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Blue, Bleu, Blau, Blu

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Blue, Bleu, Blau, Blu photo by Maria Reyes

By Rachael Lucas

I don’t trust people who say they don’t like cheese. I mean, who doesn’t eat cheese?

It is understandable if someone has an allergy or an intolerance, but otherwise, why would a person make the choice not to indulge in something so satisfying? Scientists have discovered that ingesting cheese releases the same feel-good brain chemicals that hard, addictive drugs do. Besides, it’s rife with microbial and enzymatic activity that work in harmony with our digestive microbiomes to supply our bodies with protein, fat, and trace minerals.   Furthermore, the enzymatic breakdown already occurring in the cheese means that it’s pre-digested. It’s essentially a superfood.

I make exceptions for people who claim to like cheese, just not that of the blue variety. Blue cheese is enigmatic. It can be intense and odiferous, an organoleptic power house. It contains histamines that can make one’s throat itchy. It does not pair easily with many fermented libations.   It can punch you in the face. It is a cantankerous old man who refuses to change his lucky bingo socks. But we love Grandpa!

Rachel biting blue PicmonkeyRachael considers a wedge of Rogue River Blue

Blue cheese is said to date back to 79 AD, and like many other types of cheese, it is thought to have come about by a fortuitous accident. The story goes: A young shepherd was eating rye bread and ewe’s milk cheese in a dank, cool cave in Roquefort-Sur-Soulzon when a beautiful girl distracted him from his lunch, which he left in the cave to pursue a most human endeavor. Days (or likely weeks) later, when he returned to the cave, the cheese had been infested with penicillium spores from the bread, thus creating the first blue cheese. Gorgonzola has a similar said-history. Since Roquefort is the first name protected cheese (in 1925 it was granted AOC or appellation d’originie contrôlée status, a French government designation of name and origin that protects the recipe from being replicated, as well as prevents the name from any sort of misrepresentation), I think that people typically tell the tale in its favor. The important lesson: chasing pulchritude can have delicious results.

There are two aerobically driven penicillium strains that are utilized for blue cheese. Penicillium Roqueforti is the most common blue mold strain, but we cannot discount its red headed half cousin, Penicillium Glaucum. Penicillium Roqueforti can be found in cheese such as: Roquefort, Bleu de Basque, Stilton, Cashel, and Cambozola. It is easy to access, and it can be manipulated into freeze-dried material, which makes it simple to acquire and to innocculate the cheese in question. Penicillium Glaucum, though infrequently used, has been the superstar mold for blues such as Gorgonzola Piccante, Bleu de Gex, and Rochebaron. Though decidedly less common, Glaucum is not going anywhere.

With these two penicillium strains, the variety of blues is myriad. There are bloomy-rinded blues, natural-rinded ones, leaf-wrapped blues, and foilies (those wrapped in foil and are rindless). Lest we forget other creations that utilize blue Penicillium mold to manipulate flavors of cheeses from different genres. Dunbarton Blue and Red Rock, cheddar/blue mutants, are two such marvels.

During affinage blue cheese is persnickety with regards to the temperature, humidity, salt and acid levels required to encourage ideal microbial development. An important thing that occurs among blues is that either the curds themselves are inoculated with blue penicillium spores, or they are applied to the rind. This mold requires oxygen to thrive, so the wheel usually is then "needled"--pierced--to enable oxygen to carry the penicillium throughout, thus creating veins.

Typically, blues are aged for two to three months, but there are always exceptions. For example, Rogue River Blue, a raw cow's milk blue from Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon, is aged for 9 months. This cheese is encased in Syrah leaves that have been macerated in pear brandy, and then it seasons in the cave until retailers and consumers alike cannot wait any longer to put this personality-laden blue cheese onto our holiday cheese platters. Patience is imperative when it comes to fromage perfection.

Textures of blues vary greatly. For instance, Roquefort tends to have a creamy and granular juxtaposition that I've learned is off-putting to some people. I love this mouthfeel. Some blues are more open textured and crumbly, like Stilton or Jasper Hill's Bayley Hazen. Some are gelatinous and slick, like Persille du Rambouillet or Gorgonzola Dolce. Then there's Spain's Monte Enebro, a fudgy-textured dream of a goat's cheese with Penicillium Roqueforti on the rind; it never had opportunity to creep inside because they don't include needling in their cheesemaking process. The result is a mouth-coating, smack your tongue on the roof, salty twang bomb with that blue piquancy on the outside.   This cheese is in my top ten, by the way.

When I'm asked what’s my favorite cheese, I say that my favorite genre is blue because the realm is vast, and I can glean more nuances from them than I can from any other cheese variety. A great example of this is Bleu des Causses. It can taste like dewy pasture, salted buttercream, a clean penny, a well kempt barn, and ever-so-slightly sweaty, all in one gratifying bite.

Aside from tasting alone for a palate tickler, it stuffs olives, inundates meatloaves, tops New York Strips, staples in salads, and is the best thing I've ever tasted inside a Madjool date. It stands as a sweet dessert course.   Some classic dessert pairings are Roquefort with Sauternes and Stilton with Tawny Port. Reislings tend to be winners when coupled with blues, as well. Dark chocolate and a salt-licky blue like Willapa Hills’ Two Faced Blue are best buds. If you need suggestions, don't be shy about getting your cheesemonger involved. If she doesn’t have the answer, she should be able to find it for you.

Keep your eye out for blue cheese with a pink coloration, as this is a signal that the cheese is passed its prime. Another thing to watch out for is browning of the paste. It usually means that the cheese has been sitting in the fridge (or cheese case) for too long. If you see a film growing on certain blues, don't dismiss the cheese as inedible. Though you are invited to purchase the cheese and scrape off the film yourself (which then allots for a devourable paste), I think it's a sign of deeper importance that perhaps your trusted cheesemonger is slacking on her responsibilities as a cheese nurturer/retailer.  

Although the aspect of character is not wanting in blue cheese, it's one of the most difficult cheeses to sell to the masses. Some customers have notions about it because of, perhaps, a youthful negative experience, and they assume that every blue cheese is the same. Though I have yet to describe one from this category as insipid, not all of them are unapproachable or require an intrepid tasting template. For someone with a less nimble palate, I recommend trying Bavaria’s Chiriboga Blue, France's St. Agur, or Roth Kase's Buttermilk Blue from Wisconsin. These are vestibular options for those who are tiptoeing into the blue realm. As for us champions of blue cheese, we can help others to overcome their scruples and encourage experimentation.

Even though some classify blue cheese as the moldy category, and somehow a comestible impediment, we must keep in mind that all cheese is, in fact, moldy. Blue just lets its freaky fungal flag fly. Blue has come to terms with being that sharp-tongued, aromatic curmudgeon that not everyone loves, but everyone has an opinion about. Blue couldn’t care less. Let’s eat.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG



Rachael Lucas is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional. You can find her most often at The Cheesemonger's Table in Edmonds, WA. When she's not selling cheese, she's tasting it, melting it, pairing it, reading about it, writing about it, or dreaming about it.

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