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Artisanal Cheese Guide: Tasting & Pairings

  • 11 min read
Embark on a sensory journey into the world of artisanal cheese, where every bite tells a story of tradition, craftsmanship, and the richness of natural ingredients. Artisanal cheese is not just a culinary delight; it's an exploration of diverse cultures, landscapes, and age-old techniques. Through this guide, we aim to reveal the complexities and joys of tasting artisanal cheese, providing a window into the nuanced world of fine cheesemaking.
tasting artisanal cheese

What Makes Artisanal Cheese Special?

The soul of artisanal cheese begins with high-quality milk sourced from animals that have been nurtured on rich, natural diets. The traditional methods of artisan cheesemaking—often passed down through generations—favor slow processes and minimal intervention. This approach allows the milk's inherent qualities to shine through, resulting in cheeses with a depth of flavor that mass-produced varieties seldom achieve. It's a celebration of purity, where the milk's journey from farm to fromagerie is steeped in a commitment to excellence.
Understanding local terroir influences is crucial when it comes to artisanal cheese. Terroir, the French term involving geography, geology, and climate, profoundly impacts the flavor of cheese. It's the specific characteristics of the pasture where the dairy animals feed that infuse the milk with unique flavors, which are then preserved and amplified through artisanal cheesemaking practices. As a result, each cheese becomes a reflection of its place of origin, a delicious expression of its unique environment.
The process of making artisanal cheese is both an art and a science. It involves curdling milk, draining the whey, and patiently maturing the cheese under carefully controlled conditions. Every step, from the initial fermentation to the final aging, is meticulously managed to ensure the development of the desired characteristics of artisanal cheese. Cheesemakers must be attuned to the subtleties of the process, making adjustments that respect the milk's natural qualities while guiding it to its final, flavorful form.

Assessing Cheese Appearance and Aroma Like a Pro

Evaluating the appearance of cheese is the first step in assessing its quality and style. A cheese's skin can tell you a lot about its character; for instance, a bloomy shell suggests a soft cheese with a potentially creamy texture, while a hard, natural peel may encase a cheese that's more firm and aged. The color of the cheese should be vibrant and true to its type, indicating good health and proper aging. Look for any signs of craftsmanship, such as the pattern left by a cheesecloth or the smoothness of a washed rind, which reflect the care put into the cheese's production.
The aroma of cheese is as important as its taste. It can vary from the fresh, lactic scent of a young cheese to the bold, sometimes barnyard smell of a more mature one. To properly assess the aroma, let the cheese sit at room temperature for a while to develop its full bouquet. A good quality cheese should have a clean, distinct smell that indicates its flavor profile without any off-putting or unnatural odors.
A cheese's mouthfeel is significantly influenced by its texture, which can vary from creamy and soft to crumbly and dry. When assessing texture, take note of the cheese's firmness, moisture, and consistency. A soft cheese might exude and show a silky smoothness, while a hard cheese could reveal a more granular or even crystalline structure. The way a cheese feels to the touch can be a delightful prelude to its taste, providing insight into the milk's fat content and the length of aging.

The Art of Cheese Tasting

To fully appreciate tasting artisanal cheese, it's essential to prepare your palate. This means cleansing it from any lingering flavors that might interfere with your ability to taste subtle nuances. Begin with a neutral canvas by eating a plain cracker or a slice of baguette, and drink some water. This preparation allows the true flavors of the cheese to shine through, ensuring an authentic tasting experience where each cheese can be evaluated on its own merits.
Serving cheese at the optimal cheese serving temperature is crucial for texture and flavor. Most cheeses should be brought to room temperature before serving, which can take about an hour, depending on the cheese's density. Soft cheeses may require less time, while firmer cheeses might need more. At the right temperature, the cheese will express its full range of flavors and have the ideal texture, neither too firm nor too soft.
The sequence in which you taste cheeses can dramatically affect your perception of their flavors. Start with the soft and creamy cheese types and gradually move towards the hard and aged cheese varieties. This progression allows your palate to adjust and appreciate the increasing intensity of flavors without the more robust cheeses overshadowing the subtler ones. It's a journey from the delicate to the pronounced, from simple to complex.

