A diverse array of blue cheeses awaits enthusiasts.
Blue can be one of those love-or-hate, one-and-done types of cheeses. But there is an entire world of these cheeses, each with its own combination of sharp, salty, tangy taste and soft, creamy texture. Take Northern Spain’s iconic Cabrales for example. In August, global headlines broadcast a 4.5-pound wheel of this artisan blue sold at auction for $32,000, awarding it a world record for the most expensive cheese. Even if a $6,000 per pound cheese was in your grocery budget, you’d have to travel to Spain’s principality of Asturias to sample this highly perishable product.
In this case, a good bet would be to visit the purchaser, Ivan Suarez’s restaurant, El Llagar de Colloto, where the pricey Cabrales starred on the menu with grilled mushrooms, topped by crunchy bits of acorn-fed Iberico ham.
Aged in caves at nearly 5,000 feet in elevation, at a temperature of 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, for two to five months or more, Cabrales is highly perishable. It doesn’t travel well, especially for a month-long boat ride across the pond to the U.S. However, like France has its Roquefort, Italy its Gorgonzola, and England its Stilton, Asturias native, Jose Andres, an award-winning chef with restaurants in several U.S. cities, partnered with master cheesemaker Ernesto Madera at the Rey Silo Creamery to create a soft delicate blue for the market that would serve as a calling card for the region.
The five-year journey concluded this year with the release of Mama Marisa, a raw milk version of Cabrales. Named for Andres’ mother, the chef told his followers this summer, “It’s creamy and able to be spread, and not too strong, not too powerful like some blue cheeses. It tastes like butter and grass and the mountains, truly a new blue cheese like no one has tasted before.”
Some of the first shipments of Mama Marisa arrived in the U.S. in the last year. Andres’ Jaleo restaurant’s Mother’s Day menu served a classic Spanish flan made with Mama Marisa with Catalan cream and oranges. This summer, Rogers Collection, an artisan food importer based in Yarmouth, ME, brought the first Mama Marisa into the U.S. for retail sale. Managing director, Carrie Blakeman, worked closely with Andres and Rey Silo to make this happen.
The delicious combination of new blues, age-old European classics, and contemporary American-produced award winners are all reasons to give this broad category of colorfully hued semi-soft cheeses another bite. That is if you’re not an aficionado already.
BLUE IS BORN
True to name, blue or blue-green veins create a multi-hued mosaic through the cheese’s smooth white base. The mold found in most blue cheeses is a fungus known as Penicillium Roqueforti. Interestingly, this mold only activates in the presence of oxygen. Consequently, cheesemakers employ long skewers or stainless-steel rods to create air channels throughout the cheese wheel, effectively piercing it. This explains why the characteristic veins in blue cheese often run vertically. Beyond its association with blue cheese, penicillium roqueforti naturally occurs in rye plants as well. This leads to a fascinating legend about the origin of blue cheese.
So the story goes, tells John Montez, ACS CCP, assistant manager of education for Murray’s Cheese, an artisanal cheese retailer and wholesaler based in Greenwich Village, NY. “A young affineur diligently tends to his cheeses in a cave, enjoying some bread as a snack. While gazing out of the cave, he spots a captivating woman bathing by a stream, and he rushes to her side, inadvertently leaving his bread behind. Over time, the neglected bread, likely of the rye variety, becomes moldy within the cave, and the mold subsequently makes its way onto the cheese, thus giving rise to the very first blue cheese. Remarkably, some producers continue to introduce penicillium roqueforti to their blue cheeses by using a piece of moldy rye bread.”
Roquefort, a classic French cheese crafted from sheep’s milk, is one of the oldest blues. Reportedly, it was a favorite of eighth-century Roman emperor Charlemagne, who enjoyed the combination of its sharp flavor and velvety mouthfeel. Often called the “king of cheeses,” since King Charles VI first awarded it royal protection back in the Middle Ages, Roquefort was the first French cheese to receive a Protected Designation of Origin or PDO certification. PDO is a European agricultural food production certification that guarantees authenticity and links a product to its region, from what cows, goats, and sheep feed on to make their milk, to the recognized know-how of its cheesemakers.
