Cheese descriptions have always kind of puzzled me. Not the more objective parts of them — the fact that a certain cheese is round, 12 pounds or four inches thick.
It’s the subjectivity of cheese descriptions that really become troublesome when flavors and smells are discussed.
Several days ago, I was trying to come up with a description of an interesting aroma and flavor combination present in a wheel of sheep’s milk cheese with an employee who knows his cheese. I could not come up with the word.
Me: Ah what’s the word? It’s kind of like wet wool. What would you call it?
Employee: I call that dank ewe.
Me: For what?
Me: Oh like the wet wool of a female sheep. I got you. But I am pretty sure the word I am thinking of starts with an “L.”
Turns out I was thinking of “lanolin,” but the employee who works as a cheese maker for a local sheep dairy disagreed with that description. To him lanolin and dank ewe were not synonymous.
You can see the difference between someone who has been around sheep quite a bit and me who has been around sheep like twice. Lanolin is the waxy substance that is secreted by the sheep to waterproof its wool coat, but to the employee, dank ewe is more gamy and musty then lanolin.
This subjectivity really starts to rear its ugly head when it comes to descriptive words that are more commonly used to describe cheese.
We all know that “sharp” is a good description of some cheeses. But the world of mass-produced block cheddar’s has made the word very common when describing cheese. We think we know what it means but if we spend some time tasting cheese with people we begin to find that it means different things to different people.
This can be one of the most difficult things about a cheesemonger’s job, someone may say “I want something sharp.”
“Try this,” says the cheesemonger.
“I don’t think that was sharp,” the customer replies.
And this can go on through several cheeses. The cheesemonger picks cheeses based on his perception of sharp, but his customers perception of sharp is not the same as the mongers.
Max McCalman, one of the most celebrated cheese experts in America has chronicled the problems with “sharp” in his second bookThe Cheese Plate.
for example, very likely means salty to many people. To some it might mean especially tangy or acidic,” McCalman writes.
McCalman chooses to go with “pronounced” over sharp. To him this word encompasses cheeses that are “sharply” bitter, salty or sour.
Check out the Cheddar Lexicon above in the photos. Notice the absence of the word “sharp” as a descriptor. There are some interesting words that may not have made it into your cheese vocabulary yet, and some you may not want to include.
Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. He is the manager and buyer for The Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can check out his monthly Cheese Wiz column in Tastebud Magazine and find him on Twitter @LincolnBbook and on Instagram @lincycheese.