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Before I get started on today’s topic, the Taste of Cheese, I want to take a minute and say welcome to all the new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast every week. I appreciate you all so much. I’m so excited to share with you what’s going on at the farm this week.
There’s a lot going on. It’s spring. Lambs are coming. Calves are coming. Plants are sprouting. There is not enough time in the day to get everything done. This will go on for a while. I love it. It’s so good to be alive.
- Homestead Life Updates
- The Taste of Cheese
- Best Lasagna Ever
Homestead Life Updates
We have lambs. This morning we found a set of triplets who are doing well and a single. There are still 4 more ewes yet to lamb.
We still only have two calves. They are drinking all of the available milk from one cow. So no cheese, butter or yogurt yet.
In the garden Scott planted 50+ strawberry sets and I planted over 100 strawberry seedlings that I started indoors a few weeks ago. I am overwhelmed with celery. I started way too many seedlings. Likely I will offer some of this from the homestead store later this summer. Home-grown celery is nothing like the bland, tasteless stuff in the grocery store. My tomatoes and eggplant seedlings are doing great. It will still be a few weeks before they can be planted out in the garden.
Today, we placed row covers on our cabbage. Hopefully, this year we will actually have a crop that the cabbage moths don’t destroy. Pray for us in that regard. We’ve never been successful because of those pesky cabbage moths. Integrity and love for the land keeps us from using any poisons. This could just be the year for cabbage for us.
In the orchard the kiwis are going crazy. We had a few very small fruit starts last year but I got too busy and did not keep them watered enough. The fruit dried up and fell off before it got to any size. I’ll be keeping a better eye out this year. The grapes and blackberries are putting on leaves. No blooms yet but soon. The blueberries have bloomed. June is the month for those lovely jewels to reign supreme. If we can keep the raccoons out, we just might have a blueberry crop this year. We got an electric fence up last year, but most of the blueberries had already been eaten.
We’ve had rain and more rain. Our homestead is doing okay with all of this wetness, but lots of flooding just south of us in North Carolina. We will be getting even more rain this evening. Our location keeps us safe, though there is mud everywhere. Especially where 1,000 pound cows are tromping over and over up and down the travel lanes to the milking shed.
The creamery walls are steadily rising. I have to give it to Scott, he is consistent. Every moment he has available, he is out there making that happen. He did give me a half hour or so this morning to help with those row covers for the cabbage and it was much appreciated.
Hey, I have quail eggs in the incubator. Yes, quail eggs. In just 18 days, we will have quail chicks. I think I mentioned that I don’t like to interrupt Scott in his faithful mission to get that creamery built. So, building housing for chickens and pigs is out of the question at this time. However, he has said he will give me a half-day to build a couple of simple quail breeding cages. The quail will be providing much-needed eggs for us. We eat a lot of eggs and are constantly facing the decision to buy cheap less-than-optimally nutritious eggs from the grocery or paying lots of money for those great farm fresh eggs offered by our fellow Farmer’s Market sellers. The Farmer’s Market eggs are definitely worth it but our budget will be less stressed with us growing our own eggs.
Lastly, let me talk about the Herd Share program we are working on. We want to offer you the opportunity to have your own cow and reap the benefits that we are blessed with by virtue of operating our homestead. I know all of you cannot possibly do what we are doing, but you’d like to have the benefit of fresh dairy products from pasture raised cows. Soon you will be able to purchase part of the herd and simply pay a monthly boarding and maintenance fee. We will take care of everything else for you. On a weekly basis, you can come to the farm and pick up your fresh milk products. We are still working out the details of what we will offer as far as value added services and how much we will charge for that service. Butter and yogurt for sure and perhaps some fresh cheeses such as mozzarella, cream cheese, or lemon cheese. Let us know what you want. After all, we are doing this for you. How can we serve?
For those of you out there listening to the sound of my voice, if you are in the southern/southwestern Virginia area or northern North Carolina area, we are here for you. It is about an hour trip from Winston-Salem, North Carolina and perhaps an hour and a half from Greensboro. In Virginia, Martinsville, Hillsville, and Galax are all less than an hour away. Wytheville is slightly over an hour. It takes us an hour and 10 minutes to get to the downtown Farmer’s Market. Roanoke is 2 hours from us. Floyd, Christiansburg and Blacksburg are somewhere in between.
