My father-in-law really loved the sharp white cheddar of his Ontario homeland. And so for most family gatherings he would arrive with a bodacious block of Black Diamond cheddar, pale in its black wax coating. It had the size and heft of a brick and could likely knock an Olympian off a podium.
He apparently had good taste. At the American Cheese Society annual conference, which took place this month (August) in early August in Raleigh, Black Diamond took first prize among 12- to 24-month aged cheddars. This award category pitted many small artisan cheeses against larger commercial brands, such as Kraft and Black Diamond, so the prize was well earned.
I attended some of the conference, and while the sessions on veterinary medicine and retail strategies weren’t my thing, I reveled in the tastings.
Of particular interest was a breakout session on sensory and technical evaluation of taste led by Dr. MaryAnne(CQ) Drake, a firebrand food scientist from North Carolina State University. Drake has conducted exhaustive research on factors affecting taste difference in cheddar cheeses.
Consumers, she said, have very specific taste preferences in cheddar cheese and tend to be loyal to brands. I couldn’t help but think of my father-in-law. But I also pulled up an immediate taste memory of Black Diamond cheese, which I haven’t eaten since he passed away five years ago.
Drake then introduced us to the language used to evaluate cheese. In addition to the five primary tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami) there are also flavors that may be seen as faults in excess. But within the flavor-packed curd of cheddar, they add piquancy and interest. So cheddars may be described as sulfurous and “cowy,” the latter being the phenolic flavors we associate with the smells of barns and mothballs. They may also be called “catty,” a term that has nothing to do here with gossip and everything to do with the particular ammonia tang of feline urine.
More easily likable smells and flavors in cheddar cheese are brothy and nutty. Free fatty acids give some cheeses the vinegar sharpness you might associate with Parmesan or Swiss, while others have the inviting but simple smell of fresh milkfat.
If, as an experienced cheese eater, you’d think the age of the cheese has something to do with this, you’d be right. Here’s where Drake’s research comes into play.
By testing the same cheddars after one month, three months, nine months and 18 months, Drake and her team of testers found that milky and buttery flavors disappeared as sulfur, brothy and nutty flavors took over.
Her team also looked at regional variations in cheese. Most cheddar production is centered in the Northeast (Vermont, New York), the Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin) and the Northwest (Idaho, Oregon, Washington). Would regional differences affect the flavor of the cheese? Tasters noted the younger Northeast cheeses fell more into the fruity, nutty, umami spectrum of flavors, while the younger Northwest cheeses displayed more bitter, fatty and sulfurous flavors. Midwestern cheeses were all across the spectrum. But as all the cheeses aged, the regional characteristics became less noticeable.
When Drake’s team compared international cheddars to domestic ones, however, the opposite was true. The more cheeses from New Zealand and Ireland aged, the more different they were from American cheddars. This likely stems from the difference in animal feed. Here the animals get a total mixed ration (TMR) of grains and protein supplements that imparts a grainy sweetness to the cheese. Animals in those other countries eat much more grass, which gives the cheese a more caramelized sweetness as well as a “barny” funk.
The team compared raw milk to pasteurized milk cheddars, and found that, while the flavors developed faster in raw milk cheeses, this difference was “not the driving or sole source of distinct or desirable cheddar flavors.” Finally, the team compared cheeses that had been vacuum-sealed and those that had been bandaged, such as the English clothbound cheddars. They found the bandaged cheeses sometimes developed an earthy bell pepper flavor.
We ended the session with a tasting of cheeses that illustrated each of these points. Armed with the language of sensory perception, it became surprisingly easy to tease out distinctions in these cheeses, both in smell and taste.
The tasting also raised the question of degree. A little hint of cowy or catty here and there adds intrigue; a lot seems like a flaw.
And now I’ve got to find some Black Diamond. After all those Christmases spent sawing away at those ginormous hunks of it, it may have stealthily become the cheddar cheese by which I judge all others.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog