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An Introduction to Blue Cheese: 4 Beginner Blues for Newbies

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[Photograph: @sstiavetti]

Blue cheese is a boldly delicious treat, and those of us indoctrinated into the Sacred Order of the Blue are beholden to the deepest, darkest, most peppery Penicillium mold the dairy world has to offer. Then there are the other folks, the ones who shrink back at the mere mention of blue cheese, the piquant aroma sending them scurrying into another room.

Here's a little secret I don't share very often: I used to be one of those fearful blue newbies, terrified that even a smudge of blue cheese might make its way into my mouth without me realizing, sullying my palate for the rest of the evening with its oily, spicy, pop of flavor. No bueno.

After a chance meeting with Roaring Forties, a particularly heady variety of blue, I was instantly converted into a blue disciple. Now you can't keep me away from the stuff, and at any given time I have at least a pound of some pungent blue tucked away in my fridge.

As an olive branch to those who may be wary of anything blue cheese-related, I dedicate this post to your cheese education. Below you'll find four varieties of blue that aren't a sucker punch to the face. Rather, these cheeses display a gradient of compelling flavors, only a small portion of that range being their blue nature. These cheeses may be the ones that turn you, dear blue-fearing reader, into a born-again blue zealot, one that tucks a secret wedge away for your own enjoyment so that you won't have to share it with anyone else.

Chiriboga Blue

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Bavaria, Germany—Cow's Milk
Created by a talented cheesemaker who happens to be an Ecuadorian transplant to Germany, this cheese carries with it the stout flavors of many lands: fatty, creamy, grassy, sweet, and nutty. There's a bite of blue here, to be sure, but it's not all up in yo' face like the cigarette girl at a nightclub. Rather, Chiriboga's blue notes skip in after lingering a second on your tongue, indulging in a short, playful go-around on the dance floor, before giving you a kiss goodbye and disappearing into a gentle cloud of aromatic, barn-yardy funk. You'll find hints of mushroom and toasted hazelnut in different bites, depending on where the veins of blue dot the landscape of your particular wedge. Those new to the blue may fall in love with Chiriboga's tender texture, making a compelling case for sticking around to enjoy another subtly spicy bite.

Bay Blue

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Point Reyes, California—Cow's Milk
Quite possibly my favorite blue cheese ever, Bay Blue is ripe and complex while still remaining a dairy pleasure of the simplest sort. There's a subtle spark of peppery blue-ness here, nestled amongst its initial impression of rich, fatty sweetness. This blue spark isn't overpowering, though, and anyone historically anti-blue may find gold in this variety. The first thing that hits me when I taste Bay Blue is an undeniable yeasty "hello!" that makes me think of crackers slathered with cultured butter and sprinkled with fine sea salt. Blue lovers will appreciate this cheese's straightforward personality, while blue newbs may be tempted into submission by its feathery layers of Penicillium. A wonderful treat on its own, or served with fresh veggies.

Dolcelatte

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Lombardy, Italy—Cow's Milk
How could you not love a cheese whose name literally means "sweet milk"? And that's the very first characteristic you'll notice in this soft, fatty blue cheese. That first bite tastes very nearly sugared, before the spice kicks in a moment later. Dolcelatte is an exercise in focus—allow it to slowly melt across your tongue, then observe as the flavor flows from sweet to peppery to lactic in the span of a second. There's a persistent blue-ness here, savory in its leanings, making me think back to a particularly veggie-heavy beef soup my mom used to make when I was a kid. A little herbal and a little sour, all of Dolcelatte's traits are balanced against its inherent sweetness that threatens to sweep you off your feet and carry you into the nearest grass-filled meadow. A great melty cheese if you're looking for something to mix into a burger or crumble over a warm pasta salad.

Saint Agur

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Auvergne, France—Cow's Milk
Salt lovers, raise your hands. This fine French beauty is going to show you what's what in the brine department. Luscious and velvety, creamy and warm, Saint Agur is just begging to be crumbled into a green salad or rolled across a warm slice of sweet bâtard in a luxurious, penetrating blanket of buttercream blue. Cheese zealots will fall over themselves for Saint Agur's crisp spice, while those still honing their tolerance for the blue will come away from this cheese reveling in its textural beauty. Regardless of what camp you're planted in, this cheese is forthcoming while not jumping the gun on its more subtle traits. Sidenote: I once used this to cheese to make some delicate, buttery sablés.

Do you have a favorite blue cheese that isn't a major sock in the tastebuds? Which mellower blues do you like?

About the author: Stephanie Stiavetti is a writer and cookbook author in San Francisco. Stephanie's cookbook, Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese, celebrates America's favorite dish by recreating it with small production, specialty cheeses. Her food blog, The Culinary Life, is a repository for all things comfort food related, from savory dinners to transcendental desserts.

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