Originally Posted by alexg
For the most part I can gauge ripeness from the outward appearance, but for cheeses like Brillat Savarin, Pierre Robert etc they look pretty much the same to me at any stage of ripeness, so I can't tell until I'm actually cutting into it. Assuming the people working at the cheese counter are even less knowledgable than I am, how can I tell for those cheeses specifically?
Don't assume they are less knowledgeable.
The better shops - most shops actually, that are cut to order usually have pretty knowledgeable staff (unlike, say, a Best Buy).
Cheese is a vocabulary of at least 200 and some say as much as 700 types/words/languages. To understand the nuances based on sight and smell takes a lot of practice. I am no where near knowing enough to be so fluent. Not even close.
Best suggestion is to take a class from a reputable local shop. Rubiner's in Great Barrington, MA for example offered a class earlier this month on how to judge cheese like a monger: "judging ripeness and condition, reckoning weight" and the like.
If you are really into it, by McCalman's and Gibbons' "Mastering Cheese".
To the case in point, look at the two Sainte-Maure de Touraine above. The rind of MGM's example more mottled, looked more "wet" but most noticeably, was sagging. When cut it ran... the cheese is starting to break down. b1os' example looked "younger" for lack of a better way to describe it. Once opened, the paste was firm. Sainte-Maure de Touraine is a firm cheese in it's best examples aged to about one month. HOWEVER: a young example, one less than two weeks old, may be softer and more moist... but not runny.
I suspect, but it might not be true, that MGM's might have smelled of ammonia. Never a good sign. But it might not have. And perhaps it even tasted OK.