When I was in gastronomy college working towards my Masters, part of our sensory analysis course revolved around cheese. (I know, I know. We had it tough.) This class largely revolved around the enthusiastic shouts of our highly-excitable professor; he really loved cheese, bless him, and it was more than a little funny that he looked very much like a hungry mouse in a pair of spectacles… and that he was the sort of person for whom you feel the need to say “spectacles” rather than “glasses.” The dude could get wound up to a fever pitch over whether a particular cheese smelled like rendered butter rather than fresh. It was both unnerving and endearing.
In spite of my deep-seated romantic attachment to all things dairy, I found this class a little daunting. In a previous lecture, we’d been given a comprehensive smell-test, in which we had to blindly identify eighty-something scents ranging from raspberry jam to asparagus. After tallying up our scores, that professor had singled out the best in the class or, as he called her, the Golden Nose, along with the Silver and Bronze-nosed runners-up. The worst scorer in the class was to be termed the Stone Nose. And folks… I was that Stone Nose. (The shame, ohhh the shame.)
I mean, I do suffer from allergies on a daily basis, so my poor shnozz never gets to function at its best, but to be honest I’m also just not that great at it. We’ve all got different talents, and mine lie in other areas. I am insanely good at polishing wine glasses, for example, and at reducing any dog to a pile of helpless adoration with my patented scruff massage. If you ever need a wealth of information on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Muppets, then I’m your woman. Just don’t expect me to know that what I’m smelling is a green tomato.
So anyway, my stone nose and I found the cheese class pretty challenging when it came to smell and aroma. I am easily frustrated when I’m not good at something, and I was genuinely worried about the exam at the end of the course, but on the plus side I was getting to eat an awful lot of free cheese. As it turns out, I needn’t have stressed so much: I was learning a lot more than I realised on this journey of self-discovery and Stilton, and I ended up kicking the exam’s ass. That’s the thing about sensory analysis – practice really does make a difference, even with a stone for a nose.
It’s been ten months since I graduated, and I’m still practicing; there are over 200 different chemical compounds responsible for the smells and aromas in the cheese world, which makes it quite a complex task to identify which ones are in a particular product, but this means it never gets boring. The thing is, whether you have a frantic bespectacled mouse yelling at you or not, smell and aroma are ultimately subjective; that’s why different people can detect different things in the same wine. The more you try to identify different smells, the more you can find, and it can make cheese-eating even more enjoyable, if that’s possible. Here are some tips for anyone who’s interested in getting nosy over cheese, whether just for fun or to impress some foodie friends.