Italy's Biannual Cheese Orgy

Our introductory course was meant to give us a brief history of cheese making and teach us to taste and analyze our senses, study the different kinds of milk — cow, sheep and goat — used to make cheese, learn the different methods for making cheese and finally put the theory into practice and actually do some professional tasting.

We started on first base: milk, of course. Four cups of different milk were put in front of each of us. "Learn to use all your senses," said our cheese instructor, Eric Vassallo, as we stared at the white liquid. For those of us who aren't regular milk drinkers, this was the most difficult part — even distasteful.

That's OK, said Vassallo. Even he, a true cheese master, said he never drinks milk and found this test very trying. Surprisingly, the milk samples turned out to be very different in taste and smell. We were told to choose the best, most wholesome glass. And what did most of us choose? Amazingly and sadly we almost all found the sterilized UHT (ultra high temperature processed) milk to be the best. This milk is so processed it has a shelf life of six months without refrigeration. This depressed us all, but Vassallo reassured us again. He said it is a normal response nowadays, because this is the milk most of us are given regularly now.

Tasting cheese itself was not much easier — especially as nearly all the cheeses were excellent — but it was certainly much more pleasant. After learning about the amazing number of ways of making cheese and the choices made along the way that can change the product dramatically, we finally did some serious cheese tasting.

At the end of the first lesson we were handed plates with five different pieces of cheese — no names, no clues — and instructed to say what they were, where they came from, what kind of milk they were made with, how mature they were and what they tasted like. And we were asked to make a judgment: bad, good or exceptional.

Like wine, cheese tasting has its own terminology to describe smell, touch and taste: first tastes, back tastes, acidity, bitterness, creamy, crumbly. Can you taste the grass? Does it have tints of yeast, bouillon flavor? We students were not very versed in the terminology, but someone tasted smoked sausage and another one said the cheese reminded him of clams. We were warned to distinguish between taste and associative taste, which is very hard — and none of us had ever spent so much time studying a piece of cheese.

On day two, after more theory and practical instruction — always store cheese in the warmest part of the fridge — we arrived at the final test: five different blue cheeses. We studied the rind, the texture, the colors of the whole cheeses before focusing on the morsels on our plates. Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, murianello, bleu de gex … which is which? Wow, was this hard … such pungent, strong cheese just begged for some wine to wash it down. In the end our instructor relented and out came a glass of wine for us all: to glorious cheese and to us, the new cheese masters!

The next "Cheese" fair in Bra will be in the fall of 2009. Cheese fans, start planning your trip now.

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