Pairing Artisanal Cheese with Beverages

The classic elegance of pairing artisanal cheese with wine is a time-honored tradition that rests on balance and harmony. The tannins in red wines, the acidity in whites, and the effervescence in sparkling varieties interact with cheese's fat content and flavor profiles in different ways. A basic rule of thumb is to pair lighter cheeses with lighter wines and more flavorful cheeses with bolder wines. For instance, a creamy Brie goes well with a delicate Champagne, while a pungent blue cheese can stand up to the robustness of a port.
Venturing beyond wine, beer and cider cheese pairings offer a playful and often surprising complement to artisanal cheeses. The carbonation in beer and cider can cut through the richness of the cheese, cleansing the palate and lifting flavors. A hoppy IPA may accentuate the spice notes in a peppered cheese, while the sweetness of a hard cider can contrast delightfully with the tang of a mature cheddar. These pairings are versatile and can be tailored to suit a wide range of tastes and occasions.
For those who prefer to forgo alcohol, numerous non-alcoholic alternatives can enhance the cheese-tasting experience. Sparkling waters with a hint of citrus can refresh the palate between tastings, while craft sodas or fruit juices can mimic the complexity of wine or beer pairings. Teas, especially those with herbal or floral notes, can also offer a sophisticated pairing option, subtly complementing the flavors of various cheeses without overwhelming them.

Composing the Perfect Cheese Board

When composing a balanced cheese board, diversity is key. Include a range of cheese types to cater to all preferences and create a dynamic tasting experience. Begin with fresh, unaged cheeses with a mild flavor, then move to soft-ripened varieties that offer a creamy texture. Semi-hard cheeses provide a firmer texture and more pronounced flavor, leading up to the bold and complex profiles of fully aged cheeses. This selection ensures that your cheese board has something for everyone, from the cheese novice to the connoisseur.
A well-composed cheese board is a study in balance. It's important to consider the interplay of flavors and textures. Pair the buttery richness of a soft cheese like a Camembert with the sharp bite of an aged cheddar or the nutty undertones of a Swiss Gruyère. Incorporate cheeses with varying levels of saltiness, creaminess, and pungency. This balance of flavors and textures prevents any one cheese from overpowering the others and creates a harmonious experience for the palate.
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Crafting the perfect cheese board involves not just the selection of cheeses but also choosing the right accompaniments that can either complement or contrast with the flavors of the cheeses. These additions are not just fillers; they enhance and sometimes transform the cheese-tasting experience. Each accompaniment is chosen carefully to match well with specific types of cheese, contributing to a balanced and delightful platter:
  • Fresh Fruits: Incorporating fresh fruits such as apples, pears, and grapes on a cheese board provides a juicy and tart contrast that refreshes the palate. These fruits are particularly effective in balancing the richness of creamier, denser cheeses like Brie or Camembert. Fresh fruit's acidity and subtle sweetness balance the fat and bring out the cheese's natural tastes while priming the palate for more.
  • Dried Fruits: Dried fruits, like apricots, figs, and raisins, offer a concentrated sweetness that pairs exceptionally well with saltier cheeses such as blue cheese or aged cheddar. The chewy texture and intense sweetness of dried fruits complement the sharp and often salty notes of these cheeses, creating a harmonious flavor profile that deepens the overall tasting experience.
  • Nuts: Adding a variety of nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, or pecans, to a cheese board contributes a crunchy texture and a subtle earthy undertone that complements many cheese profiles. Nuts can enhance the nutty elements found in cheeses like Gruyère or Emmental and provide a satisfying textural contrast to softer, creamier cheeses. Their natural oils and mild flavors make them a versatile and essential component of any cheese board.
  • Honey Drizzle: A drizzle of honey is perfect for accentuating the subtle sweetness inherent in complex cheeses such as blue cheeses or aged gouda. The viscous sweetness of honey interacts beautifully with the moldy, tangy profiles of blue cheese, enhancing its flavor without overpowering it. Honey can also bring out hidden flavors in other cheeses, adding a new dimension to their taste and making the cheese board more intriguing.
The thoughtful selection of accompaniments for a cheese board is essential to creating a balanced and enjoyable tasting experience. Each element, from the freshness of fruits to the sweet touch of honey, plays a critical role in highlighting and complementing the unique characteristics of different cheeses. With the right pairings, a cheese board can become more than just a culinary treat; it can be an exploration of flavors and textures that delight all senses.
The arrangement of your cheese board has a significant impact on the overall tasting experience. Place the cheeses around the board with enough space between them to prevent the mingling of flavors and aromas. Use small bowls for wet or sticky accompaniments like olives or jams to keep the board tidy. Consider the flow of the board—arrange it so that there is a natural progression from milder to stronger cheeses. A well-presented cheese board is not only inviting but also encourages guests to explore and enjoy the full array of tastes and textures you've curated.