We are open for on-farm sales and herd share pickups: Saturdays 3 – 5pm and Tuesdays 10am – 12pm. Come on out and get yourself some homestead sunshine. Take a look at how our animals are raised. We’ll answer all of your questions and make sure you get the best grass fed and finished beef, lamb and goat on the market today. Tuesdays 10am – 12 pm and Saturdays 3 – 5 pm.
The Taste of Cheese
A few episodes ago I talked about the sensory experience of taste. Next, I talked about the basics of cheesemaking. Today, I’m putting those two together. This episode is going to be all about the taste of cheese. What is it? Where does it come from?
As I said, in a previous episode (link above) I talked about the basics of cheesemaking. We learned about how complex organic compounds in milk are transformed during the cheesemaking and aging processes. Many of these compounds are broken down into other water or fat-soluble compounds. Some of them are volatile, which means they can be detected as flavors or aromas by our taste buds and the smell receptors in our noses, respectively. Let’s explore where these flavors and aromas come from, and delve into how we perceive, describe, and compare them.
Whether professional or amateur, the way all cheese people approach the subject of flavor is framed by Prof. Frank Kosikowski’s theory of component balance. According to Kosikowski’s model, very specific compounds in very specific amounts and combinations are responsible for the often-mind-boggling array of flavors detected in cheeses, yogurts, and other dairy products. When we talk about a cheeses flavor profile, were referring to its overall taste as comprised by multiple individual components.
Any fine artisanal cheese has many distinct aroma and flavor components, which, when well put together, form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. While each fine cheese is unique—with individual pedigree and identifiable terroir—it is also similar to others of its type; in fact, it distinguishes itself precisely because of the way it’s many volatile compounds combine, interact, and balance each other to present a signature flavor profile. The more components a cheese has in its flavor profile, the more complexity it is said to possess. If one or more of those components dominates and drowns out the others, we say the cheese lacks balance. If it only has a few of them, we say it lacks complexity.
Where Do Cheese Flavors Come From?
The three principle nutritive substances found in cheese—casein (milk protein), butterfat, and lactose (milk sugar)—are the building blocks of its flavor. Those volatile compounds we perceive as cheese aroma and flavor, often referred to as “aromatics,” come from two principal sources: first, the plants the animals eat and the breakdown of chemical compounds in those plants during the animals’ digestion process; and second, during the cheesemaking and ripening process the action of key enzymes, secreted by microorganisms, is used in breaking down those three “building blocks”.
Dairy and flavor scientists who study cheese generally estimate 20 to 30% of aromatics come from the feed the animals eat (and the water they drink). The remaining 70 to 80% is determined by cheesemaking and ripening parameters. As we learned in the basics of cheesemaking, making cheese is mostly a process of dehydration, that is of increasing the percentage of milks solids; in terms of taste, the flavors of these aromatics become more focused and concentrated.
Starter cultures release their enzymes, which continue working after the bacteria cease to function, and remnants contribute their animal or plant enzymes. These agents start the breakdown and flavor making processes. Molds, yeasts, and bacteria introduced during cheesemaking and/or ripening secrete their own enzymes, which in turn act on the fats and proteins to create volatile compounds. Each different substance contributes it specific flavors. Brie style cheeses, for example, obtain their delicious mushroomy flavors from the white candidum species of Penicillium mold growing on their rinds. Thistle rennets used in certain traditional Portuguese and Spanish cheeses lend a typical hint of bittersweet flavor.
Terroir: From Cow Pasture to Cheese Plate
Common sense tells us what the animals eat will affect their milk and thus have a tremendous impact on the cheese. The greater the amount of natural, local food our animals consume, the more of our lands’ character (terroir) will eventually end up in our cheese.
A study co-authored by Drs. Carpino, Licitra, and Barbano and published in 2004 in the Journal of Dairy Science, examined the difference between cheeses made from the milk of pasture fed cows versus ones made from the milk of those consuming a TMR or dry formula feed (TMR is total mixed ration).
The study provided conclusive scientific evidence for two key concepts of flavor origin: first, pasture feed yields more flavors and aromas; second, native plants and grasses offer unique aromas and flavors, that is, terroir makes a big difference. The study showed that a significant portion of the aromatics came from specific plants known to have been eaten by specific animals. As the cows chewed up grasses and flowers, crushing them and oxidizing the chemicals within, aromatics got released into the animals’ digestive tracts. Those aromatics eventually made their way into the milk. Even later they emerge as aroma and flavor-giving substances in cheeses.
