Develop Your Palate
Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, toasted, roasted, fruity, and nutty; these are all familiar terms we use to describe flavors. We know when something is sweet, it tastes like sugar or candy. Sour makes our mouths pucker, salty tastes like salt, spicy means big aromas or heat, toasted is bread or nuts fresh out of the toaster or oven, roasted evokes pleasing aromas of meat or vegetables, fruity tastes like one or another familiar fruit, and nutty tastes like nuts. It's pretty simple, really.
Foods and spices all contain flavors we've learned to recognize and describe. It gets a little trickier when foods and spices are combined. When they blend well they enhance each other and create entirely new flavors that are more difficult to describe. So it is with cheese. Alone, cheese curds are relatively bland, but every single part of the cheese-making process enhances and builds on their aromas and flavor.
The word flavor is derived from the Latin word flatus, meaning breath, or the act of blowing. Flavor is defined by Webster's as “a sensation obtained from a substance in the mouth that is typically produced by the stimulation of the sense of taste combined with those of touch and smell.”
In 1825, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French author dedicated to the pleasure of food, wrote the Physiologie du Gout (later translated into English as The Physiology of Taste), a series of gastronomical meditations on how the senses perceive food, and though many people have written about food since then, Brillat-Savarin's description of taste is difficult, perhaps impossible, to surpass:
Whoever eats a peach, for example, is first of all agreeably struck by the smell emanating from it; he puts it into his mouth, and experiences a sensation of freshness and acerbity which invites him to proceed; but it is not until the moment when he swallows, and the mouthful passes beneath the nasal channel, that the perfume is revealed to him, completing the sensation which every peach ought to cause. And finally, it is only after he has swallowed that he passes judgment upon his experience, and exclaims, “Delicious!”
Whether you're eating a peach or tasting a cheese, all these sensations are happening in your palate, moving through your nose, going over your tongue, traveling along your olfactory nerves, and registering as taste.
You smell most food before you taste it. Whether it's the smell of onions and garlic simmering on the stove, or a steak on the barbecue, or a chocolate bar, you know what you're about to enjoy without putting it in your mouth. This is because your nose perceives food by smelling it through the vapors and gases, or aromas, food gives off.
The aromas give off hints about what you're about to eat, and most aromas likely played an important role for hunters and gatherers who came across new things to eat. Once they knew that bitterness was an indicator of poison, or that a rotten smell was an indicator of food that could make them sick, simply by smelling something first, they could decide whether or not it was good to eat.
And so, as you train your palate to recognize different cheeses, don't forget that your nose plays a critical role in perception of taste. You will smell cheese long before you eat it, and after you've come to know several different types of cheeses, you'll recognize them by their smell.
When you take a bite of food you unconsciously smell it with your nose. Then, while you chew, vapors continue to travel to your nose, but they also begin to travel to your sinuses through your mouth. When you swallow, the aroma travels straight up the back of your throat to the sinuses.
While you eat, your nose is working overtime. Though it doesn't chew, it actively engages in every single bite by smelling the food as it enters your mouth. If you chew with your mouth open, your nose will remain engaged in the experience. If you chew with your mouth closed, as mentioned previously, the aromas will transfer to the back of your throat and travel up your sinuses to the olfactory nerves that perceive smell.
Basic Tastes on Your Tongue
In addition to being of vital assistance for chewing and swallowing, your tongue is also critical to tasting food. For a long time, most food scientists acknowledged different zones on the tongue that register different tastes. The front of the tongue register sweet tastes, the sides register salt; just inside the salt zones are zones where sour tastes are registered, and bitter tastes are found at the back. However, these beliefs were eventually altered when areas all around the tongue were found to register different tastes.
Be sure to taste cheeses in the right order. Start with mild cheeses, then progress to medium-bodied cheeses, and end with robust (strong) cheeses. By starting out mild, your palate will be ready for stronger and stronger tastes. And, the stronger the flavors, the more they will influence your palate, so reserve the big flavors for the end.
At the root of all foods are these four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Sweet tastes, since they are perceived at the front of the tongue, are the first you recognize. They are often fruity, and stand alone nicely even without many other tastes added. Think of how pleasing the taste of sugar, or honey, is, and you'll understand what this means.
Salt is a basic taste, and when salt is present, other tastes are heightened. Just as sugar has a taste of its own, so does salt, but without salt, many other flavors stay flat and are perceived as bland, or without much taste. Sour or acidic flavors, are the bit of zing that refreshes, something everyone's palate needs. They wake up your senses.
Bitter tastes are usually unpleasant, and because they are perceived at the back of the tongue, they are also the tastes that linger. Used in the right combination with sweet and sour tastes, however, they can stimulate your palate and appetite.
Cooks, vintners, and cheese makers have known for centuries that sweet tastes are enhanced by saltiness and sourness, and often, when devising recipes or designing new wines or cheeses, they seek new and interesting ways to balance these three flavors. When combined with sweet and salty flavors, sour flavors somehow retreat to the background and become almost a structural framework for all three to work together.
For example, if you make your own spaghetti sauce, you probably use tomatoes and salt. The acid of tomatoes needs salt to bring out the roundness of the tomato flavors. But next time, add a teaspoon of sugar, and then taste the sauce. Do you taste the difference? The acid of the tomatoes has retreated to the background, and acts more like a basic ingredient, with other ingredients swirling around it. This is the balance brought on by combining sweet, salty, and sour tastes together.