Walking into a cheese shop can be like trying to decipher a secret language. Cheesemongers throw around words like "barnyardy", "yeasty", "grassy" and "nutty" as if we all know exactly what they're talking about. Describing the flavor and aroma of cheese can be challenging for cheesemongers; you can't just keep saying, "it tastes good" or "the flavor is strong". That's why creative adjectives are so important.
Below is a list of the most common adjectives used to describe the flavor and aroma of cheese. Some words appear in both the mild and strong categories. For example, an "earthy" smell can be light and pleasant, like the way a forest smells after a gentle rain, or it can be intense, like the way a pile of old leaves smells on a wet autumn day. Keep in mind that strong aromas and flavors are not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on your personal taste.
Following the descriptive words is a brief explanation to help you conjure up what the cheesemonger might be talking about
1. Mild Aroma
Floral: the scent of jasmine, lavender, etc Perfumed: similar to floral, but a bit stronger Earthy: like walking through a meadow or forest after a rain or stepping into a cellar Fresh: the crisp, clean morning air, a light aroma Fruity: cut open an apple, peach or melon and inhale deeply Nutty: have you ever walked by a stand selling roasted nuts? Or eaten a hazelnut? Sweet: think about salted caramel and toffee, or biscuits baking in the oven Grassy: freshly mowed grass, freshly cut hay Yeasty: the aroma of baking bread, or the smell of a wine cellar
Mt. Tam. Photo by Jennifer Meier
2. Strong Aroma
Barnyardy: means exactly what it says, the aroma of a barn filled with animals Earthy: a pile of wet leaves, wet dirt, a cellar Gamey: a meat-like aroma that is a little bit off, or could be an aroma similar to salami Garlicky: just like smelling cut garlic Oniony: milder than the garlicky aroma Funky: stinky, pungent, not unlike a pair of gym socks Musty: opening an old book, walking into a cellar Ammoniated: acrid, bitter, stinging, (usually a negative descriptor meaning the cheese is past its prime) Funky: pungent but in a good way, bold, unique, aggressive Sour: ever smell sour milk? Ripe: a noticeable but pleasant aroma Fermented: old fruit, wine, beer
Der Sharfe Maxx Swiss Cheese. Photo by Jennifer Meier
3. Mild Flavor
Fruity: pleasantly acidic, slightly sweet Citrusy: like a squirt of lemon Butterscotch: hard butterscotch candy, sweet, buttery, Buttery: cheese that basically tastes like eating a stick of delicious butter Clean: light and pleasant Creamy, Milky: tastes like sipping whole cream Herbal, herbaceous: a grassy flavor, or a flavor not unlike a fresh herb Sweet: sweet cream or a butterscotch quality Nutty: a little sweet, often similar to the flavor of hazelnuts Green, spring-like: think about asparagus Rustic: often a cross between earthy and sharp Yeasty: the aroma of baking bread, or the smell of a wine cellar Metallic, soapy: like biting into tinfoil or sucking on a bar of soap. While unpleasant, these sort of flavors are usually faint and not overpowering
Fresh Mozzarella. Photo by Jennifer Meier
4. Strong Flavor
Meaty, bacon-y: tastes like pot-roast or bacon Tangy, acidic: citrus-like, makes the sides of your mouth salivate (some fresh goat cheese is like this) Caramelized: intensely sweet, like sucking on a piece of salted caramel candy Complex: every bite tastes a little different, a strong but very pleasant flavor Full-flavored, robust: an intense flavor you'll notice immediately Explosive: watch-out, the flavor just might knock you out Goaty: tastes like a goat smells Barnyardy: like walking into a barn filled with animals Mushroomy: funky and earthy, not quite in gym sock territory but getting close Spicy, peppery, piquant: some types of cheese have a flavor that reminds a person of black pepper, paprika and other spices. Some types of cheese literally have pepper in them. Rich: usually means super-creamy Ripe: full-flavored in the best way, eat it now or tomorrow it might be too intense Sharp: noticeable flavor, sometimes acidic Smokey - a cheese might literally be smoked (like smoked cheddar) or it might just have a flavor reminiscent of something that has been smoked Wine-y, fermented: the cheese might have actually been soaked in wine (like Drunken Goat) or it might just have an acidic bite to it Bitter: the opposite of sweet
Rogue Creamery Blue Cheese.Photo by J. Meier