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Beginners Guide to Cheese Part 2: How to Judge Cheese

Cheese Judging is hard and here we continue from where we left off in Part 2 of Our Guide on How to Judge Cheese…

Picking up on Goods and Bads in the Styles of Cheese

1. Fresh

Goods:

Purity is often king with fresh cheeses. Hints of yoghurt and lemon are all welcome, but it should come across as completely clean. Complexity should come in the form of the grassland the animals grazed upon.

Surprisingly, complexity which is so very important in other cheeses, is not so relevant in fresh cheeses. These are often peasant cheeses, whose very simplicity is their greatest strength.

Bads:

Anything that could be described as nasty will stand out like a sore thumb in fresh cheeses. You may also get hints of chemicals or over processing.

Fresh cheese also only declines – they just get worse as time passes. As the name implies they must come across fresh to be the best.

2. Cured

Goods:

Cured cheeses are a mixed bag. What is good for halloumi may not be relevant to burrata. However they all must give a sense of being close the land from which they’ve come. It’s often easier to demonstrate this through the negatives – the cheese shouldn’t taste tired or decayed or drab. It should be alive and light, bringing its story to your taste buds.

Bads:

The tastes should not be out of focus.  As with fresh cheeses we are looking for no hint of chemical or processing, or that hint of stainless steel pipes.  Any flavourings used such as mint in halloumi or cream in burrata should taste clear, fresh and of good quality.

3. Ripened 

Goods:

Although ripened cheeses vary enormously, from mould ripened to blue cheeses to washed rind cheeses, the goods are very similar: 

  • the body of the cheese should be significantly, and in some cases entirely, broken down into a paste losing all the acidic dry crumbliness it had when it left the dairy.*
  • The ripening yeast, mould or bacteria should be alive and full of energy.  It should bring across the mushroom of moulded rind cheeses, the fungal piquancy in blue cheeses and the salty, smelly, meatiness of washed rind cheese

* the judge should be able to determine the amount of breakdown to expect by looking at the ripening cultures used and the shape of the cheese

The Judge will be looking for a delicate balance, that perfect moment, when all the organic forces at play in the cheese crescendo to that perfect peak. 

Bads:

All ripened cheeses start underripe, with an excess of acidity, insufficient savoury notes and often bitterness. They will end their lives in a nasty aggressive bundle of tastes and flavours that will taste disgusting. Ammonia, carpet like moulds that get stuck in your teeth, excessive bitterness, metallic notes, astringency, viral smells of teenage trainers, these are all possible characteristics of an out control ripened cheese. On the upside you will definitely know when you taste it.

4. Aged 

Goods:

Each of the categories of aged cheeses have different taste and flavour characteristics to expect. Even their textures will vary. However they all are looking to achieve the same outcome: to be of their type; and to be as interesting as possible.

Simple cheese types:

  • Crumbly: acidic with notable milk flavours
  • Hard British: predominantly savoury with noticeable saltiness and acidity, with notes of the farm
  • Hard European: sweet savoury, with notes of nuts and herbs
  • Gouda styles: milk sweet becoming distinctively caramel with age, with notes of dried fruit, dried leaves, fermented fruit or wines or spirits
  • Alpine styles: balanced sweet salty and savoury tastes, with potential notes of fruit and flowers
  • Grana styles: strongly sweet and savoury, with fermented milk and tropical fruit notes

Conforming to these styles gets a cheese out of the gate, maybe a silver award.  To really make your way into the top leagues you’re going to need to bring some interesting stowaway flavours to big up your offer. This is what is called complexity – the basket of tastes and flavours that set cheeses apart from their peers.

What they are, the Judges will discover on the day. Often it will take long discussions between the Judges to both isolate the flavours that they’re tasting, and to appreciate them. But these are the experiences that Judges will talk about in the months to come.

Bads:

There are flaws which will result in the cheese being penalised. It could be an excess of an expected taste, such as too much butter in a cheddar; the presence of something that’s out of place such as garlic; or something that’s just nasty, like urine or a feeling of sweatiness. These cheeses are just discarded.

Take a step back and consider the whole cheese

Up to this point the Judges have been quite analytical. The World Cheese Awards encourages Judges to give 5 points for look, texture and aroma, and 20 points for taste and flavour, to guide the Judges in their analysis. This results in a number, like 32/35 that somehow is intended to objectively represent the whole of the cheese. The WCA then gives bands for awards: 31-35 is a Gold.

But this is not enough, and I would argue not even, perhaps, true.

The last step, the most important step, is when the Judges sit back on their heels, cross their arms and look meaningfully at the cheese. And perhaps at each other.  One may reach forward for another taste, inserting his pointed cheese knife or iron back into the cheese for a second go. 

Another may give it a bit of a prod to check the evenness of its ripening, or ask a colleague for his opinion.  They consider it in the round. Has it worked. Has the cheese maker achieved his aims whatever they guess those aims to have been.

Does the cheese have balance; does the cheese have length. And no Judge is going to give top marks to achieve he doesn’t like, no matter what the scoring sheet says. 

Perhaps there is a little negotiation.  Maybe an Italian Judge disagrees with a Brazilian Judge, or a French Judge brings some obscure fact and the other Judges should consider.

This is where the magic happens, as the multitudes of people who will rely on these Judge’s opinions line up behind them.  The judges have the responsibility to give awards that will be meaningful outside the hall.

Nobody is able to taste 4500 cheese in one day; they are unable to weigh up old tastes against new fashions; they are don’t have the bandwidth to consider if an asiago from Uruguay should be allowed to taste different from one from Veneto, Italy.  

They just want good cheese. 

And that’s what the Judges will give them.

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