What flavours do cheeses have?

“Cheeseology” could be to cheese what “oenology” is to wine. We often find ourselves ill-equipped when faced with a diversity of flavours such as those of cut grass, straw or earth, the multiplicity of aromas such as those of milk or hazelnut, the complexity of aging processes and the diversity of shapes and textures.

One cheese, seven flavours and 75 aromas

Tasting a cheese is an experience that leaves our sensory organs in a state of excitement. The look, texture, smell and taste bring into play our sight, touch, hearing and our olfactory and gustatory sense organs (nose, tongue and mouth).

There are five flavours that are generally recognised: sweet, savoury, acidic, bitter and flavoursome. But for cheeses, there are seven flavours,

because smell is essential. It is perceived by smelling the volatile substances of a cheese. Smells are gathered “emotionally” by the organism, which explains why it is so difficult to characterise them.

Aroma plays a role too, being perceived not by the tongue but by the nasal passage, when the cheese is in the mouth. It is obtained by masticating and salivating to the point where the aromas are freed and rise to the nose on contact with air.

Chaource et sa gelée-parfum

© T.DUVAL / CNIEL

The Seven flavours of cheese

What is meant by “flavours”?

In sensory orthodoxy, four primary flavours are distinguished, related to the four sensory zones of the tongue. Yet in 1908, Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda recognised none of these sensations in the seaweed broth which he had tasted. He subsequently identified this new taste by the term “umami”, or “flavoursome”. Approved since the 1980s by followers of the four-flavour theory, this 5th notion has since been commonly added to the typology of flavours.

But this classification, based on the perception zones of the tongue, was soon to be considered reductive, because other notions, perceived therefore existing, are present: there is still talk of astringent, hot, metallic, fatty, starchy, etc.

Furthermore, there should be no confusion between “flavour” and “aroma”: the latter is not perceived by the tongue but by the nose once the cheese is in the mouth. It is obtained by masticating and salivating to the point where the aromas are freed and rise to the nose on contact with air.

François Bourgon, of Xavier cheesemongers in Toulouse, who received the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2011, which indicates that he ranks among the best cheesemakers in the whole of France, offers an answer to this puzzling question: “Personally, I would prefer to talk about expression levels… Taste is so personal or subjective or cultural or conditioned by our eating habits from a very early age, that the great cheesemakers have constructed this classification, by drawing on their own experience.”

Fresh flavour

This is a slightly acidic, even creamy and milky flavour. It is particularly found in extra fresh cheeses with either smooth or granular textures: soft white cheese, fromage blanc, cottage cheese, etc.

Neutral flavour

This flavour is typical of the majority of uncooked pressed cheeses made from pasteurised milk. But it also includes very newly refined cheeses (except veined and washed cheeses). “Neutral” cheeses generally suit those who do not appreciate cheese that is too strong.

Mild flavour

This is particularly found in cream-enriched cheeses, as creaminess removes all aggressive tastes: it is present in Brillat Savarin, creamy Mont St Michel, etc. It’s also found in soft-ripened or uncooked pressed cheeses when they are in their newly-refined phase. These include very low-refined soft-rind cheeses, young St Nectaire for example.

Understated flavour

This is in general found in all cheeses whose refining phases have been interrupted before full maturity: they include the soft variety (Camembert, Munster, Maroilles, Brie, Coulommiers, Chaource, St Maure, etc.) as well as hard cheeses at least 3 months’ old (Reblochon, Cantal, etc.). But equally included are the majority of those with slightly marked rinds of monastic manufacture, such as Cîteaux de l’Abbaye, or of special manufacture, for example, Vacherin Mont d’Or, Raclette, etc.

Pronounced flavour

This flavour is often talked of as “cheeses of character”. It often refers to “well-produced cheeses”, not too thick, whose refining process is “just ripe”: included are Camembert AOC, raw-milk Brie, Bourguignon au Chablis, Curé Nantais, etc. The term is also used for well-refined and fruity firm cheeses, such as Beaufort. Certain rustic Tommes also have this flavour, including Auvergnates over 3 months old. Not forgetting early-season veined cheeses: Bleu des Causses.

Strong flavour

This notion covers long-fermented thick soft cheeses, e.g. Livarot, Maroilles, Munster, etc. the smell of which is generally more powerful than their taste, well-refined veined cheeses e.g. Fourme d’Ambert, or Fourme de Montbrison, Bleu des Causses, hard thick cheeses nearing the end of the refining phase (6 months for a Fourme de Cantal, 10 – 22 months for a Beaufort or Comté).

Very strong flavour

This ranges from hot, even over-ripe, flavours and is a notion applied in general to macerated cheeses (Tomme matured in brandy, for example), to very slow-fermentation cheeses (Boulette d’Avesnes), and including some well-refined blues (Corsican blue, Roquefort); it also applies to special preparations (St Marcellin to Aromes au Gene de Marc, etc.).

“To create beauty, a painter uses a range of colours, a musician, a range of sounds; a cook, a range of flavours; and it is remarkable that there are seven colours, seven sounds, and seven flavours”.

Lucien Tendret, a French lawyer and gastronome, author of “La Table au Pays de Brillat-Savarin”

How to cut cheese

Round, square, heart-shaped, pyramid-shaped, etc.
France produces over 300 types of cheese.

Learn how to cut French cheese