How to Describe Flavor and Aroma
Aromatic compounds are described by way of references to other substances with the same flavor or aroma. Many flavors and aromas are very, very specific; others are significantly more vague or complex. An example: to most people—even serious foodies—the chemical name diacetyl means absolutely nothing; however, the reference “movie popcorn butter” has immediate resonance. Its aroma is unique and has no other clear reference; in fact, the chemical diacetyl was used for many years to create artificially flavored buttered popcorn.
To know cheese, you’ve got to taste it—and lots of it. By far your most crucial skill as a cheese connoisseur is your ability to taste, first recognizing what’s in a cheese and, second, articulating what it is you like and don’t like about it.
Tasting cheese in a vacuum is difficult: there is nothing to compare it to. Once you have two or more cheeses, you can develop references and begin to see the range of possibilities, and eventually accumulate a vocabulary based on your personal library of cheese experiences. Again, taste lots of cheese.
Another way of tasting cheeses is alongside wine or other beverages which provide further contrasts and/or complements. Sometimes a wine or beer pairing with cheese will evaluate both partners and in almost every case it will reveal something interesting about each of them.
How Do We Taste Cheese?
What we perceive as cheese flavor is made up of a few fundamental components: first, the four flavors detected by the taste buds on our tongues—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty; and second, the thousands of odors we can pick up with our noses. The pleasures of cheese tasting are made possible by two things. First, the incredible sensitivity of our olfactory system—we can pick up something on the order of 10,000 aromas—and second, its physiology, namely, the retronasal passage connecting the nose to the mouth at the top of the back of the throat. These oral and nasal perceptions, added together, comprise an overall taste impression, or “flavor by mouth.” When you include the additional factor of texture, you have another compound sensation called mouth feel. Remember I spoke of these in the previous podcast on Why Food Tastes So Good. Link is in the show notes.
About 90% of what you taste in a cheese’s “flavor by mouth” is aroma. Our sense of smell comes into play twice: first, when we put a cheese under our noses and, second, when we put it in our mouths. One reason for the difference between the smells and tastes of cheeses is due to our ability to smell only surface volatiles, in what flavor scientists called the “headspace” of a cheese (the immediate vicinity of its surface). When we put cheeses in our mouths and begin to chew, however, all the different aromatics inside them become available. Four tastes and thousands of aromas.
Many of the compounds on a cheese’s surface, including that which makes an ammonia smell and quite a number of potentially stinky, barnyardy (even somewhat noxious) odiferous substances, have actually had a mellowing effect on the interior of the cheese. If you can get past the initial smell, you will find they are among the ripening agents responsible for balanced flavor development and are one reason why a really smelly cheese can taste quite mellow and mild.
Once we put a cheese in our mouth, another breakdown process has begun: Our body’s own digestive enzymes, starting with those contained in the saliva, go to work at releasing flavor compounds. Multiple component taste factors immediately come into play, starting with those four primary flavors of the tongue and including the tingle, rasp, or caress of the cheese’s textures stimulating all those nerve endings on our palates and creating an overall impression of flavor by mouth, plus mouth feel.
Cheese and the Four Primary Flavors
Of those four flavors of the tongue, fine cheeses do exhibit quite a bit of underlying sweetness and also sourness. After all, milk sugar (lactose) is one of the three building blocks of flavor, and fermentation, producing lactic acid. It is the first step of cheesemaking.
What about bitterness? A little bit of basic bitterness goes a long way. And if at all, we only want a little and it must be balanced.
Next comes “salty.” This is the most common flavor in all cheeses. Like any other flavor component, salt should be in balance and it should complement the other flavors. Of all cheese defects, over-salting is the most frequent. Salt should emphasize or bring out a cheese’s other flavor components—not call attention to itself.
The tactile sensation of a cheese—how its texture is perceived in your mouth—is an important part of its overall profile. Whether it’s satiny smooth and near liquid or crunchy and more crystalline or anywhere in between, a fine cheese’s texture and consistency will settle over the tongue in a particular way to deliver a distinct impression. As with flavors and aromas, personal preferences come into play: some of you will prefer softer types, others will salivate over harder ones. In any case, contrasting tactile sensations can enrich your cheese experience.
How to Practice Tasting Cheese
The main steps in tasting a cheese are look, touch, smell, taste—wait, think about it and reflect, and don’t miss the finish. Clear your palate; do it all over again with the same cheese again, take your time and move on to the next one only when you’re good and ready.
