I had my first official cheesetasting party last weekend to try out my prototype cheeses that I made this summer. It was a bit nerve-wracking having my friends and family come to taste the products of my labor thus far, without knowing ahead of time how the cheese had come out. Before cutting open the dozen wheels that had been aging for the past three months I did have a slight fear that none of them would be any good and I would have possibly been wasting my time with this whole endeavor. Just a little something to worry about, not really a big deal or anything! :P
So, the night before my wine and cheese party I got out my 10" chef knife and broke into the wheels. Overall, I was really quite happy with the results. I did have to throw away a wheel of gouda that was bitter and sour and just not good. It was not a big surprise as it had burst its wax coating about a month earlier and I had tried to keep aging it in the refrigerater wrapped in plastic. Not a good idea evidently. I was pleased with the wax rind cheddar I had made--still young and relatively mild but it did taste like cheddar. The pecorino romano that I had waxed tasted nothing like a pecorino, more like a gouda--mild and elastic with small holes in the pate, a bit bland to my palette. The gruyere, which had such a lovely rind while aging, was pleasant and a bit fruity, and I think showed great potential for an extended aging. The Manchego was nicely dry and sheepy, and also seemed like it would do well with a longer aging.
On the first tasting I was most excited about one of the wheels I had made in the style of Ossau-Iraty (or at least my attempt at Ossau-Iraty). The oldest one had a delightful salty, rich, chocolatey flavor, full of great complexity and depth. The other two Ossau-Iraty wheels were less salty and more on the winey-fruity end of the spectrum. I swear one of them had a marajuana flavor (or how I imagine marajuana to taste like, Mom!
) The two blues, a Roquefort and a Castello blue (made with half cow's milk) were also more complexly flavored. The Roquefort had taken a while to blue up and the rind over time had gotten quite ripe with other cultures. It ended up being quite strong, a bit too strong, but more salt to complement the gamey flavors may have improved it. The Castello was much milder and less blue, with a lovely creamy texture and nice level of salt.
The Tomme cheese, which didn't turn out anything like what I think of as a Tomme, (the Ossau-Iraty turned out more like Tomme), was probably the least succesfful. The washed rind was quite pungent and off-putting while the pate itself had not actually ripened fully and was too chalky. Possibly with more time and more salt to offset the barnyardness it would be enjoyable for a more daring palette, in the style of a strong taleggio or limburger.
So, these were my impressions of the cheeses on first taste, but I had invited a group of folks to come taste them and give me their opinions. I printed out some questionaires for evaluating the cheeses and a few guests diligently filled them out. For the most part everyone had a glass of wine in one hand and cheese in the other (or a baby) and stuck to giving me oral comments. I was a little bit surprised that the run-away favorite of the crowd was the Gouda-like Pecorino that I had found rather tasteless. I think the smooth texture and approachability is what everyone enjoyed. The other mild cheeses, cheddar and a monterey jack were the runners up for most popular. The stronger cheeses elicited a much bigger divergence in opinions. About half of the people really liked the more complex and flavorful Ossau-Iraty wheels, while the other half did not like them at all. There was a similar split when it came to the Castello blue, and the Roquefort and Tomme were too strong for all but a couple of people.
While having the sheep and being on the farm is definitely a concrete move, actually having a product to cut into and share with people is an exciting move forward toward making this thing real. The party was a good opportunity for some market research to help me decide what direction to go in with my cheesemaking, and it was also fun to celebrate the beginning of something with my friends. It was also a chance to show off my three day old ewe lambs and to hang out with the newborn babies belonging to my sister and to my friend Maria. What wine and cheese party isn't complete with out baby juggling?