Cold weather is upon us and it’s this time of year when most of us think of blue cheeses. I am not sure why the blues are more popular in the winter — I love them throughout the year. As an ingredient or on a cheese plate, the blues are easy to define and wonderful to taste. Maybe the blues get popular as the days are shorter and celebrations increase. Regardless, I love that part of the seasonal food cycle, so let’s take some time to review what makes a blue cheese and then I’ll share some ideas of blues for you to try.
Mold, or microscopic funghi, is a key aspect of what makes blue cheese blue. The history of blue cheese is typically associated with Roquefort, a classic blue cheese produced in France. The story of the cheese is attributed to a shepherd who was storing cheese in caves in southern France. Legend has it that there was bread left at the entrance of the cave and it molded. As the mold on the bread continued to grow, a breeze carried the spores into the cave infecting the cheese being stored. The birth of the blue cheese is a very natural story as the mold in combination with oxygen and exposure to the cheese does impact the look and taste.
I like the taste of blue mold, many think it is piquant and makes the cheese “spicy” tasting. My experience is the overall taste of a blue cheese is a combination of maturation (age of the cheese) and the mold used. Cheese over six weeks old is just beginning to develop the flavors of the blue, the acid is still high and the cheeses are a bit sharp. As the cheese matures and the active milk components begin to break down, the cheese begins to exhibit the creamy profile that complements the blue flavor. If blues are often too strong for you, purchase a blue cheese aged a bit longer as it will typically be creamier and the blue taste is softer.
Mold types are another key. The two basic molds are blue (Penicillum roqueforti) and green (Penicillum notatum). The Roqueforti mold is spicier and the Notatum is fruitier. Molds used to produce blue cheese today come from a laboratory and are cultivated in the highest level of clean conditions.
The cheese is typically inoculated during the “make” process, meaning the mold is added to the milk as it is being heated to make the cheese. All cheese is produced using basically the same methodology: Milk is collected and brought to the vat at the production facility. Culture and rennet are added as the milk is heated. The milk coagulates as the enzymes or rennet is activated and turns into a yogurt-like texture.
Cheese wires are then used to cut the curds and the milk liquids (whey) begin to separate from the milk solids (curds). The curds are placed into a mold to begin the final shaping of the cheese into a solid form. From this point, blue cheeses differ. Although the blue culture is in the cheese, it is only when oxygen is available that the blue (or green) colors appear. To support the “bluing” process, the cheese is actually “pierced” using a series of long thick needles. The piercing lets oxygen into the cheese and activates the coloring. This will take from days to weeks (more oxygen, more blue) to fully impact the overall color of the cheese.
Blue cheeses taste awesome! These cheeses are the Bordeaux wines of the cheese category. Most of us don’t start out eating only blues. Usually, we graduate through the cheese ranks to end up at the pinnacle of cheeses, THE BLUES.
Blues are very complex and often misunderstood. There are what I call “beginner blues” out there. These are cheeses where the texture is smooth and the flavor is mildly blue, such as Buttermilk Blue, Bavaria Blu, Fourme d’Ambert, St. Agur and Cambozola. The next level of blues is the mild cheeses like Rogue Creamery Oregon Blue, Blue D’Auvergne, Pt. Reyes Original Blue, Gorgonzola and Maytag Blue. The kings of blue are the classic and most flavorful blues like Stilton from the UK and…drum roll, please…Roquefort from France!
Blue cheeses mostly are produced using cows’ milk but the Roquefort uses Lacaune sheep’s milk, as required by the Protected Designation of Origin (known as PDO or AOC). The traditionally produced cheeses will follow specific regulations for animals, feed, area of production, size, age and form.
The blue cheeses are fantastic when paired with sweet wines like Sauterne or other dessert wines, and also are great with fresh sweet fruits like berries. Remember, it is the season for these wonderful cheeses so go out and try some new blues! Let me know your favorites.