Gorgonzola, another PDO blue linked to its origins in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, was also born during the Middle Ages. Produced from cow’s milk, it ranges from buttery soft to firm and crumbly depending on if it’s Dolce or Piccante.
“Gorgonzola Dolce is a great entry-level cheese because of its decadent taste. Try pairing it with honey and chocolate and sipping a glass of Nocino. It’s the ultimate after-dinner cheese,” says Lydia Burns, in sales and education for the Rogers Collection, which imports the Castel Regio brand.
A third well-known European blue is Stilton. It’s a cow’s milk blue, said to be first sold in the 1700s stagecoach stop called the Bell Inn in Stilton, England. Today, the Bell Inn Hotel’s restaurant still has Stilton DOP on the menu. Order Stilton, Parmesan or Cheddar Chips as a side, a Stilton Waldorf Salad or the popular Bell Inn Burger topped with Stilton.
AMERICA BRINGS THE BLUES
Blue cheeses produced in the U.S. have a shorter history but have achieved global fame. For example, Maytag Blue, first produced in the early 1940s at the Maytag Dairy Farms near Newton, Iowa, earned the Best Hard Blue title at the World Cheese Awards in 2005. Made with the milk of Iowa Holsteins, the cheese was born out of a collaboration with a dairy microbiologist at Iowa State University who isolated one pure spore from Roquefort to make the mold. The result is a more approachable yet cave-ripened, aged cheese that is hand-wrapped in its signature blue and silver foil. Food writers James Beard and Clementine Paddleford were fans.
Maytag Blue Cheese, as well as Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue and Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue, were named by the online traditional food guide, TasteAtlas, as among the 10 most popular American Blue Cheeses.
In the 1950s, Rogue Creamery founder Tom Vella traveled to France where he learned the art of Roquefort-making. He returned home to Oregon’s Rogue River Valley and created his first product — Oregon Blue. Next came Rogue River Blue, named the World’s Best Cheese at the 2019 World Cheese Awards in Italy.
“There are multiple aspects that set Rogue River Blue apart from our other blue cheese recipes,” says Marguerite Merritt, cheese emissary and marketing manager for the Central Point, OR, cheesemaker. “First and foremost, the milk is crucial — and the season during which we collect it makes a significant difference. In the autumn months, rain returns to Southern Oregon and fuels a burst of renewed growth in the pastures; this is when our cows’ milk is at its most flavorful, and we only use milk from the autumn months to create Rogue River Blue. In the vat, Rogue River begins its life cycle as all our other blue cheeses do; but during its maturation, we add a secondary inoculation and extend its aging process for up to 11 months. The result is a fudgy, creamy, complex-flavored blue with brushite crystals that develop further as the cheese ages.”
Bayley Hazen Blue was one of the first cheeses produced at the Jasper Hill Creamery, in Greensboro, VT, back in 2003. It’s a raw milk cheese with a recipe based on a British natural rind blue that the creamery’s co-founder, Mateo Kehler, brought back with him after studying cheesemaking in Devon, UK. Its “fudge-like texture, toasted-nut sweetness and anise spice character,” as described by Zoe Brickley, director of communications at Jasper Hill, have earned Bayley a loyal following. It earned its first award, World’s Best Unpasteurized Cheese at the 2014 World Cheese Awards in London.
CHOOSING & CARING
A diverse array of blue cheeses awaits enthusiasts, says Murray’s Cheese’s Montez. “With this wealth of options, navigating the choices can be a bit daunting for those unfamiliar with the nuances of blue cheese. In general, if your palate leans toward a milder blue cheese, seek out options with fewer visible veins. Additionally, cheeses wrapped in foil or wax often signal a creamier texture.”
