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Just Keep Tasting

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By Rachael Lucas

It’s officially here—the dreaded cold season. Every Autumn, I can expect to spend a few weeks in snotty misery, and this Fall was no exception.

The worst part about having a cold is the lack of ability to taste and smell. When our sinuses are inflamed and clogged, it dulls our taste buds and most importantly (or detrimentally), it impedes our retronasal passages—the area in the back of the throat where it connects to the nasal passage--which is where most flavor and aroma are gleaned. As colds have a habit of spreading, I had an opportunity to talk to a few wine vendors who shared my seasonal affliction. One vendor told me that the only nuance in food and wine that he was able to identify at the time was metallic/minerality. I asserted that metallic is more of a mouthfeel aspect of taste, and it inspired me to discover what else could be detected.  Being a cheese-plate-half-full kind of gal, I opted to use this year’s cold as an opportunity to zero in on other aspects of taste that get ignored or masked. Palatal development need not be waylaid!

Our tongues are riddled with taste buds that are responsible for detection of the five simple tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. As a professional cheese eater (and vendor), I have a certain acuity to these five gustatory aspects of taste. What I have learned is when my tongue is nimble and my sinuses are clear, ascertainment of basic flavor is easy. But what other facets of flavor are going unnoticed? In The Sensory Evaluation of Dairy Products, it is said that, “not only are sensations of taste and smell elicited, but a variety of other sensory systems are also activated including sight, temperature, and texture. These sensations interact with one another and create the gestalt experience of flavor.” This, my friends, is organoleptics.

As soon as my fever broke, and I was able to survive work with the trusted assistance of daytime cold meds, I made a point of sampling every cheese that I cut. Mouthfeel and texture came to the forefront. I masticated (with an open mouth) until the cheese liquefied. I focused on the chew of the cheese, the granules in between my teeth, the way a high fat cheese coated the roof of my mouth, and the metallic sting that I could feel in my one metal-filled tooth. I delighted in refocusing on these subsidiary qualities, these other parts that make up the whole of flavor.

I paid close attention to my salivary response. If a cheese (or other foodstuff) is highly acidic, one can expect a sort of water works to occur in the mouth in order to re-establish an oral pH balance. I focused on the chemical interactions. I monitored the concentration of the saliva itself, which reveals the amount of salt existent in the food being orally broken down. Astringency left a drying sensation that had to be recompensated with an overflow of lubricating, viscous saliva.

Certain cheeses create a histamine response in the back of the throat. Blues are notorious for having this affect. I ate through every blue cheese in my case and welcomed the itchy, prickly impression that their histamines provide. I learned which blue is the itchiest—Roquefort, by far.

I drank whiskey, lots of it. Talisker is one of my favorite nite cap, single malt Scotches. I love it because it is briny, heavily peated, and rough. What I never had noticed until I caught a cold was that it is loaded with warm spices, most notably cinnamon. I could not detect a lick of peat, but how comforting to glean notes of cardamom, clove and cinnamon when under the weather!

As time (weeks!) passed, and my cold symptoms stubbornly glommed on, I went back to my semi-weekly home cheese tasting routine. I savored the cheeses, their accoutrements, and whatever fermented libation I chose to pair them with as if my tasting capability was entirely effective. I experienced it as if my palate were a blank slate. I zeroed in on the less acknowledged components of food perception and noted unexpected results in every tasting. I have sprouted in unforseen ways this cold season. I promise you that, even if you think that you are stifled in your palatal development, you are not. There is growth in every experience. No matter what, just keep tasting.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note: Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP). She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation. You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area. When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it. She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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