In Praise Of American Blues

American Blue Cheese
Blue Cheese with Pear

As Americans became exposed to some of the great Blue cheeses of Europe, the demand for higher quality in domestic blues followed. There were several fine blue cheeses already being produced in the United States 20 years ago, but they simply did not have national recognition or appreciation. The same held true for many other fine American cheeses; the quality was already there, but most everyone seemed to think that our cheeses could not compare with the Old World varieties.

American producers have more freedom to experiment than the Europeans. Instead of being limited to strictly defined recipes, the lack of an American blue cheese tradition tends to engender creativity while most of Europe’s best-known blue cheeses are protected by legal definitions that limit individual expression. It may have taken awhile to bring America’s blues to where they are today, but the cheese competitions held by the American Cheese Society and Wisconsin’s U.S. Cheese Championship Contest have helped raise the bar, and American cheesemakers have risen to the challenge.

David Grotenstein, member and former chairman of the American Cheese Society’s Judging and Competition Committee, reports the blue category is the most radically changed among all entries in the organization’s annual competition: in the increase in numbers, in originality and in overall quality. Instead of trying to replicate an Old World blue, American cheesemakers are crafting distinctively different blues.

Bleating Heart’s Moolicious Blue cheese is made from cow’s milk. The cheese has placed in a number of competitions. Photo courtesy of Bleating Heart

Nonetheless, the blue cheeses seem to be love-hate compatible, maybe even more so than goat cheeses. Some people cannot resist the urge to dive into the blues, no matter what other cheeses may be in the group, and skipping over the subtler cheeses. After the blue molds settle into the mouth, the nuances in almost every other cheese type are more difficult to detect. Admittedly, it is difficult to deny the beautiful blue cheese lover his or her craving. The blue cheeses cause no harm, other than planting themselves securely on the palate. Some people shun blue cheeses, as though they were poisonous.

Some people refer to the family as the “stinky blues,” which may be considered either an attribute or a flaw. No one is sure where this smelly notion comes from since, if anything, the blue cheeses have more of an antiseptic aroma, akin to that associated with a doctor’s office. Adding to the love-hate propensity is the introduction of smoked blues; cheese lovers are ambivalent about the smoke. Cheesemaker Ira Grable added a smoked version of his Berkshire Blue (each of them better on the young side) a few years ago and the smoke is in balance with the blue flavor. Smokey Oregon Blue has that balanced flavor profile, too. Smoke may be successful in the relatively assertive blue cheeses more than in any other category of cheeses — the heft of the blue matched by the strength of the smoke.

Debra Dickerson of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, CA, admits blue cheeses may not be the first category she reaches for, but she has a growing list of favorite, top-quality domestic blue cheeses. She prefers the blue cheese showcase the quality of the milk itself; the “blue” is not the dominant note, it’s present but not overwhelming. Dickerson cites Rogue Creamery’s mixed milk Echo Mountain as an example, with layers of flavor shining through. The trend toward crafting more nuanced blues has opened up a wider appreciation of the category.

For those that avoid blue cheeses, this could be caused by a number of things: perhaps the first blue cheese they tasted was of inferior quality, the thought of mold in the mouth could be problematic for others, an expectant mother may have been told to avoid them, or an allergy to penicillin could be cause for alarm. The blue cheeses can also pick up unusual discolorations — some of them a bit frightening, like pinking. The pink on or in a blue can be caused by a number of things: mold, protein, yeasts, even a salt. None of these is seriously harmful, but they can make the cheese seemingly less desirable.

Some blues may lack a balanced flavor profile. Some may be too salty. Some may have calcium lactate crystals present, while others may simply be over the hill. Crafting a delicious blue cheese is challenging in itself and with our growing connoisseurship, most Americans will not settle for any old blue any more. Once you have tasted a good one, there is no turning back. blue cheese lovers are willing to pay a premium for a high-quality blue, as a bad blue can be ghastly.