When storing your blue cheese at home, limit its exposure to oxygen by wrapping the wedge or wheel in parchment or wax paper, and then placing that wrapped piece in a plastic bag or container, recommends Rogue River Creamery’s Merritt. “Stored in this manner and consistently refrigerated, most blue cheeses will last up to three weeks before their quality begins to diminish. While blue cheese may not ‘spoil’ in the traditional sense as it ages in the refrigerator, over time the bitter ‘blue’ flavor becomes much more pronounced and overwhelms the more nuanced flavors.”
AT THE TABLE
Mild-mannered or hard-hitting in flavor, blue is a cheese that’s often best enjoyed simply.
“What I love is to eat this amazing blue cheese from my friends at Rey Silo the way my mother served it to me, the way her mother served it to her … very simply, with slices of raw apple,” says Chef Andres. “The cheese has a natural sweetness to it, so it goes well with a lot of fruits. One of my favorite ways we’ve served it at Jaleo is with fresh figs, and during cherry season, we make an incredible salad with fresh cherries and Mama Marisa. And for something my mother would never have tasted, we have a special ‘espuma’ or foam of Mama Marisa that we serve with potato chips at my Chicago cocktail bar Pigtail. When you eat it, it’s like the mountains have married the sky, something that tastes so deeply of the caves of Asturias in something so light as a foam,” he says.
Similarly, Angela Kehler, wife of Jasper Hill co-founder Mateo Kehler, says, “Bayley is especially nice on a crisp fall evening with a glass of local ice cider. Add a square of single-origin dark chocolate and you have a decadent and memorable final course with basically zero prep.”
Add a spoonful of Bayley into matcha latte to bring out the tea’s sweetness. The blue’s creamy backbone tempers any bitter notes and heightens the nutty qualities in both.
Cheeses like Rogue River Blue require very little embellishment on a cheese platter.
“We enjoy it with roasted nuts — particularly hazelnuts — and fresh, seasonal fruit such as pear or fig. A toothsome, shortbread-style cookie is our preferred carrier, as opposed to a more traditional baguette or cracker, because the rich, fatty texture of the cheese is complemented by the dense, crumbly cookie,” says Merritt.
When assembling a charcuterie board, Murray’s Cheese’s Montez provides guests with the choice of embracing either the sweet or savory dimension of blue cheese.
“For those inclined toward savory flavors, Castelvetrano olives and distinctive cured meats like Jamon Serrano or a country ham make splendid companions. Meanwhile, those with a sweet tooth can try honey with the blue cheese. Additionally, I love including items imbued with intense dried or cooked fruit flavors, such as jams, dates or dried cherries, to cater to the sweeter palates,” he says.
In the kitchen, long gone are the days when blue cheese was only used as an ingredient to crumble on a salad. The winner of the Home Chef category at this year’s Iowa State Fair’s Maytag Blue Cheese culinary competition stirred the blue into her homemade potato salad, topped by crispy bacon, hard-cooked egg slices and a sprig of parsley.
“Use blue in place of any cheese in recipes to elevate and add complexity to a dish,” suggests Rogue Creamery’s Merritt. “This applies to casseroles, macaroni and cheese, grilled sandwiches, crumbled on vegetables, meats, or fruits, and so much more.”
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ROASTED CARROT, KALE, & BAYLEY SALAD WITH CARROT-TOP DRESSING
Courtesy Jasper Hill Farm
Serves 2 as a side salad, 1 as a meal
A few small handfuls of baby kale (6-8 ounces)
4 ounces Bayley Hazen Blue
FOR THE CARROTS:
2 medium regular carrots, or 6-8 small young carrots
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika (sweet or hot, up to you!)
FOR THE DRESSING:
1 cup (packed) radish tops, rinsed
1/4 cup raw almonds
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large clove of garlic
Juice from 1/2 of a large lemon
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cumin
3+ tablespoons warm water
- Roast the carrots: Put your baking sheet on a rack placed as low as it can go in your oven and preheat at 450F. (Preheating your pan guarantees a nice sear on the carrots, giving them a more caramelized exterior without overcooking; placing your rack toward the bottom of the oven will provide the most direct heat).
