Follow Your Nose: How To Smell That Smelly Cheese

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.

  • 1. Smell and aroma are two different things. When you use your nose by itself, that’s smell territory; when your nose and your mouth work together while you chew, that’s aroma.
  • 2. Break the cheese apart. The newly-broken surface will provide a stronger scent for you to get your nose at. Take a big whiff and think about what you smell, repeating this a few times until you run out of ideas. Next, pop a chunk of cheese in your mouth and see what you can identify this way.
  • 3. I find it makes it easier if I have a list of possible odours or an aroma wheel in front of me when I’m going a-smelling. The common smells and aromas to look for in cheeses fall into the following families:
  • Lactic. This can include fresh milk or butter (or rendered butter, as our professor emphasised), boiled milk, cream or natural yoghurt.
  • Vegetal. This group encompasses things like cut grass, fresh hay, earth, mushrooms, cauliflower, potato, garlic, onion, or vegetable broth.
  • Floral. Here, you might find things like rose, violet or daisy, as well as honey. Our professor was so exacting that we were asked to differentiate between types of honey. (I was, of course, unable to do so.)
  • Fruity. The cheese we were given in our exam smelled overwhelmingly of pears; other aromas might include various types of nut, citrus fruits like lemon or grapefruit, apple, pineapple, dried fruits or olive oil.
  • Toasted. Think about toasted bread, or related odours like toffee, caramel, chocolate, roasted nuts, coffee or brioche.
  • Spicy. Think spice-rack; you’re looking for things like pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves or mint.
  • Animal. This was one of my professor’s favourites, and can refer to cow sheds, meat broth, leather or horsehair.
  • Fermented. This one’s not so pleasant, but it’s also possible for cheese to smell of nastier things like rubber, soap, sulphur (like rotten eggs!), fermented butter or ammonia.

4. Lastly, our professor would always ask us to consider whether there was a relationship between the nose and the mouth; that is, does the cheese taste like it smells? A strong relationship between the two is considered a sign of a high quality cheese.

Happy smelling, everyone! I hope these tips are helpful, and remember – if my stone nose can do this, then there’s hope for us all.

If you have any comments about smelly cheese or disappointing noses, leave a comment below.

[All images featured via ShutterStock.]