Essential Tools for Cheese Serving

The right tools for cutting and serving cheese make all the difference in presentation and enjoyment. Proper tools ensure that each cheese is presented and enjoyed in the way that best showcases its unique qualities. Below are specific types of tools ideal for handling different cheeses on a cheese board:
  • Knives with Holes: These are specifically designed for cutting soft cheeses such as Brie or Camembert. The holes in the blade help prevent the cheese from sticking, allowing for cleaner and smoother cuts that maintain the cheese’s delicate texture. This type of knife helps in achieving precise portions without compromising the structural integrity of softer cheeses, making it easier to present them beautifully on a cheese board.
  • Sturdy Knives: Sturdy knives, often equipped with a forked tip, are essential for handling hard cheeses like Parmesan or aged Cheddar. These knives are robust enough to cut through dense cheese without bending or breaking. The forked tip is particularly useful for breaking off manageable pieces from a larger block, facilitating both cutting and serving.
  • Spreaders: Spreaders are designed for creamy cheeses such as mascarpone or ricotta. These tools allow for easy and smooth spreading on crackers, bread, or other bases. The wide, blunt blade of a spreader is perfect for scooping and spreading without tearing the underlying bread, making it an indispensable tool for serving softer, spreadable cheeses.
  • Cheese Plane: For cutting thin, even slices of semi-hard cheeses, such as Edam or Gouda, the cheese plane is ideal. This tool allows for precise control over the thickness of each slice, enhancing both the appearance and the taste experience. Thin slices melt more readily in the mouth, releasing more flavor and making the cheese more enjoyable.
  • Cheese Wire: A cheese wire is ideal for cutting crumbly cheeses such as gorgonzola or feta. It provides clean, precise cuts with minimal pressure, reducing the chance of the cheese crumbling unnecessarily. By reducing waste and clutter while serving, this tool is especially helpful for maintaining the structural integrity and visual appeal of crumbled cheeses.
  • Cheese Fork: A cheese fork is an essential serving tool that allows guests to pick up slices of cheese without touching them directly, maintaining both hygiene and the presentation of the cheese board. It is especially handy during gatherings, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the cheese while keeping the presentation intact.
Using the right tools for cutting and serving cheese significantly enhances the visual appeal and the overall tasting experience of a cheese board. Each tool is specifically designed to handle different types of cheese, ensuring that every slice is as perfect as the next, thereby elevating the entire culinary experience.
The choice of board or platter sets the stage for your cheese presentation. Wooden boards offer a classic, rustic appeal, while marble or slate provides a chic, cool surface that can help maintain the optimal cheese serving temperature. The material of your serving board can also impact the flavors, with wood absorbing and mixing with the cheese's natural oils over time, adding a subtle depth to the tasting experience.
Providing guests with the ability to identify each cheese at a glance adds to the educational aspect of tasting. Labels and markers can include the name of the cheese, the type of milk used, the country of origin, and perhaps a brief flavor note. This information enriches the tasting experience, allowing tasters to learn about and remember their favorites, fostering an appreciation for the diversity and complexity of artisanal cheeses.
For those looking to acquire these essential accessories, many kitchenware stores offer a wide selection. You can also buy charcuterie boards online from specialty retailers that offer curated collections of serving tools, designed to complement the elegance of artisanal cheeses. When selecting tools, consider durability and functionality, as well as how their aesthetic complements your serving style.

Finding and Buying Artisanal Cheese

The quest for the finest artisanal cheese can lead you to a variety of places, from local farmers' markets to specialty cheese shops. At these locales, you can often speak directly with the producers or knowledgeable cheesemongers who can share the stories behind the cheeses. Many cities also have dedicated cheese shops where you can find a curated selection of both local and international varieties.
Navigating the world of cheese labels and certifications can be similar to understanding a new language. Labels can tell you about the cheese's origin, the type of milk used, and any unique characteristics. Certifications such as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) or AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) guarantee that the cheese was produced in a specific region using traditional methods. These markers are not just signs of authenticity but also indicators of quality and flavor profiles specific to certain regions.
Proper storage is key to maintaining the freshness and flavor of artisanal cheeses. After purchasing, cheese should ideally be wrapped in cheese paper, which allows it to breathe while maintaining the correct humidity. If cheese paper is not available, parchment paper or waxed paper is a suitable alternative, followed by loosely wrapping in plastic wrap. Cheese should be kept in the warmest part of the refrigerator, such as a vegetable drawer. Hard cheeses can last for several weeks, while soft cheeses should be consumed within a few days for optimal quality.
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For those looking to entertain or enjoy a gourmet experience at home, the convenience of online shopping allows you to order charcuterie boards online. When ordering, consider the size of the board based on the number of guests, and look for options that cater to a range of dietary preferences to ensure everyone can indulge.
Embarking on the artisanal cheese journey is an enriching experience that marries sensory pleasure with cultural exploration. Each element of artisanal cheese—from its rich origins to the careful crafting and final presentation—tells a story that is as unique as the regions from which they come and the artisans who create them. Understanding the artistry behind each variety not only enhances the tasting experience but also deepens our appreciation for the traditional methods that have been preserved through generations. As you compose your cheese board, consider it a canvas, where every cheese, accompaniment, and tool plays a vital role in creating a masterpiece that is sure to captivate and delight. Whether for a sophisticated gathering or a quiet evening at home, an artisanal cheese board curated with knowledge and passion is a testament to the timeless beauty of cheese making.