What to Look For:
Examine the rind and, if it’s a cut piece, the interior or paste. Make a note of all the textures and colors there and also if there are any interesting, different, curious or potentially meaningful markings. Think aesthetics: what is it about this cheese that looks good or bad and/or bodes well for how it might taste? Bear in mind that some very scary looking cheeses can be very delicious.
How to Assess Cheese by Touch:
Poke it, tap it, run your finger over the service, roll or press a small portion of the paste between a thumb and forefinger. How hard is it? Does it have any resistance, any kind of springy, bouncy consistency or texture? How does it break or crumble? A tactile assessment does not make or break a cheese’s reputation, but it’s an interesting piece of the bigger picture. By the way, if a cheese feels too cold, give it more time to warm up to room temperature before going any further.
How to Smell Cheese:
Take a good sniff. A very common question we ask is, “Why do some cheeses smell a lot stronger than they taste?” This question leads quickly to the realization that the character and intensity of the cheese’s aromas do not necessarily coincide with its flavors. A strong cheese may have a deceptively mild aroma; a real stinker may taste mellow and mild. Also, make sure your hands are clean and free from any kind of perfume or other potentially conflicting odors.
Take your time throughout the tasting but particularly with the all-important moments after you put it in your mouth. Keep a clean, clear neutral palate and an open mind. This is where a little bit of good white bread (classic baguette or its equivalent) and a sip of water or some other fairly neutral beverage can help clear your palate of any potentially clashing or conflicting flavors. Just a tiny piece of bread works like a swab to take acid and fats off the tongue so you can taste a cheese more clearly.
Take a small bite of the cheese at first and make sure it comes into contact with every part of your tongue and as much of the inside of your mouth as possible. This is important because your taste buds are spread around the tongue and other parts of the back of the mouth and also because different receptors may focus on different flavors. Chew slowly and gently. Note all the flavors on the tongue and try to determine whether they are in balance. Be sure to note the initial sense attack and also to what extent there is an evolution of flavors: some fine cheeses make a strong immediate impression; others build from a quiet start to an impressive crescendo. As the cheese settles over your tongue and then migrates to the back of your mouth, begin to taste its full flavor profile. Note its texture and mouth feel.
Wait for the finish and see how long it lingers; great cheeses don’t disappear quietly or slink away meekly, but they frequently offer distinct final impressions.
Finally, Describing Cheese
Descriptions can be quantitative or objective as well as qualitative or subjective. Outlining a cheese’s appearance is more objective than trying to capture all of its aromas and flavors. Observers can generally agree whether its rind is reddish orange or orangish red. Once taste and preference enter the equation, however, all bets are off. A cheese that tastes sour to you may seem only slightly tangy to me. One I feel is lush and luxurious may strike you as boring tub of butterfat, but hopefully we can objectively identify and acknowledge the traits upon which we base these opinions. It can be a valuable exercise to compare tasting notes with your cheese-lover friends.
In the beginning you may find it difficult to move past such seemingly mundane adjectives as salty or buttery or creamy. That’s fine. People attach all kinds of different tags to an item in order to keep track of it in their memory banks. After years of tasting, there may be still many cheeses that you file under simple terms like buttery or crumbly, but with experience, your vocabulary will broaden. The more cheeses you taste compare, the more sophisticated your descriptions and references will become.
To assist you in developing your vocabulary I’m going to offer a couple of free downloads one will be sample vocabulary terms that describe color, color modifiers, firmness or density, texture, mouth feel, flavor and aroma, flavor modifiers, and subjective, qualitative, or interpretive terms. The second download will be an outline of the basic cheeses by types and categories.
How Are Cheeses Classified?
Categorizing cheeses can be a useful extension of describing them. It helps you find substitutes or alternatives when your preferred cheese isn’t available, and it can help you create an interesting, varied selection when putting together a cheese plate for your friends.
Any categorization system that accurately describes cheese traits can be useful not only in sorting them out but also in understanding and appreciating their various qualities and attributes.
The basic international categories include: Fresh, chevre, bloomy rind or soft ripened, washed rind, natural rind, uncooked and pressed, cooked and pressed, and blue.
Other types include: stretched curd (pasta filata) and whey cheeses.
Due to the melting pot that is America, the American Cheese Society Awards have a huge number of categories. These categories include: Fresh unripened, soft ripened, American originals, American made/international style, cheddars, blue molds, Hispanic and Portuguese style, Italian type, butter, low fat and low salt, flavored, smoked, farmstead, fresh goat, fresh sheep, marinated, aged sheep, aged goat, and washed rind.
