In the world of cheese, the blues sit off in their own little corner. Ask the question “who likes blue cheese,” and you’ll typically get a love it/hate it response. That’s understandable, as blue cheese is an acquired taste, but one certainly worth pursuing. Like any endeavor, be it wine, music, or cheese, it’s hard to appreciate the subtitles of the more complex members of a particular genre without working through the basics. And that is the case with the blues.
References to blue cheese (Roquefort) date back to the first century CE; the fact that it’s mentioned in that era means that it had to be around for longer than that. Given that man has been making cheese for about eight thousand years, it’s a fair assumption that blue cheese, or cheeses that were affected by blue molds, have been around for some time.
The “blue” in blue cheese comes from the introduction of strains of Penicillium mold. The two that are used today are Penicillium roqueforti and P. glaucum. They can be used individually or in concert, depending on the goal of the cheese maker. As with other mold-ripened cheeses, the Penicillium is introduced to the milk near the beginning of the cheese making process and then grows in the cheese to create the desired texture and flavor profile. However, blue molds are aerobic (they require oxygen in order to ‘work’). In order to get the blue cheese blue, the cheese maker pierces each cheese with long needles to allow air into the interior of the cheese.
According to French legend, Roquefort cheese was “discovered” in around the 8th or 9th century when a young shepherd abandoned a meal in a convenient cave to chase after a pretty girl. When he returned to the cave a few days later (must have been some girl!), he discovered a strange blue mold on his cheese. Like most legends, there’s a grain of truth here; blue molds likely originated in caves that offered favorable environments for blue (and other molds) that proved beneficial to cheese. However, because air has to be introduced into the interior of a blue cheese in order for the process to work, it’s likely that most blue cheeses were ‘accidental’, resulting from cracks or openings in their rinds. It is common (and tasty fun) to find streaks of blue in long-aged cheeses, like cheddars.
The first officially recognized blue cheese appears to be Gorgonzola, from Italy. According to the town of Gorgonzola, the cheese was first made there in the 9th century (a claim that other Italian towns dispute), gaining its blue veins in the eleventh century CE. Strangely enough, Gorgonzola also has a legend involving a cheese maker and a girl.
Reading through the various stories surrounding the creation of blue cheese, and understanding the basic cheese making process, it’s likely that the blue cheese came about something like this: The microbials present in the creameries where the cheese was made (with nothing like the sanitary practices required today) inoculated the milk during the initial process. The environment of the cheese making parlor would have given rise to particular strains of molds which in turn fostered the rise of the various regional cheeses. The obvious example would be Brie and Camembert, both of which require another strain of Penicillium mold, P. camemberti (also called P. candidum). Aging cheese in caves was a common practice. These caves were also host micro-environments favorable to various microbial cultures, which would also impact the cheeses. One modern cheese that falls into the “accidental discovery” is Red Hawk, by Cowgirl Creamery, which is a riff on their popular Mt. Tam cheese.
Molds that are introduced into the cheeses grow and develop inside the cheese, affecting the flavor and texture (as they are meant to). The difference is that when the blue cheese molds are exposed to oxygen they undergo another stage of development, causing the bluing and veining typical of the cheese. The question is at what point did that process go from being accidental to deliberate? That remains to be answered.
Blue cheeses are generally more salty than regular cheese; the salt is needed to prevent the growth of molds other than the blue molds. The high salt content is one reason why sweeter wines and foods go better with blues. The salt, along with the loose structure of the curd, cause blue cheese to lose moisture when its cut. In fact, a blue cheese can lose 20%-30% of its weight (that you paid for) from moisture loss. Most blues are wrapped in aluminum foil and kept colder than other cheeses to slow down the blueing process. If you purchase blue cheese at the store, buy only as much as you can consume over a few days. Remove plastic wrap, and tightly store in aluminum foil. If the blue cheese has a rind (like Stiltons), then wax paper and loose storage is better.
If you’re just starting out with blue cheeses, your best bet are ones from the mild end of the spectrum, like Cambozola Black, a German blue, or Maytag Blue from Iowa. Colston-Basset Stilton is also a good place to start; this cheese is aged first (much like a cheddar) before piercing, so it develops a deep flavor profile that softens the intensity of the blue mold.
Information for this article came from a number of sources, including:
- Roquefort, A Cheese, A village…
- Robert Wernick’s website
- ‘Mastering Cheese’, by Max McCalman
- ‘Cheese Essentials’, by Laura Werlin