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All in the rind: how to taste cheese like a master

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 15/05/2019

Gouda cheese on display at vendor's stall at local farmer's market. © Getty Gouda cheese on display at vendor's stall at local farmer's market. I am marvelling at a colour-coded tasting chart filled with words to describe flavours at which even wine critic and queen of the flowery adjective, Jilly Goolden, might raise an eyebrow in surprise. Split into sections including “fruity”, “vegetal” and “mineral”, there are familiar flavours such as gooseberry and vanilla, but then it veers into the surreal with condensed milk, socks, Bovril and baby sick.

This might sound like a recipe gone horribly wrong, but is actually the pungent language of professional cheese tasting – a skill I’m learning as part of a new set of qualifications that could eventually earn me the title ‘Master of Cheese’. It will be a long journey of complex flavours and wonderful whiffs, explains Charlie Turnbull, a flamboyant and knowledgeable cheesemonger, who has helped set up the Academy of Cheese. He’s teaching the first ever course at the Guild of Fine Food in Dorset to a room of cheese buffs (including me). “Wine is bottled once a year, but cheese has 365 vintages a year,” he says. “It’s a living, breathing product that’s constantly changing. We want to develop a common language to classify and taste cheese so we can raise standards and help people enjoy the finer points of an amazing product.”

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Like the qualifications offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the Academy’s courses are open to anyone, from the cheese-loving public to cheesemakers, mongers and chefs. Level 1, the course we are taking today, lays down the fundamentals – how cheese is made, different styles and how to identify textures and flavours. There are handouts and PowerPoint slides, but tasting the cheese is at the heart of proceedings. Paper plates piled with slivers and scoops of ripe cheese are passed around at frequent intervals.

We try a goat’s cheese with a tart, lemony tang and a Roquefort that has a remarkable flavour of pear drops. Then there’s a gooy orange puddle of epoisses that really does smell of socks. A special tasting sheet helps us pinpoint and record elusive flavours as we sniff, squeeze and nibble our way through a total of 25 cheeses. It’s unadulterated cheese nirvana for curd nerds. 

Cheese plate   served with wine, jam and honey close-up © Getty Cheese plate served with wine, jam and honey close-up The idea for the Academy of Cheese came from Devon cheddar maker Mary Quicke, who was inspired by the success of a similar US scheme called the Certified Cheese Professional (CCP). “The way people have got in to cheese over there has been amazing,” she says. “The CCP has made cheese young and cool in the US.” Set up with support from cheesemakers, wholesalers and retailers, the Academy offers four levels of accreditation, with Master of Cheese at the pinnacle. It’s a title that requires expertise in all aspects of cheese and original research that pushes the boundaries of fromage knowledge. “It’s about creating real status and acknowledgement in the industry,” says Quicke.

Ros Windsor, MD of cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, which is also involved in the scheme, adds that it is aimed at the cheese-mad public as much as professionals. “People want to know more about cheese – we see it in our shops with customers asking questions – so this is the perfect way for them to learn more,” she says. “We envisage a lot of enthusiasm for Level 1 and Level 2. But there’s nothing to stop someone going on to Master of Cheese.” Back on the course, Turnbull is explaining how mimolette – a dusty cannonball-shaped cheese – was created for King Louis XIV using a stolen Edam recipe.

Sitting next to me is Hero Hirsh, manager of Paxton & Whitfield’s Jermyn Street store, who says she was keen to attend so she can start working towards the top qualification. “I want to become a Master of Cheese,” she says. “Having a recognised qualification that allows me to do original research and give something back to the industry would be amazing.” 

Young woman holding a plate of cheese on the wooden board © Getty Young woman holding a plate of cheese on the wooden board Reeling slightly from so much cheese, we dash through its 7,000-year history before moving on to storage and serving tips, and the vital topic of alcohol. Turnbull takes a controversial stance arguing that red wine does not work with all cheeses. “The acidity of white wine or the bitterness of beer are often a better match.” It ends with a nerve-racking half-hour exam with multiple choice questions covering everything from fridge temperatures to what wine to serve with Stilton.

I manage to scrape through with a pass. My first step to becoming a Master of Cheese doesn’t end there, though. Turnbull reveals that we won’t have officially passed the course until we’ve re-tasted all 25 cheeses at home and submitted our notes online.  “Your homework is to go away and eat cheese,” he says. “Lots and lots of cheese.” 

Level 1 Academy of Cheese starts at £150, plus around £25 for the exam. For more information, register at academyofcheese.org

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