Blue Cheeses: A Historical Journey of Mistakes and Big Flavors
Many cheese novices shy away from blue cheese in fear of overwhelming flavors and odors as well as the visual aspect of blue mold, that when misunderstood can be perceived as cheese that could never taste good outside of a salad or as a dip for chicken wings. However, with a better understanding of the history behind blue cheeses and their methods of production even those who prefer the mildest of cheeses can slowly work their way through the spectrum of blue cheeses and find one to fit their palate!
In the production of blue cheeses there are two overall strains of Penicillium: Penicillium Roqueforti and Penicillium Glaucum. P. Roqueforti is the more intense tasting of the two and P. Glaucum is the milder tasting strain. Within these two strains of mold are many sub-strains that aid in creating distinct flavors amongst different producers and in different areas of the world. These strains are added to the cheese curds at certain stages of production to inoculate the milk with the mold. As the cheese ages it is then “needled,” a process done by hand or machine in which a hollow needle is used to create channels in the cheese that allow oxygen in to facilitate the growth of the blue molds as the cheese ages.
The appearance of these strains of mold in cheeses both occurred through a happy coincidence! As the legend goes: in the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon region of France, a young shepherd would often enjoy a lunch of bread and sheep’s milk curds, one day a young lady caught his eye and he left his lunch behind in a nearby cave for romantic pursuits. When he eventually returned to this cave, he found a blue mold growing on the cheese and upon tasting it found it to be exquisite, thus Roquefort cheese was born. In a similar story, a cheesemaker in Gorgonzola, Italy was rushing to finish his days work and head to his lover’s home. When he left the creamery that day he forgot about a batch of curds that was still draining, the next day he mixed the curds from the night before with that mornings batch of curds hoping to cover his tracks. However, the cheese remained softer than he intended so he punctured it with sticks to help it dry out, thus as the cheese aged it developed a blue veining that he, like the shepherd boy in France, found to be delicious. As a result of their long standing history and traditions in these areas both of these cheeses have been given DOP/AOC status. Roquefort AOC must be made in the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon region using only the raw milk of the Lacaune breed of sheep, and Gorgonzola DOP must be made using only the milk of cows raised in the Lombardy and Piedmont regions of northern Italy.
So how does a person intimidated by the appearance and intense flavors of some stronger blues work their way up the spectrum of mild blues to intense, piquant blues? We’ve chosen four blue cheese made by members of the Oldways Cheese Coalition to help you find the blue that is right for you!
-Dunbarton Blue (Pasteurized Cow’s Milk from Roelli Cheese Haus: Wisconsin, USA)
-This is a great introductory blue for those who love a sharp cheddar but are yet to make the jump to blue cheese. Handcrafted by Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, this cheese looks like a wheel of cheddar, but is needled to allow slight growth of blue before being pressed, which inhibits further mold growth. The result is an earthy, cave aged cheese with a crumbly texture and wonderful bite!
-Prince George’s Blue Cheese (Raw Cow’s Milk from P.A. Bowen Farmstead: Maryland, USA)
-This natural rind blue cheese is made with the raw cow’s milk of pasture grazed cows who enjoy luscious grass of several varieties. Cheese is produced at P.A. Bowen Farmstead from spring through December. This blue is a step towards a stronger blue cheese, while maintaining a rich and creamy paste that melts on the tongue!
-Buttermilk Blue Affinée (Raw Cow’s Milk from Roth Cheese: Wisconsin, USA)
-Roth Cheese takes a select few wheels of their Buttermilk Blue and age them for at least 6 months. This process creates an earthy blue that has a creamy texture but a medium-intense bite that is a great middle of the road blue cheese enjoyed by novices and connoisseurs of blue cheeses alike.
-Roquefort AOP Papillon Taste Noir (Raw Sheep’s Milk from Papillon Roquefort: Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, France)
-The peak of piquant blues out of our selections, this creamy but intense Roquefort is made with raw sheep’s milk and develops a streaking of deep blue against it’s ivory paste as it ages. When you’ve begun to complete the spectrum of blues, from mild to intense, enjoy this creamy but intense blue and think back to the times you feared blue cheese, reveling in your newly found connoisseurship and the historically accidental masterpiece that is Roquefort!
Daniel McElligott, Oldways Cheese Coalition Research Consultant