So the three dead Greek chemical reactions that can make cheese tasty focus on:
- sugar (sweet which lowers the intensity of other flavors, and when bacteria eat this sugar they secrete acid aka sour)
- protein (bitter flavors), and
- fat (the medium that absorbs and delivers these flavors). And you’ll notice that cheese is often rubbed with salt during curing. In this package of solid milk, you have a home run of four of the flavors that tongues love.
But what about a cheese like a French Burgundy Epoisse? It tastes delicious but smells like feet rotting with gangrene. How can something smell so bad and yet taste so good?
And so we come to the nose–the occasionally unhappy spouse in this tasting relationship. It works in a similar manner as your tongue. At the back of the nose is the olfactory epithelium (house party to millions of sensory neurons). The tips of these cells have a protein (like a key).
When odor molecules float by the back of the nose with their “lock”, the receptor cells “unlock” these odors by connecting to them with their “key”. This “lock and key” binding results in an electrical signal being sent to a different part of your brain, the Olfactory Bulb.
Smell is one of our most primal faculties. Before we are even conceived (literally), we have a sense of smell. Smell receptors have been found in human sperm, suggesting that sperm “smell” their way when finding an egg to fertilize. 4 So human eggs have the equivalent of “sperfume”. (I would love to create the marketing campaign for this line of perfume, “Sperfume, by L’Oréal”).
This prehistoric olfactory sense detects potential dangers like the smell of spoiled meat. Man-made washed rind cheeses don’t occur naturally in the wild, and so their “spoiled” smell triggers evolutionary safeguards (whether or not they apply). Cheese might very well be milk’s leap toward immortality. But Epoisse still smells like it fell a bit short with its “I’m going to kill you” scent.
It’s All In the Tongue
When your tongue and nose work in tandem, you have the start of a beautiful friendship. And like any relationship, when a person is young and in their twenties and thirties, everything can feel magically rich and delicious. But then you cross your 35th year, the Ligne Maginot of age. You start to lose your sense of taste and smell. It is gradual, but people by their sixties tend to eat less. Hey Grandma, would you like some more boringly bland food?
This sucks, but what is going on? Your tongue and your nose, much like the top of your head, are going bald. As a person ages they continue to lose taste buds, nasal mucus and sensor cells. These are gradually replaced but at a slower rate. Breaking this down into the different stages of your life: