Host a Cheese-Tasting Party

What in the world could be more fun than a cheese-tasting party? You've come all this way, learning how cheese helped civilize the world; how animal milks are different in fat content, protein content, and taste; and how cheese is made and classified. You've learned where to buy cheese and how to buy cheese.

You've learned the art of tasting cheese, which countries make which cheeses, all about cheese nutrition, how to keep cheese, how to pair it, and how to cut it. Finally, it's time to share. So, without any more fussing around, here's all you need to know to host a great cheese-tasting party.

Rule One: Have Fun

The first and foremost rule is to have fun, because the only way you and your friends will be open to the aesthetics of cheese tasting is if your minds are lively and open. Just as our palates open up to new flavors when they encounter the brightness of citrus and herbs, our minds open up to new experiences when we are excited and happy. Laughing is required.

Rule Two: Give Everyone a Cheese Language

It's one thing to taste something new; it's another thing to recognize the taste as being similar to something else, and it's quite another thing to be able to describe it. So give your guests a leg up by printing copies of the Cheese Notes chart that follows, or if you're feeling ambitious, make one of your own, using your own words.

Be sure to write the names of the cheeses you are tasting on the charts for your guests. They'll want to remember them! As your guests sample each cheese, they can use this chart to circle the cheese's qualities as they discover them.

Cheese Notes

Cheese Name:

Rind

Paste Color

Paste Texture

Aroma

Flavor

Mouthfeel

No Rind

Bright White

Soft

Milky

Sweet

Light

Natural

Bone White

Spreadable

Fruity

Tangy

Creamy

White

Cream

Flaky

Nutty

Lactic

Crumbly

Ash

Beige

Medium

Sweet

Nutty

Smooth

Orange

Yellow

Spongy

Herbal

Citrus

Granular

Soft

Orange

Rubbery

Spicy

Salty

Runny

Medium

Blue

Granular

Pungent

Grassy

Oily

Hard

Blotchy

Crumbly

Farmyard

Herbs

Greasy

Wax

Veined

Hard

Ammonia

Vegetable

Coating

Rule Three: Choose the Cheese

The best place to buy cheese for a tasting party is at a place where you can taste the cheeses first. Tasting the cheese will give you a good sense of the breadth of flavors and aromas, and how they complement each other. You'll want to select at least six and up to 12 cheeses (more than that, and everyone's palates will be overloaded). Choose cheeses that range from mild to strong and that represent different texture, rind, milk, and cheese-making categories.

Beyond this, you can select cheese by any number of criteria: new and seasonal cheeses, cheeses from certain countries, cheeses from certain milks, Old World versus New World cheese, washed-curd cheeses, bandage-wrapped cheeses. You get the idea; just about every aspect of cheese making presents a way to experience a variety of different cheese.

Rule Four: Pair the Drinks

This is perhaps the trickiest part of a cheese tasting, because people tend to drink what they know and like. Fortunately, you can use the guidelines to pair your cheeses with a selection of juice, wine, spirits, or beer. Put as many glasses out per guest as you expect to pour, let them know what they'll be drinking with each cheese, and provide plenty of ice water to allow everyone to clear their palates between different kinds of cheeses and drinks.

Professional cheese tasters always want to see the rind because cheese can be classified by rind type. The rind indicates the method of aging. A healthy cheese will have a healthy rind, so professional tasters also look for rinds that have the appropriate moisture and/or mold types appropriate to the cheese. Then they'll smell both the cheese and the rind before they taste a single morsel. Train yourself to look at the rind first, then the paste, then smell and taste.

Rule Five: Pair the Food

Cheese tasting alone will fill some people, especially if the cheeses are rich, but most likely you'll want to provide some other food to balance the cheese and satisfy appetites. Use ideas for sweet and savory foods and from the platter recipes at the end of this chapter to pair cheeses with fruit, nuts, honey, jam, chutneys, and vegetables.

You'll certainly want to serve crackers, sliced bread, or both, but remember, both should be as bland and mild as possible. Don't serve sesame-covered crackers unless you feel they enhance the flavors of a particular cheese, and don't serve a sourdough baguette unless you want the acid of it to balance a cheese. Plain crackers or a sliced sweet baguette will let the cheeses speak for themselves.

Rule Six: Prepare Cheese Plates

Let all the cheeses come to room temperature (you'll need an hour for hard cheeses, and twenty to thirty minutes for soft cheeses). Ideally, everyone should taste all parts of each cheese, and so it's best to prepare slices, ahead of time, on a plate for each guest. Each slice should have some rind, the outer edge of the cheese just underneath the rind, and a good sampling of the middle.

Arrange the slices on individual plates in a logical pattern, such as approximating the numbers of a clock, and use a garnish of some sort (for example, an edible leaf), to mark the starting cheese. Make sure you arrange the cheeses in order of mild to strong. Many cheeses are strong enough in aroma, flavor, or mouthfeel that they wipe one's palate out. That is, once you've tasted them, you'll have difficulty tasting anything else. Because of this, it's important to taste cheeses in order of mild to strong, with mild being cheeses that have light aromas and light tastes, and strong being cheeses with pungent aromas, bold tastes, or both.

Finally, put a generous pile of napkins at each place, and encourage people to use their fingers to test texture. (Fingerbowls are nice too).

Why not put wedges of cheese out for people to help themselves?

If you pass wedges around for everyone to slice before tasting, you run the risk of people selecting only certain parts of the cheese. They may shy away from the rind, or take a large chunk from the middle, leaving the next person with mostly rind. After the tasting, put the remaining wedges on the table so people can help themselves.

Rule Seven: Prime Their Palates

Remember the first time you could distinguish a forward taste from a finish taste? And your delight in recognizing the lemony finish on fresh chèvre? This delight is what you want your guests to experience, and two things will help them get there. First, serve only mild-tasting (bland) appetizers and, if you can get away with it, plain water before you get to the cheese.

Second, before the tasting begins, have people taste some other things, to give them an idea of the flavors and aromas they might sense in the cheese: lemon juice, orange juice, green apples, unsalted butter, plain yogurt, whole milk, almonds, cashews, walnuts, whole-wheat toast, mushrooms, and wheat grass, if you can find it. You don't need to use all of these, just a few to give your guests a sense of how different flavors show up on their tongues.

Have everyone take small sips or bites and then talk about what they smell and taste. If you can get everyone to taste the same thing at the same time, even better!

Rule Eight: Look, Feel, Smell, Taste

Just as you would taste cheese at the cheese counter, have your guests go through the steps of looking, feeling, smelling, and tasting. Go in order of mild cheese to strong cheese, and have everyone look at the rind, the paste, and the layers of aging, and talk about how each is made. Have them feel the cheese to get a sense of its resilience and texture. Then have them smell the cheese. Finally, have everyone put a small piece of cheese on the tips of their tongues, then move the cheese slowly back in their mouths, noting where and when certain flavors pop up. Then they can chew. After each piece is swallowed, ask them to inhale and note the aromas and tastes at the end.

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