Wendy M. Levy, the proprietor of Brattleboro Cheese Shop & Café, has been “slingin’ the curds for 17 years now” as a professional cheesemonger.
Originally published in The Commons issue #172 (Wednesday, October 3, 2012).
BRATTLEBORO—If you are lucky enough to love your work, good for you. But I don’t have to tell you that even the most fabulous jobs have at least one annoying thing about them.
For me, as a cheesemonger, it’s people who say things like “Oh, I don’t like goat cheese” or “I don’t like blue cheese,” as if all cheeses in those categories taste exactly the same.
Unless you’ve tried at least six different examples of a category of cheese, I’m sorry, but you can’t say that you don’t like it.
That’s like saying that just because one cat scratched the heck out of your hand when you were 5 years old, that you “don’t like cats.” (Oh, wait. I say that.)
Moving right along.
I shouldn’t blame these people, I suppose. There are so many terrible cheeses out there trying to pass themselves off as something people should eat, as proper representatives of their categories — or decent cheeses that have been improperly handled and sold way past their prime.
And blue cheese, sadly, might win the prize of being the type of cheese most commonly misrepresented. Maybe that’s because it’s moldy, and we’re generally taught to avoid foods that are moldy, with good reason.
But with blue cheese, the mold is beneficial and is put there on purpose. And it makes the cheese taste delicious.
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Blue cheese is cheese that has had spores of Penicillium roqueforti introduced to it, and these spores are encouraged to proliferate on or in some part of the cheese.
Generally, the mold travels throughout the curds, creating veins of blue, green, or gray. (A few blue cheeses have mold only on the exterior.)
Because mold needs oxygen, and there’s not much oxygen on the inside of a cheese, the wheels of cheese meant to be blue are spiked: thin rods are used to pierce the wheels of cheese, all the way from top to bottom. As air travels into the interior of the cheese, it allows the spores to travel and multiply.
The spiking is why, when you cut into a wheel of blue cheese, you often see straight vertical lines of blue. The thin, irregular blue veins that run throughout the cheese are from the mold taking advantage of the tiny spaces in-between the individual curds.
For those who have an allergy to medical Penicillin, be aware that Penicillium roqueforti is an entirely different strain and should not induce the same reaction.
Then again, I’m not a doctor, so talk to yours before you chow down on blue cheese, feel sick, and blame me.
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Although there are some similarities between all blue cheeses, there is a great deal of variety within the category. Even the most timid of constitution will likely find an agreeable blue.
Most blues have some degree of spiciness, but some are actually sweeter than any other cheese out there.
For example, those who love blue cheese, and those who normally feel a little apprehensive about it, can’t get enough of this cows’ milk Roaring Forties Blue from King Island Dairy in Australia.
It does have that bold, mineral flavor common to most blues, but its special aging causes Roaring Forties to have an exceptional sweetness — it’s almost fudgy. It has tons of blue veining throughout it, but it’s not too strong, and it quickly turns creamy on the palate.
Another consideration that affects the flavor of blue cheese is which animal’s milk is used to make it, and sometimes which specific breed of animal is milked.
Length of time the cheese is aged is a factor that can either make the cheese stronger or sweeter — again, depending on the milk.
For example, one of the sweetest, loveliest blues I’ve ever had is Bleu du Bocage, a hard-to-find aged goats’ milk blue from France. Aged goat cheese tends to be sweet anyway, and the blue adds a gorgeous complexity to the paste.
Many cows’ milk blues, however, get stronger as they age. Berkshire Blue from Massachusetts, a gentle, minerally blue, offers a mouth-pleasing richness from being made with all Jersey cows’ milk. (Jerseys give milk with the highest protein and butterfat content of all breeds of cow). Even this cheese will get intensely spicy when it’s allowed to ripen far too long.
Then again, you should eat the cheese before that happens.
One of the sweetest, richest blues in the world also happens to be one of the most well-known: Gorgonzola Dolcelatte (“sweet milk”). Make sure to buy it before the paste just beneath the rind starts turning a sickly pinkish-brown, because at that point the otherwise mild, fresh, sweet-grass notes become offensively barnyard-y and way too strong.
Sheep’s milk blues are fairly rare — aside from the ubiquitous Roquefort — but even spicy, piquant Roquefort has an underlying fudgy, almost caramel-sweet, quality about it. Other sheep blues, such as Bleu de Basque, are milder, with earthy, fruity notes.
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Here in Vermont, we don’t have scores of blue cheeses, but the ones we have are wonderful examples of how to do it right. You’d do well to start with any of these.
• Perhaps the most famous blue from Vermont is Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm, named for an old military road in the Northeast Kingdom, commissioned by General George Washington.
While some compare Bayley Hazen to England’s beloved Stilton, Jasper Hill’s cheesemakers developed it using a similar recipe to Devon Blue, another English blue.
Bayley Hazen is made with Ayrshire cows’ milk, and Ayrshire milk is ideal for making blue cheese. This blue has a natural rind and a crumbly paste that brings to mind chocolate and chilled butter. Its flavor is informed more by the milk than by the mold; and nuts, grasses, and sometimes licorice can be detected.
• Blythedale Farm’s Jersey Blue is made by hand using whole, unpasteurized Jersey cows’ milk, and it has a rich, creamy texture and slight mineral notes.
• Green Mountain Blue’s Boucher Blue is smooth and mild, with a creamy, melting texture and hints of chestnuts, hay, and truffles. It was inspired by France’s Fourme d’Ambert, a cheese that starts out fairly gently, but as it ripens, all those little pockets of blue can really take over and make for quite an earthy experience.
• While Willow Hill Farm in Milton is mostly known for its sheep cheeses, its cows’-milk blue, Vaquero, has garnered serious critical acclaim and a medal at the World Cheese Awards. Made in the style of a Spanish blue, it’s far gentler than those intense, spicy, minerally blues; Vaquero is rich and chocolatey with a creamy mouthfeel and meaty notes.
• It’s not too easy to find, and its creators don’t make much of it, but if you see Mossend Blue from Bonnieview Farm in Craftsbury, jump on it! Farmstead made of sheep’s milk, Mossend is mild and gently minerally with grassy, caramel notes.
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If you’re one of those people who thinks you don’t like blue, ask yourself if you’ve given blue a chance.
Are you only thinking back to the acrid, tongue-searing stuff you found in some cruddy salad dressing? Or maybe it was some sad wedge of blue that was festering in a vacuum-sealed plastic housing, forlorn, waiting so long in a grocery store’s refrigerated case?
If this has been your entire experience with blue cheese, you owe it not only to yourself, but to the folks who produce good blue cheese, to branch out a bit.
Visit your favorite local cheese counter and explain that you need a good blue for people who don’t think they like blue. A good cheesemonger will know exactly what you mean and steer you in the right direction.
And if you still claim you don’t like blue, only then are you allowed to say so.
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