In the end, they are still all based on the international categories.
What Makes a Cheese Great?
In assessing greatness complexity of aromas and flavors, stimulating textures, balance, distinct or unique character, and impact—in the sense of making a memorable impression are central. You might taste a cheese once, and not even remember its name, but you can’t get it out of your mind. Maybe it doesn’t even have strong aromas or flavors—after all, great cheeses can be very subtle—but it begs you to try it again.
If a cheese is unique, it may qualify as great. But, to be an exceptional cheese, it doesn’t absolutely have to be one-of-a-kind. Cheeses that are variations, or even imitations, of great types should not be automatically ruled out. They may be very similar in character but at the same time could possess enough individual personality to stand out. My favorite cheese, cheddar, comes to mind. A great cheddar will stand out.
Another key question: does it truly express its terroir? Great cheeses, like great wines, have an uncanny ability to transport you. Merely good cheeses taste like a type or are recognizable as a category; great ones taste like the place they are from. An outstanding Chianti beams you right to a sundrenched hillside vineyard beside a dusty road in Tuscany. Likewise, a taste of a perfectly ripened Appenzeller take you to a flowered mountain meadow with a backdrop of majestic glaciered Alps.
Great cheeses live and breathe; they evolve and grow—not just from cheesemaking through ripening but on your palate when you taste them. Cheeses with profound, complex flavor profiles inhabit your mouth and offer a broad evolution. They start with an attack, subtle or not-so-subtle, hitting the taste buds of the tongue with fundamental flavor highlights. Those flavors develop and expand, melding and competing with myriad aromas, working their way back to the retronasal passage and up into the intellectual and memory centers of your brain. You are excited, stimulated, challenged. Tasting a great cheese makes you say, “wow.” Strong or mild, hard or soft, you’re bowled over by its brilliance.
At this point I’m going to remind you that we now have store hours where you can come to the homestead and see our terroir. We currently have various grassfed meats available and I would love to talk with you about what you are looking for in your dairy products. Before the end of summer, we will have cheese, yogurt, and butter available for our herd share members. Let’s talk about you owning part of a cow herd.
Best Lasagna Ever
Good Lasagna takes a little work, but it is so worth it.
What You Need
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- ½ cup minced onion
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 6-ounce cans tomato paste
- 2 6.5-ounce cans canned tomato sauce
- ½ cup water
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons dried basil
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 12 lasagna noodles
- 16 ounces ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ pound mozzarella cheese, sliced
- ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
What To Do
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
- In a Dutch oven, cook sausage, ground beef, onion, and garlic over medium heat until well browned. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, and water. Season with sugar, basil, fennel seeds, Italian seasoning, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons parsley. Simmer, covered, for about 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook lasagna noodles in boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain noodles, and rinse with cold water.
- While noodles are boiling, combine ricotta cheese with egg, remaining parsley, and ½ teaspoon salt in a mixing bowl.
- To assemble, spread 1 ½ cups of meat sauce in the bottom of a 9 x 13” baking dish. In layers, arrange 6 noodles lengthwise over meat sauce. Spread with ½ of the ricotta cheese mixture. Top with one third of mozzarella cheese slices. Spoon 1 ½ cups meat sauce over mozzarella, and sprinkle with ¼ cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat layers and top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.
- Cover with foil: to prevent sticking, either spray foil with cooking spray, or make sure the foil does not touch the cheese. Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil, and bake an additional 25 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Whew, that was a long one. There is a lot going on here. Between the plants and the animals, things are growing, growing, growing. We are still looking for 3 calves and who knows how many more lambs—Scott just stepped in and said we have another set of twins. Three more ewes still need to give birth. I’d say no more than five more—that is unless someone else has triplets. Thanks for stopping by and keeping up with our homestead life.
Go out there and taste some cheeses. Then come visit us and taste our cheese. We think you will be delighted. Our traditional food practices make great food choices for you. We are dedicated to providing you with the most nutritionally dense foods money can buy. Remember to visit our website, zip down to the bottom of the page and get those 2 downloads for expanding your vocabulary in your quest toward cheese connoisseur status. You’ll also receive a notification for a free download of my herbal bone broth recipe.
Try out that exceptional recipe for lasagna and then ask us about the possibility of fresh mozzarella from your own cow via our herd share program. Yum, yum.
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As always, I’m here to help you “taste the traditional touch.”
Thank you so much for listening and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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