FOOD

Bolt Out of the Blue

By Christine Hyatt

Welcome to the final installment of the “Cheese in Depth” series. Over the past year, we have explored the myriad of aromas, textures and tastes throughout six main styles of cheese. With this final exploration, we delve into the realm of the mysterious and exotic blue cheese family.

Held in high esteem by most cheese aficionados, the blue cheese category can strike a bit of fear into the hearts of timid tasters. Whether due to the bold flavor or the striking veins of blue-green mold that permeate the paste, there is often trepidation when it comes to savoring these complex gems.

Blue cheeses are one of the most easily identified styles in the cheese case, though they come from any number of countries and are made from a variety of milk types and in a number of textures, from soft and spreadable, to semi-soft, to firm and crumbly. Texture and milk type will influence the final flavor intensity. Generally, softer cheeses made from cow’s milk will rate among the most mild and firmer versions with more evident bluing will be among the most intense.

What links all members of this type of cheese is the addition of special mold cultures during production. The most common type of blue mold culture is penicillium roqueforti, a strain originally derived from mold spores found growing on rye bread. Penicillium glaucom produces the blue-green colored mold in Gorgonzola. 

Blue cheese cultures are added during the early stages of cheesemaking, before milk coagulates into curd. The cultures sit dormant through curd cutting, draining and the early stages of aging. New wheels are salted and placed into temperature- and humidity-controlled caves or ripening rooms for several days to several weeks. During this time, no bluing occurs.

At the proper stage, the cheesemaker will pierce the cheese to allow oxygen to permeate the interior. After piercing, the blue mold spores become active and almost magically begin to transform the interior from white to the traditional marbled blue. The more oxygen that enters the cheese and the longer the aging, the more bluing will develop. Cheeses with a loose, open texture will exhibit more blue veining than extremely firm, dense versions.

The flavor profile of the style contains an abundance of salty overtones with a definitive essence of blue mold, which varies in degree of pungency.

For newbies to the blue cheese experience, I recommend starting with milder versions and slowly building a taste for the more extreme. Mild versions include: Danish Extra Creamy Blue or a blue-brie combo like Cambozola or Blue Castello. All are easy on the tastebuds and are perfect gateway cheeses to more robust renditions.

Not to be missed stand outs from this category hail from the traditional cheesemaking countries in Europe as well as from closer to home. A vertical tasting of blue cheese would undoubtedly include several of these renowned cheeses.

From France, a country that produces a number of noteworthy and historic blues, don’t miss Roquefort, a sheep’s milk blue made for centuries and enjoyed by Emperor Charlemagne. From the same area of south-central France comes Fourme d’Ambert and Bleu d’Auvergne, two distinctly different and memorable cow’s milk blues.

Italy’s crowning achievement in the realm of blue cheese is Gorgonzola, a northern Italian favorite available in two distinct styles: dolce, a soft, almost spreadable, younger version that borders on sweet, and piccante or mountain style, a more robust and firm aged variety. Both are outstanding examples of artistry.

England’s King of the Blues, Stilton, is the holiday favorite. Produced for almost 300 years in the southwest of the country, today the cheese is produced by only seven dairies licensed to make the cheese. Paired with Port, Stilton is a knockout.

Some of the finest blue cheese in the world hail from the caves of the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Ore. The creamery produces award-winning blues, many based on the original recipe for Oregon Blue, the first blue cheese produced in the West. A blue cheese plate would not be complete without a selection from this local, eco-friendly producer.

Enjoy blue cheese with fresh pears, dried apricots or figs. As for wine pairings, sweet, dessert-style wines pair exceptionally well, creating a symphony of salty, savory and sweet notes. Fruity whites with a hint of sweetness also can pair well. Steer clear of dry, tannic reds, many of which can taste metallic and sour in relation to the cheese.

For those wanting a complete experience of cheese, it is a worthwhile endeavor to move past blue cheese prejudice. In short order, you’ll find yourself embracing the bold! 

Christine Hyatt is a cheese educator and food writer. She welcomes cheesy questions at christine@cheese-chick.com .

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