What it's like to taste 700 cheeses a day

What it's like to taste 700 cheeses a day

by Nancy Anne Harbord 4 August 2015

Ever wondered what it would be like to taste 700 samples of cheese in one sitting? Wonder no more! We interviewed the Head of Cheese Grading at Davidstow®, Mark Pitts-Tucker, to find out about cheese tasting, his deep passion for all things cheddar and what he keeps in the back of his fridge.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in high quality vegetarian food, Nancy has worked in Vanilla Black in London, as well as other kitchens scattered around Europe. Most recently, Nancy trained under Gabriele Bonci in Rome, learning to make his famous take on pizza al taglio, before taking the knowledge back to Stockholm to help open and run The Artisan pizzeria. She also writes vegetarian and vegan food blog, Delicious from Scratch, and is now a full time food writer.

Davidstow® cheeses are high-quality, mature cheddars, made in Cornwall using milk from local farms. As milk is such a variable ingredient, with fat and sugar content changing with the seasons, cheese is inherently variable too. The skill of the cheesemaker lies in predicting and negotiating these differences, but no cheese-making process can ever be entirely consistent.

This is the reason the role of cheese grader is so important for Davidstow®, where quality and consistency are central to the cheese’s appeal. We spoke to Head Cheese Grader for Davidstow®, Mark Pitts-Tucker, to find out exactly what this role involves and what it is that motivates him to continue in this challenging and unusual role.

Finding his calling

While you might think that a food science background is the only entry into the technical world of cheese grading and manufacture, this was not the case for Mark Pitts-Tucker. After turning his back on the future his father, who worked in banking, had planned for him he set off to see the world. He told us: ‘I felt I was potentially going from one institution straight into another, which didn’t butter my muffin, the thought of that.’ During periodic returns to the UK to secure more travel funds, he worked at a local cheese factory. To his surprise he found himself drawn to both manufacturing in general and cheese-making in particular. He says was ‘the variability of the tasks, the seasonality, the craft, the artisanal side of it, the science side of it; I just found it fascinating and gradually it sucked me in.’

During his time as a cheese-maker he experienced every side of this captivating business: ‘I started with lugging bits of cheese around – manual labour, then cutting and packing cheese. Then I went through the cheese making process, pasteurisation, working on the cheese vats, actually making the cheese in the vats, pressing of the cheese. After that came starter development and the laboratory side of things, developing different recipes and flavour styles, some production management work as well.’

But it was when he got involved in the tasting of cheese that he found his true calling. He says ‘it was something I didn’t know before that I was good at – I’ve got a consistent palate and I can identify a number of different flavours that other people struggle with. I just thought this was fascinating. I thought that’s the next area for me.’

How to taste cheese

The variability of the tasks, the seasonality, the craft, the artisanal side of it, the science side of it; I just found it fascinating and gradually it sucked me in.

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.’

Finally, the flavour: ‘You just snap a piece off and pop it into your mouth. You make sure that what you’re tasting is absolutely what you felt and smelled. You don’t need to swallow every bit of cheese, but when I taste the older cheeses I find it very difficult not to swallow. My cholesterol is not enviable but my bone structure is – my calcium levels are fantastic!’

The man from Del Monte

It is interesting to reflect on just how important Mark’s role is for maintaining the quality and consistency of Davidstow® cheese. He explains ‘although consumers don’t always know it, the discerning human element in the middle of the cheese selection process is one of the things that brings the artisanal aspect.’

With responsibility for approving or rejecting huge volumes of product, his relationship with the manufacturers can be challenging. ‘It can be like a rocky marriage on occasions’, he told us. ‘Sometimes I need to draw the line as to what’s right and what’s not right. There’s a little bit of the man from Del Monte he say yes or he say no, but the business widely accepts that there’s little point in paying for professional advice and opinion and then ignoring it, so I’m allowed to do my job.’

Mark Pitts-Tucker, head of Cheese Grading at Davidstow®

One of the reasons Mark is so good at his current job is his background in cheese-making. He told us: ‘There are some people who grade cheese who’ve never made a block of cheese in their life. The fact that I’ve spend a lot of time making cheese has given me a really good empathy for the product and a feel for it. So when I taste product and I see what’s good – and also sometimes what’s not so good – I’m able to feed that back proactively to the manufacturing site and help them tweak the recipe, so my fallout rates are very low.’

When talking to Mark, what comes across most strongly is his drive for quality and consistency, even perfection. ‘I always say in life you get piano players and you get piano shifters and I’ve always set out to be a piano player. To do it absolutely as well as I can, to be as discerning as I can. Maintaining a position of excellence is never built around complacency and you need individuals in the business that drive quality, that drive consistency and that drive betterment. Doing a job to your maximum capability is not a matter of effort as it takes no longer to do the job well than it does to do it badly – it’s a mind-set. I disassociate myself with mediocrity.’

Taking his work home

It’s hard to imagine tasting 700 samples of cheese, then sitting down to an evening meal of the same, but for Mark Pitts-Tucker, a man of unique enthusiasm who has achieved the kind of career satisfaction that many only dream of, this is a reality. He says: ‘I just love cheese and cheddar cheese particularly.’ After a long work day when the drive to cook a full meal is waning, he thinks ‘I’ve got a piece of cheese in the fridge and all I’ve got to do is open the pack, cut a few chunks off, cut a couple of bits of bread, get myself a glass of something and away I go.’

But a quick meal isn’t the only reason you’ll find a selection of cheese in Mark’s fridge. He also ages cheeses there, testing their maturation potential and developing new mature products for the company: ‘Part of learning more about cheese is pushing it to its limits and sometimes beyond, so I’ve always got that stash in the fridge that I keep longer and longer to see what it does. Maybe it’s just a feeling of inflamed superiority – knowing there’s something in my fridge that no one else has got. Occasionally, in moments of weakness, I have been known to share it. But when you become a student of your topic, you want to know more: “What if, what if… What if that happens? What if I did this? What if I changed that? What if I kept that for another year? How would that go?” The Davidstow three-year-old cheese wasn’t something that was market driven. I kept some cheese back and pushed it.’

Lasting impressions

One of the clearest impressions Mark leaves is of someone who loves his job. Someone who not only loves cheese, but is incredibly passionate about cheddar in particular – its flexibility and its universal appeal. His work ethic and his drive to make things the very best that they can be at Davidstow® are remarkable. For him, producing fantastically flavourful mature cheeses is a joy: ‘not something I’d go around and bleat about every single day, but quietly it gives me a warm feeling every day knowing that that is the case. I think I can say as a closing statement: a day without cheese is like a hug without a squeeze.’

You don’t need to swallow every bit of cheese, but when I taste the older cheeses, like 3YO I find it very difficult not to swallow.