those delicious wedges so delicious. Because a standard response of “Mmmmmm so good” doesn’t help when facing the mountainous cheese counter display. Finding specific words that describe what you like (sharp and creamy) vs what you don’t like (barny and salty) helps you clearly ask for what you want–branch out even–but still stay in your delicious zone.
Our tool will be the cheese spider graph – you will create a (very cool) visual comparison of the traits of your favourite cheeses. Spider graphs can be found throughout the food industry to compare characteristics in products such as wine, coffee, chocolate or beer. For cheese we can measure as few or as many characteristics as feels comfortable;sweet, salty, bitter, sour/tangy flavours are an easy place to start–or get more specific with traits such as grassy, nutty or crystalline. Pick words that make sense to you, perhaps caramel replaces sweet or savoury instead of salty. These characteristics radiate around a centre axis on the graph and each is scored on the same scale. Then the dots of Cheese #1 are connected and you have a representation of peaks and valleys of each feature. Trace results of Cheese #2 top and you start to easily see the variations. Sound complicated? I promise that you can whip this up with some markers, a pad of graph paper and wine in hand.
The idea came up when speaking to Ontario cheese monger Kelsie Parsons about how spider graphs can be valuable tools for cheese makers to track seasonal variation in their product or variation due to microbe changes in the ageing room. He also mentioned they were a great option for curd nerds who already keep a taste journal to compare cheese characteristics. Curd-nerd or simple cheese lover, it’s intriguing to delve into why you like what you like.
Before I made my layman’s version of a cheese-web, I contacted Mateo Kehler, a renowned cheese maker at Jasper Hill Creamery in Vermont (known for the award-winning Cabot Clothbound Cheddar). Kehler explained the importance of spider graphs in the Jasper Hill tasting program. “We use spider graphs to visually represent the products we make and to assess finished cheeses.” Spider graphs help measure how close to flavour benchmarks new batches of cheese are falling. This helps Jasper Hill maintain consistent flavour profiles batch to batch and illuminates inconsistency by comparing baseline targets for cheddar traits such as umami, bitter, grapefruit and caramel. A characteristic such as “meaty” may be further broken down to white miso, chicken broth or charred beef.
You may not have to worry about quality control but you’ll learn more about your preferences than “I like strong cheddars.” Perhaps the cheddar you like best is not only most intense, it’s also the most tangy and creamy, allowing you to say to your cheese monger, “I really like aged cheddars and I prefer a creamy texture with a sharp tang”
Or experiment with cheeses that are challenging to you, blue cheese come to mind. Perhaps finding something you like is hit and miss. Choose three different blues (ask your cheese monger for style variety) and rate by creamy texture, crumbly texture, buttery notes, sweetness, bite, tang and salt. You may find that you don’t mind the “bite” of a blue as long at is also buttery and sweet (what I like about Roquefort). Or you may learn to ask for a blue that is “creamy but not too salty.”
My cheddar spider graph compared three great cheeses; Balderson 3 year old, Avonlea Clothbound and Wisconsin 1- year aged cheddar. I already knew my favourite was the Avonlea Clothboundand distinction was that I rated it the least acidic/tangy and highest in umami/brothy flavours . The same traits scored high in the Wisconsin cheddar which I liked second best –so apparently I don’t favour extremely tangy aged cheddar, I prefer more rounded, savoury notes. Which is kind of funny since the tangy Balderson is often the “grab and go” cheddar when I shop. Excuse me while I update my grocery list.