One way to get cheese across blue-avoiders’ lips is to slip it into a salad dressing or sauce. Some people that shun blue cheeses as a standalone cheese will ask for additional blue cheese salad dressing on the side. As with all other cheeses, the blue cheese should be delicious on its own, without the need for any other accompaniments. The subtler blues are easier for people to accept, but when it comes to the more extreme blue cheeses, a glass of tawny port may be just the ticket.

Some blue cheeses may not provide the cue of veining, while others have their blue mold on their exteriors. Westfield Farm’s Classic Blue from western Massachusetts is a multiple award-winning exterior molded blue cheese. The Penicillium Roqueforti mold is present, the blue flavor easily detected, even within the pure white paste inside. It is a blue cheese with a different visual cue, the blue is on the rind. This application seems to work best for goat cheeses, though few goat cheeses have the veining inside.

Westfield Farm's Classic Blue Log
Westfield Farm’s Classic Blue Log is coated in a cashmere shawl of soft grey Roquefort mold. The Roquefort rind is a striking color that develops on the surface and slowly ripens toward the center. Photo courtesy of Westfield Farm

One challenge blue cheeses face in addition to being a bit difficult to make is that they are not quite as stable as many other more familiar cheeses. They are better stored in colder storage than most other categories — not too dry, but colder storage is usually fine, as low as 38°F. At warmer temperatures the mold can flower rapidly and begin to dominate the other flavors in the cheese.

As a group, the blue cheeses are not the best travelers. The sample a cheesemaker sends to a competition may not be quite the same quality as the one on the judge’s table. Most blues are open-textured by necessity. A closed-textured blue will be less successful, as the mold will have a harder time permeating the paste. An open texture allows for aeration so that the mold can flower. An open texture blue cheese is often crumbly. This may offer a delightful mouth feel, but when the cheese is jostled around during transit, the body of the cheese can suffer.

One reason the blue cheeses may have had a slower start in the United States is because of the propensity for the mold to “infect” other cheeses. The blue molds can be aggressive. This has been a concern for most small creameries. Except for the dairies focused on production of blues, most others avoided the risk of cross-contamination. As facilities grow and adapt to this challenge, some of them will take the chance and start to craft a blue or two.

Seana Doughty, owner and cheesemaker at Tomales, CA’s Bleating Heart creamery always wanted to produce a blue cheese. When she launched her company five years ago, she had to use another company’s production facility, a company unwilling to accept the aggressive molds of blues. Once she opened her own plant she began making blue cheese right away, first with the milk from her herd of ewes. Her Ewelicious, the only sheep milk blue produced in California, won a gold medal this year at the World Cheese Awards. She added a cow milk version, Moolicious, made from her neighbor’s Jersey milk, which won “Best in Show” at this year’s California State Fair.

There is something to be said for a creamery that comes up with an exceptional blue. But some cheese-makers create several distinct and excellent blue cheeses all under the category of blues. Rogue Creamery stands out as an example of such a producer, with a stable of blue cheeses that pick up ribbons everywhere. Yet, because the blue cheeses have that love-hate quality, they do not win “Best in Show” in cheese competitions very often, no matter how experienced and open-minded the judges may be.

Caveman Blue
Caveman Blue cheese is a rich, complex Blue that is sweet and fruity with slight vanilla tones and a texture of butter and crystals.

When the cheesemaker gets it right, the blues can be irresistible. Rogue River Blue captured first, second and third place awards at the 29th Annual American Cheese Society Judging and Competition. The Cellars at Jasper Hill won twice at the American Cheese Society.

It is difficult to define the blue demographic, but blue cheeses do have a following among young people who may consider them “hip.” The blues also appeal to a certain classic sensibility among older turophiles. One thing that is certain about the attraction to the blues is the buyer has a pretty good idea of what he is getting, blues being blues, after all. Most every other family of cheeses lacks that visual cue. For example, it may look like Cheddar or Brie, but you never know… you could be in for a surprise. Unusual aromas and flavors can be a little jarring. American blue cheeses can offer surprises, too. They may have that blue note, but they are not just blue cheeses anymore. Many of them have layers of well-balanced flavors that make them outstanding. CC

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