All things cheese in France

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Cheese Tasting - An Adventure

Ah! Where have we been since April? Exploring the countryside, looking for new cheeses and places to visit. So to get back into the swing of things, a little diversion is in order...

So how about a taste and texture journey? Let's do a cheese tasting to explore sensorial delights. For the experienced, it's higher education; for the beginner, a mystery of flavours, shapes, styles and unfamiliar names. Seek help from a good cheesemonger or do your own trial and error, but don't hesitate, jump in and have fun! 

Portions & Accompaniment Guidelines 

Cheese  For a small tasting figure 5-10 cheese and ½ oz (15g) serving of each different cheese per person or 2½ - 5oz (75-150g) per person total. For a more generous tasting, figure ¾oz (21g) of each different cheese per person or 3¾ - 7½oz (105-210g) per person total.

Wine  500 - 700ml per person as a 750ml bottle equals 5 glasses. (1 case of 750ml is 12 bottles or 60 glasses). Make sure the wines are at their appropriate temperature, this means whites should be iced and tannic reds opened one hour ahead. 

Beer or Ciders Depending on which you choose, gauge quantities by the size of the bottles relative to the portions called out for wine.

Accompaniments  Charcuteries; fresh fruits (apples, pears, plumes, dates, figs, raisins); nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans). The British usually serve, celery sticks and grapes.

Breads & Biscuits  Good, fresh baguettes, a nut loaf, raisin loaf, pain campagne
and a country style, whole grain wheat bread give you a full coverage of all the textures. Rule of thumb is to serve a half of a baguette per person. Biscuits are also very good carriers. The Fine Cheese Company from Bath England has a great range specifically designed for cheese - All butter Charcoal, Natural and Wholemeal crackers are the best, also the Olive Oil & Sea Salt, Bath Ovals and English Oatcakes work well.  

Choosing the Cheese

In the weeks before your party, find the very best place in your area to buy cheese. Your first choice for buying cheese is a good cheese shop, or a high quality cheese counter in an grocer that sells hand cut and wrapped cheeses. You want a cheese vendor that displays whole cheeses and cut the amount of cheese you want as you purchase it. Or if this is not possible, purchase from a reputable on-line provider.

Decide ahead of time which theme you want to present - a balance board, all one milk type, all blue, one region. Choose five to ten cheeses, depending on the number of guests. For a balanced board, aim for variety - hard and soft, mild and strong, different milk types, blue veined and smelly. Make note of the name of the cheese, country or region of origin, type of milk, style of cheese, and any other information the cheesemonger uses to describe the cheese.  

Choosing the Beverages

Just as everyone's palate is different, so is everyone's taste in wine and other beverages. When you are serving a variety of cheeses, it will be unlikely that one wine or beer will go with all cheeses. This frees you from worrying about precise pairings. Select some versatile white wines such as a Champagne or sparkling wine, a Riesling and /or a Pinot Gris. Chardonnays are a bit more difficult as there as so many variations. Add red wines including a Syrah and/or Pinot Noir, a Beaujolais cru and a big tannic Bordeaux or Bourgogne. Matching the region of the cheese and wine is always a safe bet. Make sure you choose a selection of good quality wines and maybe a beer or cider to serve as a counterpoint. The goal is to have fun, so don't be surprised if your guests end up picking one of you choices and stick with it throughout the tasting.  The next post will give you some pairing guidelines.


The accompaniments for a cheese tasting, or anytime for that matter, should be simple. Artisan or bread, biscuits or crackers specifically for cheese are the best choices. Nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts as well as dried fruits such as figs or prunes or fresh apples, pears and grapes round out the palette. Fruit pastes such as quince paste (membrillo) or chutneys like onion or mango give the tasting a sugar balance and are visually appealing. The jury is still out on good quality olives, some people find them too oily for a tasting, but it is again a matter of taste. 

Final Touches

Presentation is a huge part of the process. Cheese and all the accompaniments must appeal to the eye first then the palette. Cheeses should be removed from the refrigerator at least one hour ahead of serving (except for fresh cheeses). Leave yourself enough time to arrange the boards, as it takes time to cut and lay them out. There are two options for serving - cheese boards set out for guests to sample themselves or individual plates already prepared for each guest.
Provide name tags for the cheeses and tasting note cards for your guests.

If you choose cheese boards for your guest to serve themselves, the boards can be a plate, slabs of marble, slat or granite, oiled wood, ceramic or glass trays. All should have a large, flat surface to leave enough room between the cheeses so they can be easily cut. If need be, use several boards. Flat baskets work as well but are harder to cut on, so think of providing the individual cheeses with an underlining, such as grape or fig leaves. There are also some attractive paper versions but be careful with runny cheeses as they get soggy.

If you choose to plate-up your selection ahead of time, use serving plates that are large enough to hold all the cheeses.  If the plate is rectangular, start from the top left position and proceed from the simple to the more complex, fresh to aged, mild to strong, working your way aroung the board clockwise. If it's round, I start at 12 o'clock and go clockwise from there.

Accompaniments should be on separate plates to pick and choose from at will. Sufficient and appropriate cutting tools should be laid out to cut each cheese. They can include specialized cheese knives, a cheese plane or spreader depending upon the texture of the cheese. If your using the cheese board option, make sure there are plenty of small, dessert-sized plates and napkins. And it is always a good idea to place the beverages (including still & sparkling water) on a separate table to ease the flow of traffic.  


Tasting is usually done in a wine - cheese - wine sequence. But great cheeses can stand alone so we like to take in the whole cheese picture first: the look, touch, smell and taste. Observe the physical properties of the individual cheeses first; next move to the rest of the senses. To experience the texture of the cheese, take a small piece between the thumb and index finger, press it to feel the texture and release more of the flavour characteristics (yes, it sounds impolite but it is the how the experts do it!). Now take a big whiff and let your olfactory sense start to describe the cheese for you.

Next place a small piece of cheese on your tongue and let it melt a bit. Press it firmly against your palate to release all of the flavours, or as the Maitre Fromager Max McCalman says "let it luxuriate on your tongue, stimulating your mouth and getting all the juices flowing in there." Just like wine, there will be a first impression of the characteristics then a second and sometimes even a third. Now you can proceed to the wine. Add a splash of wine on top of the cheese to taste the meeting point of the two. (If you prefer to taste the wine first, clear the palate with a piece of bread or biscuit after the first sip.)

Describing cheese is particularly difficult as there is a whole language that goes with the process. But the aspects to consider are: the colour, the colour aspect (is it bright, dull, or shiny), the density, texture (crumbly, chalky, pasty, smooth or dry), flavour & aroma (acidic, ammoniac, banyardy, floral, nutty, salty, and mushroomy) and qualitative aspect (is it biting, complex, concentrated, rich, sharp, simple or unctuous). Try tasting both a white and a red wine with it. Which one works best? You decide.

It is always a good idea to keep a journal of your pairings and tasting menus for future reference.