Curd Quips: A cheese by any other name

Long before the advent of social media, the naming conventions of wines and cheeses were crafted to create a message as to their identity. A message that could easily be recalled and, through taste association, deliver a brand identity.

Europeans have a long history of marketing food products with names that help define where they are from. For instance, in France, Burgundy is both a place and wine. Moreover, by saying the word â??burgundyâ? in reference to wine should instinctively (only if you are French) denote the type of grapes (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) used to make the wine in the region. Saying â??white burgundyâ? also should set expectations of taste. Taste that reflects a sense of place or â??terroir,â? so much so that particular geographies are coveted for the distinct flavors that they yield.

Many cheeses also follow this methodology. For instance, a â??familyâ? of cheeses in the alpine areas of France and Switzerland are each identified by the villages that they are from. An example; Tomme de Savoie translates to a Round (tomme) of cheese from Savoie, France. If you are not familiar with this cheese you should be envisioning a nutty brown wheel of skimmed cowâ??s milk cheese with cave like aromas and brown butter flavor notes in a paste thatâ??s firmer than brie, but still soft.

So take that one step further to North-Eastern Switzerland, between the Alps and Lake Constance or Appenzellerland, and home of you guessed it, Appenzeller cheese. Like wine, the naming conventions of cheeses are designed to help consumers identify not only where a cheese is from, but what tastes to expect from that place.

On this side of the Atlantic we have a number of cheeses that also reference a place in the name. Cypress Groveâ??s Humboldt Fog is named for the local ocean fog, which rolls in from Californiaâ??s Humboldt Bay. Given the cheeses mottled black, with and blue tinted taupe colors, it seems fitting. There is also a secondary story of the â??fogâ? as being from Humboldt County being a historically known dope destination. Something the Cypress Grove dairy played to with a release of cheeses called â??Flashbackâ? that artfully walked a line of double entendre: Sergeant Pepper for a chevre with peppers or Psycho dilly for a dill infused chevre.

Another California standout is Point Reyes blue. A family dairy in its second generation that produces a stunning blue with peppery blue veins in a creamy cowâ??s milk cheese with the salty essence of the Pacific Ocean. The salt character originates not from addition of any product, but naturally from the salt laden mists blown off the ocean. The cheese is a truly a tasty reflection of Point Reyes.

Not just names, but shapes of cheeses are also tied to tradition. One example is the truncated pyramid style of Valencay cheese. The legend is that Napoleon, while traveling to Paris after a failed military campaign in Egypt, was greeted by cheese makers. These Loire Valley cheese makers presented him with a cheese formed in the shape of a pyramid to honor his Egyptian return. Napoleon apparently didn’t think that his defeat was anything to celebrate; he used his sword to cut off the top of the pyramid, rendering it truncated and flat. Valençay cheese has been made in this shape ever since.

Granted, in todayâ??s fast paced world, there are cheeses with names tied to people

(Bayley Hazen Blue), things (Wabash Cannonball), and even emotions (Crocodile Tears). Whatâ??s interesting is that though the new names donâ??t clearly communicate a sense of place, these newcomers are each standouts in taste. So much so that if you have ever tasted the cheeses mentioned there is a mental recall – in some cases swooning. Said another way, the tastes are so striking that mentioning the name can lead to a taste sensation. Clearly contemporary cheesemakers have found a way into our memory through our sense of taste.

Jeffery Mitchell is the owner of the Culpeper Cheese Company. He is also a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at or 540-827-4757.