Find a reputable vendor for blue cheese

Blue Cheese Burger: Ground sirloin burger with Maytag blue cheese and tomato on a ciabatta roll. BY JACK CLEMONS PHOTO
April 16, 2012

Have you heard the legend about the discovery of blue cheese? The key features are rye bread, penicillin and the practice of placing cheese in cool caves to age. Either a forgetful cheese maker or an amorous shepherd abandoned his lunch in such a cave. When he later returned, they found mold had formed on the bread, spread to the cheese and created blue streaks of incomparable flavor.

The mold, known as Penicillium roqueforti, is named for the French town of Roquefort sur Soulzon where it was discovered. A nearby network of caves formed in a limestone hillside offers the ideal environment to produce this special cheese. The temperature stays between 44 and 48 degrees all year, relative humidity is a constant 95 percent and there’s a plentiful population of the microscopic mold spores.

Once the mold’s action was understood, the process of making Roquefort cheese included leaving loaves of rye bread in the damp caves to cultivate the mold. These were then dried, ground and mixed with sheep milk curds, formed into rounds and aged in the caves. Writings from the ninth century describe monks in this region offering blue cheese to the Emperor Charlemagne, who developed quite a fondness for the rich, blue-veined delicacy. Roquefort production still entails a great deal of manual labor, and the cheese makers who work in the caves are reported to enjoy exceptional good health.

Blue cheese is made from all types of milk (sheep, cow, goat) either raw or cooked. There are several steps to making cheese: precipitating the milk into curds, draining off the whey, pressing the curds into a solid shape, salting the outside surface and allowing the cheese to ripen. These steps include the introduction of specific microorganisms or cultures to act on the fibrous structure of the cheese, creating signature flavors, textures and colors associated with the famous blue cheeses from France, Italy, England and the United States.

Today, blue cheese production includes mixing cultures directly into the curds for an even distribution. During the aging period, the cheese rounds are regularly pierced with needles or skewers to open avenues for air to penetrate and assist with ripening. To maintain the right to use their legally protected names, varieties of blue cheese such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Stilton must be aged in the original caves where they were first produced.

One relative newcomer to the blue cheese market is Maytag Dairy Farms, in Newtown, Iowa. In 1941, Fred Maytag II (son of the appliance company founder) adopted a process developed by the Iowa State University. They used homogenized milk sourced from his father’s herd of prizewinning Holstein cattle. From the first wedge through the present day, small batches are made by hand and closely attended during months of ripening in specially designed local caves.

Although the mold responsible for blue cheese may be related to the antibiotic of a similar name, it doesn’t have the same concentrations you would find in the pharmaceutical version: eating blue cheese is not a prescription for curing an infection. When buying blue cheese, find a reputable vendor who regularly turns over inventory. Blue cheese that’s past its prime will have a hard texture instead of creamy softness. Its colors will change from ivory to tan and veins that were blue will appear green. The smell of ammonia is another sign you shouldn’t risk it.

Now that you have a lovely block of blue cheese, how will you eat it? My favorite is to crumble blue cheese over salad greens; Jack’s first choice is in the photo - a blue cheese burger. The recipes below offer a few different ways to try blue cheese, but there may not be any left to cook with after you’ve sampled its seductive, creamy tang.

Blue Cheese & Pepper Pizza
1 pizza shell
1 T olive oil
1 red bell pepper
1 orange bell pepper
1 sweet onion
2 T olive oil
6 oz blue cheese

Preheat oven to 425 F. Place a prebaked pizza shell on a baking sheet or round pizza pan; set aside. Heat oil in a skillet over medium. Thinly slice the onion and add to the skillet. Core and seed the peppers; slice into thin strips and add to the skillet. Continue to sauté the vegetables until tender. Drizzle olive oil over pizza shell. Spread the peppers and onions evenly across the pizza shell. Crumble the blue cheese and sprinkle over the pizza. Bake until bubbly and almost golden, about 15 minutes.

Creamy Gorgonzola Dressing
8 oz Gorgonzola cheese
1/3 C mayonnaise
1/3 C sour cream
1/3 C milk
1 pressed garlic clove
1/2 t Worcestershire sauce
1 t white vinegar
1 t lemon juice
3 chopped basil leaves
salt & pepper, to taste

Crumble the Gorgonzola cheese and set aside about 2/3 C. Place the remaining cheese in the bowl of a food processor along with the mayonnaise and sour cream; process until smooth. Add milk, garlic, Worcestershire and lemon juice; blend well. Add reserved cheese and pulse once or twice, making sure to retain the cheese chunks. Transfer to a covered container, stir in the basil, salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve (keeps for up to two weeks). If dressing becomes too thick, thin slightly by whisking in a little milk.

Stilton Cheese Sauce

1/4 C unsalted butter
1 minced shallot
4 oz blue cheese
1 C half & half
cracked black pepper

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium low. Add the shallot and sauté until softened. Stir in the blue cheese and half and half; continue to cook until cheese has completely melted and sauce is smooth. Add freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Serve over pasta, steamed vegetables, omelets, roasted meat or poultry.