Did you ever have an elementary or middle school teacher ban a word from the classroom, saying that everyone was using the word too much and you all needed to try to find other words to describe what you were trying to say with the now-banned word?
I did; I remember having an elementary school teacher who forbade us from using the word “thing”—and she wrote “THING” on the chalkboard and drew a gravestone around the letters to show that the word was dead.
I am now taking on the role of that teacher, because we need to stop using the most commonly overused and meaningless word for describing cheese: SHARP.
Allow me to explain.
“Sharp Cheddar,” “Extra Sharp Cheddar”: We all know what to expect from cheeses with those words on their labels, right?
In the US, a sharp cheddar tends to have a bite—often an acidic zing that is slightly reminiscent of the tang of citrus fruits like lemons and oranges. That acidity makes our mouths water. When we buy sharp and extra sharp cheddars, we are looking for varying intensities of that zing.
How zingy the cheese is in this case depends on the cheese’s age. A mild Cheddar is younger—maybe around two to three months old—whereas a sharp Cheddar is aged for closer to a year and an extra sharp Cheddar is aged for much longer.[i] Age is relative for different companies making different ranges of cheddars, so even these guidelines may not hold true from one brand to the next.
Based on my experience working behind a cheese counter and helping people find cheese all day every day, I know for a fact that we all mean different things when we start applying the word ‘sharp’ to other cheeses.
People use sharp to describe goat cheeses, blue cheeses, cheddar-style cheeses, sheep cheeses, and hard, grating-style cheeses. I have had people refer to brie-style cheeses as sharp, and I have had people looking for cheeses that are “sharp like parmesan”—a request that nearly made my head explode.
As Cheese Science Toolkit writer Pat Polowsky jovially pointed out in an April Fool’s Day post on this topic, some people may even think of sharp as a description for a crumbly, dry cheese.[ii] I can confirm that I have encountered this interpretation of the word in daily practice.
If you come into my shop and start asking me for sharp cheeses, I will help you recalibrate your vocabulary by asking you a series of questions. For example:
Customer: Where’s your sharpest Parmesan?
Cheesemonger: Do you mean you’re looking for the most aged parmesan?
Customer: I want the sharpest cheese I can find.
Cheesemonger: So you’re looking for something with a really strong flavor?
Customer: Yeah, sharp!
Cheesemonger: Sharp doesn’t really mean anything as a descriptor for cheese, so let’s try to figure out what that means to you. Do you want it to be hard and nutty, or do you want it to be tangy and acidic?
Customer: Sharp. As sharp as it gets.
Cheesemonger: Ok, well this is our Parmigiano Reggiano, which is real Italian parmesan. It’s aged for two years, and it’s going to be the strongest in flavor of any of the cheeses in this family that we have in the shop. Have a sample.
Customer: Do you have anything sharper than that?
Cheesemonger: We can try a sheep cheese, which is going to have a slightly stronger flavor profile. Let’s try the Pecorino Toscano Stagionato.
Customer: Ooh, that’s nice and sharp. I’ll have some of that.
Now, the customer’s insistence on calling cheeses sharp might seem like hyperbole, but I’m not making this up. This is a real conversation I’ve had, and I’m not making fun of the customer; this is simply to illustrate the pervasiveness of the word sharp’s overuse.
For the record, I personally would never think to call any type of Parmesan a “sharp” cheese, much less an aged sheep’s milk cheese like the Pecorino Toscano from this example. These are cheeses that are harder, but nutty and have an inherent sweetness to them. The Pecorino Toscano was stronger to that customer because it had a gamier, sheepy flavor to it. This is one example of how taste is so subjective from person to person, but also of how “sharp” means literally nothing as a flavor descriptor.
Even if we don’t realize it, we have an internalized vocabulary that helps us describe what we’re tasting, and it’s hard to use other words to describe flavors if we don’t know why we use the words we use in the first place.
So if everything can be sharp, then what does sharp really mean?
From what I see on a daily basis, sharp has become a stand-in for “strong.” People come in every day looking for “the sharpest cheese in the case”—when really what they want is the strongest-tasting cheese in the case, and that is a matter of personal preference. We all taste food differently, and we all conceive of flavor and aroma intensity in foods in very different ways.
While I do try to educate every customer with whom I come into contact on a daily basis, I also don’t want to make anyone feel stupid or bad for using the words they use. That said, I believe that everyone should learn something new every day.
I also feel that if you understand why you like the foods that you like (or don’t like), and if you understand how your own palate works, you will be more open to trying new foods, expanding your horizons, and learning more about food from there.
So how are we supposed to describe flavors, if sharp is now dead to us?
According to cheese writer Max McCalman, “Sharp, for example, very likely means salty to many people. To some, it might mean especially tangy or acidic. Let’s clarify sharp right here as synonymous with pronounced. This means a cheese could be sharply salty, sour, or bitter.”[iii]
As McCalman goes on to explain, there are many vocabulary words we can use to illustrate what we are tasting, and we just need to train ourselves to use them—whether by reading about different cheeses and the flavors they are commonly attributed, or by tasting cheeses and thinking about what we notice on our tongues in relationship to other foods we eat.
“If sharp or biting can be applied, then why not loud or obstreperous?” McCalman asks, before suggesting other words like “loud” and “boss” to describe a cheese you might otherwise refer to as “sharp.”[iv]
Here are some other words that might better describe what you are searching for when looking for a sharp cheese:
- Butyric (the scientific word for the flavor or scent you would call “cheesy”)[v]
And what about the cheeses whose names include the words “sharp” and “extra sharp”? McCalman has this kernel to really get you thinking about what you have been eating and tasting:
Sharp is a term commonly applied by marketing types to factory Cheddars. As such, to those in the know, it is a catchword for an acidity that drowns out the wonderful symphony of flavors associated with genuine farmhouse cheeses. It is characteristic of mass-produced Cheddars and it devoids them of whatever complexity or subtlety they might have hoped to achieve.[vi]
Sharp criticism, isn’t it?
But really, the next time you are hunting for a cheese, try to use different words to describe your desired flavor profile. If you feel like you want to call it “sharp,” think about why you would call it that—intensity? Acidity? Funk? Salt? Texture? And go from there.
And if you just don’t know what to call the cheese beyond
sharp, ask your cheesemonger for help. She or he can help you figure out what
you are really trying to taste.
[iii] McCalman, Max, and David Gibbons. The Cheese Plate. Clarkson Potter: New York, 2002. 108.
[iv] Ibid., 108.
[v] Tunick, Michael H. The Science of Cheese. Oxford University Press: New York, 2014. 183.
[vi] McCalman, 108.