Moldy Masterpieces: Blue cheeses are marbled works of culinary art

Cheesemakers are alchemists at heart. Warm milk and carefully selected cultures are the makings of their brew. Time and temperature are also to be considered. But whether the goal is Cheddar or brie, the basic concept of cheesemaking is the same.

Fundamentally, the same is true of blue cheese, but this legendary cheese also carries a bit of a mystery. Normally, foods sprouting mold would be something to avoid. To blue aficionados, however, the more mold the better. Blue cheese is very much a regional product, dictated by natural conditions and mold spores specific to a particular place. For example, true Roquefort can only be produced in France in the Combalou caves surrounding the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Gorgonzola is typically aged in the damp, warm ripening rooms of Italy’s Piedmont region, which enhance the mold reproduction.

Every locale supports its own particular breeds of yeasts, molds and bacteria. This, in combination with climate, the breed of animal producing the milk, even the temperament of the cheesemaker, will influence the end product, the cheese.

Making blue cheese requires a deviation from the standard cheesemaking process. If a frommagier were developing a Cheddar, the milk would be heated to the proper temperature and culture would be added. (The culture provides a base for the development of desirable bacteria). After a relatively brief incubation period, the culture sets the stage for proper bacterial development. Rennet is added to the vat and soon the liquid milk will turn into the semisolid curd.

For Cheddar, the curds would be cut, cooked, drained and cheddared (a process that gives the cheese its distinctive flavor) and formed into the wheels. In blue cheese production, the process is similar. The milk is still warmed and culture added. The addition of a particular strain of mold, penicillium roqueforti or penicillium glaucum, will provide the familiar blue veining. From there the process is much like that of making a traditional Cheddar, minus the cheddaring.

After the curds are placed into hoops, the mold development is encouraged by needling the formed wheels. Special stainless steel rods are inserted in the wheel. After the rods are withdrawn, the tracts allow air to make its way into the solids and produce the veins. These cheeses are not pressed under weight, allowing the curds to retain space and air to promote mold growth. Blue cheeses need special care during the ripening stage. Too much or too little mold can produce an undesirable product.

The breakdown of the fats in the cheese and the making and ripening techniques all greatly influence the final product. Some blues, such as Stilton, are crumbly and have an “edgy” mouth feel. Others, namely Gorgonzola and Roquefort, have a texture very similar to butter; this type literally melts in your mouth. Cow, goat or sheep milk can be used in the making of the cheese and the different varieties of milk will influence the flavor profiles. You’ll notice the familiar bite of caprylic acid in blues made with goat milk – this is the component that gives goat cheese its familiar piquant nature. Sheep milk is high in fat, so it will contribute to the texture as well as the taste.

Blue cheese is one of those foods that people tend to love or hate – many of us were introduced to blue cheese through an error at the salad bar! But keep in mind that the blue used for salad dressing is usually a commodity-level product produced quickly for maximum profits by the manufacturer. So don’t base your judgment upon that first experience.

To begin your blue exploration, try an import. As with all cheese, allow it to come to room temperature to fully appreciate the flavor.

Stilton is probably Britain’s most famous cheese and it’s named for the town in which it was first served. Stilton is a registered trademark and can only be manufactured in three counties in England. Within the counties are six creameries that produce more than a million finished cheeses per year. Stilton is made from cow milk and is aged for nine to 14 weeks. It’s often described as having a butterscotch flavor.

According to the legend that surrounds Roquefort, a young shepherd boy fell in love with a mountain girl. He was so terribly distracted that he left his bread and cheese in a cave. Realizing his error, he returned a few days later to find that a greenish mold had spread through his lunch and gave it a taste. Finding this an agreeable pleasure, shepherds began to age their cheeses in caves. Legendary origins aside, this sheep milk cheese has a very open texture and deep blue graining. For best results, cut it with a warmed knife.

Gorgonzola is also called erborinato in Italian, which translates to parsley green, the color of the mold, and it’s one of Italy’s most famous cheeses. This cow milk cheese comes in two varieties: dolce, which is a younger cheese with a softer, creamy consistency and milder flavor, and piccante or naturale, which is aged longer and has a stronger flavor and harder consistency. Like its French cousin, strict laws govern the production of Gorgonzola, which hails from the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of northern Italy; the cheese can only be made with milk from cows raised in these regions.

But not all blue cheese hails from overseas; quality domestic varieties are also available. Two favorites are Maytag of Iowa and Buttermilk Blue of Wisconsin.

Maytag blue is probably one of the best-known cheeses in the United States. Created in 1941, its production exceeds 1 million pounds per year. While producing great quantities of cheese, Maytag Diary Farms has maintained its farm-oriented production utilizing milk from Iowa producers. The Maytag family is still actively involved in the operation, with family members playing a part in daily operations.

Myrna Ver Ploeg, president of the Maytag Dairy Farm, explained the aging process: “Each lot of cheese is individually monitored. Aging can go from five months and one week to eight or nine months, depending upon the cheese. We taste-test for flavor components and mouth feel. We don’t pull the cheese from the aging caves by date but by development. Our caves are underground, man-made in the 1940s in the hillside of the farm. They go back 110 feet into the hillside. The air is conditioned in the caves to keep the temperatures constant.”

Buttermilk Blue, made by Roth Käse USA, is also a cheese to experience. It is made from raw cow milk that has been homogenized, a process that suspends the fats in the milk. However, it is the raw milk that allows the cheese to come into its own. To ensure a safe product, U.S. standards dictate an aging time of 60 days or more for raw milk cheeses; this aging time also allows the molds to bloom with perfect integration.

Andy Silver of The Wine & Cheese Place in Clayton highly recommended the Buttermilk Blue. Silver said, “We currently carry 22 varieties of blue cheese. English Stilton is our most requested blue. Another favorite is Saint Agur from France. It has a buttery texture. For special occasions, the silver Papillon Roquefort is a treat. A little goes along way.” Silver admitted that when he first began his role as a cheesemonger, he did not appreciate the blues. “It is an acquired taste, an appreciation that grows over time.”

Blue cheese is interesting to pair with beer or wine. “Port with Stilton is classic,” Silver said. “A nice Riesling is also complementary. A trend of late is to pair beer with the various cheeses. Lager with the blues or a pilsner is a great combination.” Other recommended pairings: Zinfandel or Pinot Noir for the softer buttery textures or Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot for the semihard varieties.