Mark Pitts-Tucker doesn’t grade cheese every day. His job also involves product development and managing the company’s entire stock – all £200,000,000 of it. But one or two days a week is dedicated to cheese grading, and a typical day could see him taste up to 700 samples.
While you might imagine tasting so many cheeses would require regular palate cleansing, he says it’s more about focus. ‘When you’re grading cheese you’ve got sample after sample after sample. Once you get the image in your head of how it should look and how it should taste, the best thing to do is to just get your head down. When you’re in that mind-set, you pick out what’s wrong and not necessarily what’s right, because you’ve got such a firm image of “it needs to be this it needs to be this”. If I get a sample that’s definitely wrong I step back for a minute, cleanse my palate and think “right, now go again”. As long as you’ve got that level of consistency you’re actually better off having that constant memory of what it should be like.’
When beginning a tasting, he starts with the cheese grader’s tool of the trade, a cheese iron, a handheld utensil that enables you to bore into the cheese and remove a piece from the centre. This is the first level of assessment, where he grades the body of the cheese. He told us: ‘The body of the cheese is the firmness and keeping quality, as well as the mouthfeel. As you push the cheese iron into the cheese you’re assessing the body, the firmness. As you turn the cheese iron you can feel the texture of the cheese, so does it glide around smoothly or is there a lot of resistance.’
Next comes the aroma: ‘When you pull the cheese up and out, you put that straight to your nose - you actually taste more through your nose than you do through your mouth. You learn an awful lot from that initial aroma. If there are any off flavours you pick that up very quickly and you get a feel for the longevity of the flavours and the quality of the flavours.’