Serious Cheese: Blue Cheese 101

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Photograph from WordRidden on Flickr

As we close in on the last few months of a year many of us would soon rather forget, it seems somehow fitting to delve a little deeper into a class of cheeses whose pungent spice can soothe the aching heart: the blues. Like winter, blue cheeses are loathed just as much as they are loved. But love them or hate them, blues are some of the most important cheeses in the world, and some of the most interesting.

Is It Really Mold?

Yes. Those striations of color, usually blue, sometimes green, sometimes grey, sometimes even violet, are actually molds--usually of the strain Penicillium roqueforti--that are actually feeding on the proteins in the ripening cheese. Back in the day, these molds would've lived on the walls of whatever cave the cheeses were ripening in, and would've grown in and around the cheeses 'naturally.' Nowadays cheesemakers inject their unripened cheeses with freeze-dried molds, so as not to leave anything to chance. They also pierce the cheese with needles to create a series of air-pockets in which the oxygen-loving molds can grow and thrive.

Kind of Blue

The three classic "old-world" varieties of blue cheese are Roquefort (sheep's milk blue from southern France), Gorgonzola (northern Italian cow's milk blue), and Stilton (cow's milk blue from central England). The three cheeses vary quite a bit both in texture and taste. Roquefort is sweet, moist and crumbly; Stilton is firmer and spicier; and Gorgonzola (especially the variety known as dolce) is sweet and creamy.

But there are other European blues worth trying. Spain's Cabrales and Valdéon are excellent cow's milk blues, worth seeking out if you've never had them.

America is also producing some excellent blues that are giving the European classics a run for their money. Jasper Hill Farm makes their Bayley Hazen Blue from a modified Stilton recipe, but their blue is far drier and much richer than a typical Stilton. Oregon's Rogue Creamery makes a variety of blue cheeses including a wonderfully interesting smoked blue called, fittingly, Smokey Blue.

Blues and Booze

When thinking about beverages to pair with blue cheeses, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Blues have a very strong flavor and can overpower wines that are meek or mild. Then again, if you pair a blue cheese with a wine that has a very powerful and unique flavor, and the likelihood of an outright clash is fairly high. I've tried some blue and wine pairings that can really make you pucker. It's never great to generalize such things, but I have found that reds tend to clash more with blue cheeses, since their flavors are generally bigger and bolder.

Another thing to keep in mind is that blues are relatively salty, so they tend to pair better with wines that are sweeter. A classic Roquefort pairing is with Sauternes, where the sweetness of the wine beautifully balances the saltiness of the cheese. Artisanal's Max McCalman recommends pairing Valdéon with a Beaujolais cru or a California Chardonnay.

Well that's it for our Blue Cheese 101. Please let us know what blues you like (or maybe you're a blue cheese hater?), and what you like to pair them with!