From the first daily message I received, I was already excited about it. So when I walked into Griffin 6 last Thursday for the cheese tasting before Heather Paxson, professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave a talk on artisanal cheesemaking in the U.S., my mouth was practically watering.
We all sat down, ready to be wowed by the three local cheeses that we were to taste. Brent Wasser, sustainable food and agriculture program manager at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, walked us through what we were about to do. “Are you ready to taste cheese?” he asked. A chorus of yeses and a plethora of nods indicated that we were ready to go.
We were each given a plate with a slice of bread and three slices of cheese, but we were told not to eat. It was excruciating. I hadn’t eaten dinner, so I could consume more cheese, and I was starving. My mouth was watering. CHEESE.
Wasser explained that we would be tasting three different kinds of firm cheese, all from the local area. The cheeses came from productions that have seasonal herds, so all three of the cheeses had been aged over the winter. Additionally, all came from cows that are grass fed, which enhances the natural flavor of the cheese.
We were instructed to pick up each piece of cheese and inspect the color. There is a gradient of color that comes in from the rind to the center of the cheese, giving us clues about the age of the cheese and how it might taste. Wasser explained that there are thousands of different micro-tastes in each slice of cheese, many more than humans could ever pick up on with our basic taste buds. When someone asked about the rind, Wasser responded that you should always eat the rind. He explained that the rind holds the history of the cheese.
We broke each piece of cheese apart and looked at the structure inside. We also considered the temperature of the cheese and since all the cheeses were at room temperature, Wasser explained that the cheeses would really reveal their true personalities to us.
The first cheese we tried was the Berle Farm Berleberg (Hoosick, N.Y.). It was a cow’s milk cheese, made entirely using solar power. We smelled it first, and it smelled lactic and salty. To the touch, the cheese was a little oily, and in my mouth, it was a little creamy, a little waxy and even a little rubbery. The flavor was different depending on where I tasted it; near the rind, it was slightly bolder, but closer to the center, it had a sweeter taste. Wasser explained that the cheese had been bound in a cheese cloth before it was pressed, which explained some of the different flavors that were present.
The second cheese in the tasting was the Vermont Shepherd Verano (Putney, Vt.), which is a sheep’s milk cheese. The farm it was made at is featured in Paxson’s book, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. The first difference we noted between this cheese and the previous was that its surface was less regular, and according to Wasser that irregularity indicated the presence of cheese mites, which give the rind flavor and aroma. There was a much more profound change in color from the rind towards the interior of the cheese, and texturally, it was much more brittle and flaky. Wasser also explained that sheep’s milk cheese is generally higher in solids – fat and protein – than cow’s milk cheese and that the acidity is more profound in sheep’s milk cheeses. This cheese had a drier texture and was definitely more acidic. Additionally, it had a more full, rustic flavor, with a hay or grassy quality present. It tasted a little woodier than the previous cheese, like it had been made in the middle of the forest.
The final cheese of the night was the 3-Corner Field Farm Battenkill Brebis (Shushan, N.Y.). It was a nine-month old sheep’s milk cheese, and as usual, we studied the smell first. It smelled a little sharper and less cheesy than the previous cheeses. It had a brittle texture, but when we broke it, it didn’t break into shards, as the other two had. Wasser explained that this characteristic suggested it had undergone a different process. Upon first taste, the saltiness came through much more clearly than it had in the previous cheeses, and it made me salivate as I was chewing it. There was a hint of a sheep-like taste and maybe a touch of sourness.
As we concluded the tasting, a fellow over-21 taster piped up, saying, “I wish I had a nice glass of red wine.” I completely agreed. In his concluding comments, Wasser pointed out that there is a large human contribution to cheese making. Much of the outcome is the cheesemaker’s choice.
Overall, I tried three fantastic cheeses, but my instructions were to rank them, so here goes. My favorite was the Battenkill Brebis, for its complete taste and texture. It had the perfect amount of saltiness and left me craving more. In second place was the Verano. I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by the woody taste, a characteristic that really set the Verano apart. Last, but certainly not least, as it was a brilliant cheese in its own right, was the Berleberg. It was wonderfully sweet and had a very nice texture, but it had no “wow” factor.
So there you have it: three delicious local cheeses. I’m of the opinion that everyone should eat more cheese, so try one of these if you ever have the opportunity. You won’t regret it (unless you’re lactose intolerant).