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Cheese 101: There's More to Blue Cheese Than You Think

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I recently sat down with a group of cheese industry friends to get their input for some book research I'm doing. For these tastings I rarely tell people what the plan is until we all sit down, so when I whipped out a bag of blue cheeses, a palpable ambivalence filled the air. My friends offered to help with tastings, but I could tell they weren't thrilled.

The truth is that blue cheese, even carefully made, quality examples, rarely gets its due. While cheese enthusiasts are eager to try something new, they tend not to buy blues as regular eating cheeses, which means cheesemongers must focus their efforts across a wide selection of blues, often at the expense of range and diversity.

But after tasting nine blues at once it was clear how varied this style of cheese can be, and how even professed blue cheese haters, averse to common salty, acetone flavors, can find something to love.

One of the best cheeses of the tasting was brilliantly described as "A cheese first, and a blue second." I think this is where many mediocre blue cheeses trip up. They are blues first, second and third, relying on salt and mold entirely at the expense of depth and complexity. But quality blues don't suffer from the same crutch.

Nearly all blues are produced the same way: by the addition of blue mold powder to milk during the cheesemaking process. Like the white bloomy rind on Brie, this mold flourishes aerobically (in contact with oxygen). So most blues are pierced (or "veined") so air can work its way inside the cheese, which is what causes the blue veins throughout the cheese's interior.*

* A few blue cheeses develop this interior veining naturally from ambient mold, meaning the wheels are ripened in caves where spores in the air can colonize the cheese.

The variables that differentiate one blue from another are similar to hard cheese: how much moisture is left in the curd (a wet, spongy curd will collapse when pierced, meaning that occasional mold pockets are likely to develop rather than extensive and developed veining); what strain of blue mold is used (p. glaucum has a softer, sweeter flavor than p. roqueforti, for example); how long a cheese is aged before it's pierced; and if the salt has been given enough time to migrate from the outside of the cheese (in the event it's dry salted or brined) to the inside.

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We started our tasting with a limpid wedge of Cambozola Black Label. Made in Bavarian Germany, Cambozola stormed the American market in the '70s as "blue brie." It was a hybrid cheese, white rinded and buttery with isolated pockets of mold. It was mild and defined itself in opposition to "salad" blue cheese. Black Label has a grey rind, the result of natural molds and cold cellar ripening, and a texture somewhere between panna cotta and tempered butter. It also has some leathery notes, but it's really about smooth decadence, in part thanks to its high moisture content and the addition of cream to the milk base.

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If you're looking for a "cheese first, blue second" kind of blue, seek out the natural rinds, like Stilton and Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue. Natural rinded blues are made to be drier in texture, often cylindrical in shape and are aged for weeks or even months after they're formed before the wheels are pierced. The resulting cheese is dense and fudgy, with a balance of dusky, nutty flavors and then, secondarily, salt, blue, and spicy qualities. There are Stiltons aplenty, and the undisputed king is Colston Bassett, ideally the one exported by Neal's Yard Dairy. Always pasteurized, this cheese will defy anyone who claims raw milk is the only way to make good cheese. Beyond the expected salt and savory jolts, it's also layered with flavors of milk chocolate and peanut.

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More conventional blues may be wrapped in foil, like Roquefort and Maytag Blue. (These moist, crumbly varieties have no rind.) Gorgonzola Mountain is a mild option for a cheese plate while Roquefort is more intense, though it can also be a better balanced cheese. A prime differentiator among this style is the type of milk used. Americans tend toward cow, while Spanish or French cheesemakers more often opt for goat or sheep.

Our especially complex Roquefort was made, as dictated by French AOC law, with raw sheep milk—it was both fungal and lamb-y, like sautéed mushrooms and a rare chop close to the bone. The texture is miraculously fatty and dissolves immediately on tongue contact. That said, I get why it's not for everyone. But there's more to it than you may think.

The Blue Cheese Recap

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