How to Build a Cheese Plate

On Monday night J. and I went to a great cheese tasting led by Taylor Cocalis of Murray’s Cheese. I have to mention her by name because she was full of cool bits of information and great tips about cheese selection and tasting. For instance, she touched on the impact of retro-nasal input on cheese tasting — if you aerate your cheese by opening your mouth slightly and breathing in while the cheese is on your tongue (similar to the way you taste wine), you’re both smelling it and tasting it at the same time, which is a much more full experience than sniffing it first, then putting it into your mouth and tasting it afterward. It was a surprisingly huge difference! I love learning tips like that. There’s a good explanation of retro-nasal smell, albeit in wine tasting, at The Wine Tasting Or, Should We Say, Wine Smelling Experience.

She also shared a good device for remembering how to choose a variety of cheese for a tasting plate: something old (a cooked pressed cheese, like Gruyere or Parmigiano-Reggiano), something new (fresh, like chevre), something stinky (washed rind, like Taleggio), something blue (a blue cheese, like Stilton). Buy about 1 oz. of each cheese per person if you’re doing a tasting of 3-5 cheeses.

In order, we tried:

  • Selles-sur-cher: The first aged (lightly) goat cheese, I’ve tried, it was surprisingly smooth and mild. We both enjoyed it.
  • Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill: Mushroomy and more earthy than I’d expect in a cow cheese. It’s a double cream, but so silky and rich it felt like a triple. Yum.
  • Serra da Estrela: Made with vegetarian rennet from thistles, this was too salty for me but J. enjoyed it (he thought it smelled of olives).
  • Pecorino Foja de Noce: This cheese smelled wonderfully nutty — not surprising, since it was aged in walnut leaves. It was crumbly and dry and didn’t make much of an impression taste-wise (J. pointed out it tasted better with some pinot noir, and I agree).
  • Beeler Gruyere: My absolute favorite of the evening! It had a lightly sweet, butterscotch smell. This Gruyere has those awesome crunchy bits in it that you sometimes find in aged cheese. I never knew what they were until Taylor enlightened us: they’re clusters of the amino acid tyrosine, caused by the breakdown of the main protein in milk, casein. The most delicious non-essential aminos you ever did eat.
  • Valdeon: Our last cheese was this “aggressive” blue; a 7.5 according to Taylor on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most intense blue cheese flavor. I like blue cheese, but this was a bit much for me — I’d probably prefer something closer to a 6! One of our favorite blue cheeses is from Rogue River, and Taylor recommended Gorgonzola Dolce as a good “gateway” blue — something easy to taste to ease you into this type of cheese.

For the past several years, we’ve put together a cheese tasting for our family before our Thanksgiving meal. After taking this class, I’m especially looking forward to choosing the cheeses this year, and you can bet I’ll be including the Beeler Gruyere.

7 thoughts on “How to Build a Cheese Plate

  1. I love goat cheese…I just have to not think about that it comes from a goat;O) (I know, how is that really different from milk that comes from a cow…I don’t know…)

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