It All Begins in The Mouth

Volume 132, No. 9 - Friday, August 31, 2007

We are in the food business, and one of the qualities that can be most appealing in food is flavor. 

Why state something so obvious?

Years of working with clients has shown me that flavor is our “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Everyone talks about it, swears up and down they love or hate the Emperor’s new clothes, but few notice he has none because they don’t take time to taste either their own, or other people’s cheeses, on a regular basis. 

A surprising number of producers have no regular structured tastings where they compare the condition of their cheese from different batches or to their competitors. You would think we are in the pack it in a box and move the box from place to place business, not the cheese business.

But regular tasting is essential to developing a cheese with character; a cheese with flavor. Years ago, I finagled my way into a wonderful winery in the Rhone Valley in France. Imagine their surprise when I was the only one to show up for the invitation. Though I was a guest of the French at a food show, and bought cheese, the original invitee, a wine buyer for a major supermarket chain had never left the US before, and was afraid to miss his flight, even though the appointment was at 10 a.m. and his flight at midnight. 

Amazingly, my hosts acted as though they were not disappointed, and took the time to give me a grand tour of their estate, then sat me down for a tasting with father, the son, the winemaker and a distant relative who had bamboozled them into thinking she spoke English. 

The tour was wonderful, but the tasting of their wines was enlightening. As I tasted each wine, from the common Bistro blend to the ultra-exclusive estate bottled red wine made by the father, I was amazed at how each was perfect for what it was. It is a rare thing when anyone can make something well, but to make so many varieties well was, for me, breathtaking.

Being a curious sort, I asked the father, Louis Mousset, “Why is it that each of your wines, from the simplest to the grand, is so full flavored, balanced and well made?”

He replied, “From when I was 10 years old and my father asked me if I wanted to join him in making wine, he took me down to the winery and made me taste the grapes fresh off the vine, he made me taste the crush, then the filtered juice before it went into the barrels, then the next day, then before it went into the bottles, then every few months until it was ready for sale, even after he bought it in the markets in his travels around France. 
After a while, I could taste a grape in the field, and know exactly what the wine would taste like in the bottle.”

Nothing teaches us more about what we do than direct perception: nothing!

A few years ago, I had to coerce a client into tasting their cheese. Their customers were complaining of bitterness, and it was costing them sales in spite of winning awards and being hailed in the media. 

So I made them taste a wheel from every batch they had made over the previous 18 months. Lo and behold, some batches of older cheese were bitter, and some younger had an acid bite. As it turns out the acid notes were what was turning the cheese bitter as it aged.

But what really struck me was that the owner felt he didn’t know how to taste, and left it to his cheese maker and I to do all the talking. I have always believed that anyone with a mouth can taste, so I encouraged his input, and by the time we were done, he felt more assured, and trusted more his palate.

I would like to think that that experience helped them, because the bitterness went away, and they have since won numerous international as well as national awards, and best of all, they are making money and expanding!

Most professionals lack a truly objective way to taste what they make, and the ability to use that to make a better product. I am not talking about grading here, but about tasting to understand the consumer’s experience, the marketing principle called outside-in thinking.

Perhaps it is wine, by which I mean, those painful experiences tasting wine: feeling like an idiot because for the life of you, you don’t taste any cigar box or raspberries in your glass like the so-called expert and everyone nodding their heads around you, and are embarrassed that you don’t know the snooty lingo. 

But there is a way to taste with objectivity that even a first timer can do well, and most of all, that can be discussed, and learned from, to help make a more distinctive product.

I call it the “Geography of the Mouth™.” In my comparative tastings, done with companies, we taste cheese together, but are only allowed to describe where sensations are taking place in the mouth, without any fancy descriptors. Everyone’s mouth has a top; a bottom; a front; a back; and sides, and an open passage at the front and back to the nose. 

So tasting a piece of cheese might go something like: “I feel a tingling on the tip of my tongue, nothing at the top or bottom of my mouth for a moment then a sudden strong sensation at the back of my mouth and the back of my tongue at the sides which just as suddenly ends leaving no sensation at all.” 

Anyone can do that; try it! All you have to do is pay attention to what is happening and describe where it is happening in your mouth, your mouth’s geography. No use of terms like “buttery notes” or barnyard, just the facts. 

Another example: “As it enters my mouth I feel it subtly in my nose and on my tongue, then the sensation moves along the tongue towards the back with increasing intensity, filling both the top and the bottom of my mouth with a balanced sensation that rolls forward, finishing with a subtle sensation moving up from the back of the mouth into the nose.”

Both are real descriptions from tastings I have done recently. Which one would you prefer? Even the uninitiated can express themselves this way because it is a personal thing: there is no right and wrong. Like Mr. Mousset at 10, you don’t have to know what you are tasting at first. Just the act of repeating it regularly will teach over time. 

The sense of taste is a god-given right, and we all have mouths. If you really want to learn from it, compare the tasting notes with the notes from your makesheets and previous tastings at different stages of the process, including pieces you buy in stores just like your end consumer. You will learn or, if you can’t figure it out, you will know how to communicate to your cheese maker, or culture supplier, or a consultant, and find out how to make it better.

So, one day, when a young person arrives at your creamery for a tour, you will be able to say you too can taste the cheese at any age and know its future. You will know the secret to cheese with mouth-filling, balanced, pleasurable flavor by regularly tasting it: the key to competing as a specialty cheese. It all begins in the mouth. 


Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at dan@danstrongin.com

 

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