These contests give us opportunities to witness other experts go through their different judging processes. Some judges take longer to assess the appearance of the cheese surface, while others spend more time assessing the paste. Some judges take a whiff of the fresh sample, then a second whiff, and then contemplate the aroma for a full minute before proceeding to the taste. For most judges, the taste matters most, and for a full assessment of the taste the judge must wait up to a full minute after the cheese is in the mouth to evaluate the full profile of a cheese. It is that imprint on the cognitive receptors that gives judges their final evaluations of a cheese. For some judges, the texture is almost as important quality as the taste.
One of the judges, Russell Smith who is a veteran cheese expert from Australia, told me that the texture is all-important. I agree; so many cheeses seem to have a nice appearance, a pleasant fresh milk aroma, even a balanced flavor, but the texture disappoints. For many of the categories he was judging, like almost all of my categories, there were several cheeses that had this flaw: a pasty, gummy, or mealy texture. As Russell and I agreed, this rubbery texture may not be considered a flaw by some consumers however the experience of tasting a cheese which has the appropriate texture for its class is an experience that you will not forget. I know of no cheese for which a pasty texture is desirable. I tasted many cheeses that had a well-balanced flavor yet their textures were weak.
Assistant Chief Judge Stan Dietsche, in his introductory remarks explaining the judging process, recommended the judges approach tasting each cheese with a certain reverence. He compared the proper approach to a two-minute love affair. That remark reminded me of one of our core classes – Sexy Cheese. Stan’s advice brought laughter from the judges, but his point was fully understood. This is certainly the approach my judging colleague Roland Barthélemy takes. Roland, who is president of the Guilde des Fromagers, takes in the full view of each new cheese he tastes, his eyes wide in wonderment. You can see his nose twitch slightly in anticipation. Yet he sizes the cheese up very carefully, all around its surfaces, before he focuses on the aroma. The judges take core samples with their cheese triers, hold the core sample up to their noses, and take in the full aroma. Roland has a distinctive flare to this process. He receives the tool used to extract the sample (the trier) as though he is receiving a sacred relic. He holds the sample up to his nose and sniffs the length of the sample. He turns his head to exhale then he goes through the exact same process again.
The usual process followed in cheese competitions involves taking in the cheese appearance, then the aroma, then the flavor, then the texture or mouthfeel, then you wait for the “finish.” That final aromatic profile is what “seals-the-deal” in the evaluation. Everything else may be fine, but the finish sometimes disappoints.
Again, the texture is very important. This contest lists twenty possible texture defects a judge can assign, with a couple of open spaces for any others. I recall going through several wheels of Appenzeller (one of my favorites) and finding good rinds, nice aromas and flavors (though slightly different, one wheel to the next) but when I got down to the texture critiques, I found myself checking off little deductions for the same “flaws.” Nearly all of them had a “pasty” and/or “gummy” texture, nearly all of them, unlike the Appenzeller we proudly offer. One of our sayings around here has been “Taste the Difference.” I would extend that to “Taste and Feel the Difference.” That two-minute love affair should last much longer, and the cheese’s texture helps make that happen.