Ah, the Aroma
Cheese and pungency go hand in hand, and a cheese's smell is another important indicator of its health and taste. Think about how well you taste food when you have a cold. Not very well, right? That's because our taste buds need the help of our olfactory senses to register taste. We need to smell what we eat in order to taste it, and smells reach us in two ways.
First, they reach us through the nose; then, after we've taken a bite, they reach us through our sinuses in the back of our throat. We'll get into the world of cheese tasting in the next chapter, but for now we'll talk about how we perceive cheese before we've taken a bite: through our nose.
Remember, we're still standing in front of the cheese counter, having thought through what we're buying cheese for, and whether it needs to be paired with other food or drinks. We've examined it from the outside, looked at its insides, and given it a soft, gentle squeeze. So far, everything's gone well.
Now, bring that piece of cheese close to your nose (not touching your nose, please!), and take a deep breath. What do you smell? A bit of freshness, a hint of mold, something buttery, grassy, like mushrooms or almonds or wool? These are all smells from lighter cheeses, those that will brighten and titillate your palate.
But suppose you picked up a washed-rind or bandage-wrapped cheese. None of those descriptors would be working for you. Instead, your eyes might be watering and you'd be thinking “Gym socks?” Don't be alarmed; most people recoil at these strong smells. After all, no one likes the smell of gym socks.
But think about how these cheeses were made. Cheese microorganisms have mixed with the microrganisms of brine, linens, or both, and grown. The rinds are not intended for eating; they are on the outside of the cheese, protecting the inside, and these aromas are the exact aromas they are supposed to give off.
Cheeses to avoid are those that smell truly funky, or (as mentioned previously) like ammonia. When you smell it, you'll know these cheeses have aged beyond their prime.