Halve small carrots, or cut larger carrots into crudité-like batons, then toss with the olive oil, salt, pepper and paprika. Carefully add the carrots to the preheated pan (cue: satisfying sizzle) and roast for 15-20 minutes, shaking the pan halfway through, until spots are beginning to brown, and the carrots start to look a bit shriveled.
Set aside to cool slightly while you assemble the rest of the salad.
- Make the dressing: Add all dressing ingredients except for the water to your food processor and blend for a solid minute or two; the mixture will be fairly thick. Add the water in a slow stream to thin it out a little.
The final consistency should be looser than pesto, but not quite as liquid as a regular store-bought salad dressing — the aim is to dollop, not to drizzle. Add more water, if necessary, then adjust salt to taste.
- Prep the Bayley: Normally when it comes to topping salads with Bayley we go for a chunky crumble, but in this case, we recommend shearing off thin slices with a sharp paring knife. These leaf-like shards become silken atop the warm carrots and add a melt-in-your-mouth quality to the dish.
- Assemble the salad: Cover your serving dish with the baby kale so that it’s spread out evenly, not mounded in the center. Dollop about a quarter of the dressing across the greens. The dressing is intense, so aim for chickpea-sized drops with a decent amount of space between them (but don’t overthink it!).
Arrange the carrots on top of the kale, being careful again to space them out evenly. Top with a few more dollops of dressing, then add your Bayley shards (don’t worry if they fall apart a bit!)
Note: You’ll likely have a bit of extra dressing, which will thicken in the refrigerator and become more pesto-like overnight. Save it for breakfast and dollop over crispy-edged fried eggs with buttery grilled toast.
• • •
PINOT NOIR POACHED PEARS WITH ROGUE CREAMERY BLUE CHEESE, TOASTED HAZELNUTS AND BLACK PEPPER
Courtesy Rogue Creamery
Credit: Chefs Eric Bartle and Sara Kundelius, The Wilderness Hunters
1 bottle/750 ml Oregon Pinot Noir
3 Bosc pears, peeled (leave stems attached)
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped
8 ounces Rogue River Blue or Bluehorn Blue at room temperature
- To start, you’ll want to select pears that are just beginning to ripen and aren’t too ripe, as you want a firm texture that will hold up to a gentle poach in the wine. If the pears are too far ripe, they will break down too much during cooking and won’t retain their structure.
- Begin by delicately peeling the pears from stem to bottom, while trying to keep the elegant form of the pears intact.
- Place the pears in a 2- or 3-quart saucepan (depending on the size of the pears) along with the wine, sugar, peppercorns and bay leaves. Make sure the pears are fully submerged in the wine to their stems. Additional wine may be needed, or even a little water can be added.
- Bring the pot up to a low simmer and gently poach the pears for approximately 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or skewer can be easily inserted into the pears with little resistance.
- Gently remove the pears from the poaching liquid to a plate and let cool a bit before handling.
- Continue to let the wine mixture reduce in the pan by bringing it up to a vigorous simmer/low boil until reduced to approximately 3/4 cup (6 ounces).
- As the wine is reducing and the pears are cool enough to handle, slice the pears in half lengthwise (stem to bottom) with a sharp knife. Try to slice through the stem and keep it intact as it will make for a more dramatic presentation!
- Once all three pears are split, using a melon baller or teaspoon, scoop out the hard core (imagine an avocado with its pit removed).
- Spread the finely chopped and toasted hazelnuts on a plate in a thin layer, then gently press the still-warm pears cut side down into the hazelnuts to coat.
- Strain the wine reduction, then evenly distribute the wine syrup on six dessert plates and place the hazelnut-coated pears cut side up.
- Using a small cookie scoop or melon baller, scoop approximately 2 to 3 tablespoons of the Rogue Creamery blue cheese of your choice into the cavity and finish with a twist of fresh cracked black pepper.