| A wheel of Comté in Paris' Rungis Market.
Photo: Max Shrem
For many of us, tasting a cheese just involves swiping a cheese plane or knife against the surface (or the pâte) of a cheese and popping it into our mouths. In France, amongst fromagers (cheese mongers) and affineurs (cheese agers), a dedicated process involves not only tasting the cheese, but also touching it to feel its texture.
Faire la sonde is a cheese ritual in which a slender, curved instrument called a sonde à fromage is used to remove a small cylinder of cheese from a wheel. It's like performing surgery on a cheese to inspect the flavor development.
A sonde, which looks like a surgical device, literally translates as a drill, taster and probe. From this tool, the taster pinches off a piece of the cheese to try. In fact, Pascal Trotté of Fromagerie Trotté insists that one actually pinches it off, because he says it's about touching the cheese and acknowledging its consistency.
For Pascal, it's this pinching that permits him to measure the quality of a cheese before it enters his mouth. While purchasing cheeses at Rungis, the world's largest food market (573 acres) just outside of Paris, Pascal will choose specific wheels based on this method of tasting.
This tasting process does not leave the wheel with an exposed hole. After the tasting, the piece ejected by the sonde is placed back into the cheese covering part of the hole. Because no fromager wants a hole in his gorgeous round of cheese, and no affineur wants a taster to ruin the look of his or her cheese.
The sonde also lets affineurs taste their cheese and determine how to proceed with the aging process. For instance, an affineur may decide to continue or to terminate the aging of a wheel of Gruyère depending on the flavor and on the texture that he is looking to create.
While we may not all have the pleasure of sampling a cheese using a sonde, we can still perform some more elementary tests on cheese. The next time you're sampling a new cheese, give it a pinch before popping it in your mouth: if it's soft and creamy, it's typically sweet and mild. If only we could apply these character tests to people!