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Although many of us might be getting a little stir crazy at home, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn some new skills. And for foodies, that means perfecting their palettes. While wineries have started offering virtual tastings, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium wants to show you how to effectively taste and analyze various maturations of the “King of Cheeses.”
As you can imagine, a lot of work goes into a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano. “From the dairy farms to its infant stages of culturing, to the rest of the production, cooking and aging processes, many steps are taken before the cheese hits the palate,” said the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. “With so many variables contributing to its unique and unequaled flavor profiles, it can be hard to navigate the broad spectrum of what tasters are experiencing.”
But to help transport foodies at home to the tasting rooms in Italy, the Consortium created an interactive guide that takes cheese lovers through a step-by-step professional tasting experience. Here’s what they said:
If stored in the refrigerator, remove the Parmigiano Reggiano before tasting so that it reaches a temperature of 61-62°F. It’s also best to cut it with the classic almond-shaped knife, which will enhance the characteristic graininess of the cheese. If presenting samples at different stages of maturation, they should be arranged on serving dishes or trays in the order of age – from the most delicate to the most mature.
The Tasting Sequence
Observe the Sample: “Sight can provide a variety of information, firstly, about the color of Parmigiano Reggiano, which can range from a light straw yellow to an intense straw yellow, with either a uniform or non-uniform appearance,” said the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. “The color of the cheese can be influenced by several factors: cheese from cows fed with hay is whiter than cheese from grass-fed cows. Also, light, air, and temperature aid the oxidation processes that cause yellowing or browning of the surface, whereby maturation makes the color more intense. The visual analysis also makes it possible to evaluate other peculiar features such as the presence of tyrosine crystals – these small white dots on the surface of the paste indicate the cheese’s stage of maturation and increase in size and number with aging.”
Break it in Two to Evaluate Smell: Hold it with both hands and deform it with your fingertips. You’ll want to inhale deeply for a few seconds immediately after breaking the cheese. Then smell the cheese once more after 5 – 10 seconds. “When it comes to the smell of the wheel and aroma descriptors, tasters try to identify the smell family to which the perceived stimulation belongs (e.g., lactic, plant-based, floral, fruity, etc.),” they said. “This experience provides the sensitivity or ability to go into further detail and pinpoint the specific descriptors.”
Bite Off a Small Piece With Teeth to Taste: Chew and move the piece around in your mouth slowly, so it’s in contact with every part. “During the taste analysis, tasters begin by evaluating basic tastes (e.g., sweet, salty, sour, or bitter) and the trigeminal sensations (e.g., spicy, astringent, cooling, warming, acrid, or metallic),” they said. “Essentially, the tastes that significantly define Parmigiano Reggiano are sweet (usually more pronounced in younger products); salty (increasing with aging); and bitter (almost always a weaker note, linked to an herbaceous sensation). When tasting Parmigiano Reggiano, attention focuses mainly on the spicy, trigeminal sensation, which is not excessive but tends to increase with the maturation of the cheese.”
While Chewing Analyze Consistency: Before swallowing, you must also complete a tactical analysis. “This is an extremely important characteristic, allowing the taster to almost immediately determine whether Parmigiano Reggiano is young or more mature,” said the Consortium. “In this stage, testers can assess the elasticity of the sample, namely, its ability to resume its initial shape after the pressure of mastication, and its hardness – the resistance of the sample to a very slight opening and shutting of the jaws.”
Pay Attention to the Aftertaste: At the end of the tasting, attention must be paid to the taste that lingers after swallowing the product and the “lingering of an olfactory taste sensation” of Parmigiano Reggiano. “While aftertaste can either be present or absent and can be traced to the families of aromas, basic tastes, or trigeminal sensations, persistence is similar to the olfactory sensation perceived when the product was in the mouth and is evaluated according to its duration in seconds,” they said.
While there are many more details like notes and maturation that can be analyzed during an expert tasting, these five steps provide an excellent at-home guide. Bonus expert tip: when the tasting involves multiple samples, eat a small piece of bread and drink a glass of water in between samples to cleanse the palate.