As with so many other delicious discoveries, the origin of blue cheese was an accident! It dates back to 7th century France in a cave outside the village of Roquefort. Legend has it that a distracted shepherd left his snack of bread and cheese in the cave. When he returned a few months later, the cheese had become infested with a natural mold that was growing in the cave called penicillium roqueforti and voila! Rich pungent blue cheese was born.
Today, this natural mold is refined and used for almost all blue cheeses simply by adding the mold culture to the cheese milk during the cheese making process. Most blue cheeses are either injected with the mold, as with Roquefort, or the mold is mixed right in with the curds, as it is with Gorgonzola, to insure even distribution of the mold. And many imported cheeses must still be aged in the original caves where they were developed to bear the name.
A bit of the science behind blue! Mold flourishes in contact with oxygen. So for the cheese to develop that gorgeous trademark blue marbling, air must reach the inside of the cheese. This is often done by piercing the cheese with thin needles or skewers. The blue mold then matures inside the air tunnels, developing flavor as it ages. A few blue cheeses develop this interior veining naturally from ambient mold, meaning the wheels are ripened in caves where mold spores in the air can colonize the cheese.
But why do blue cheeses differ so greatly in color, taste and texture? Similar to hard cheeses, there are cheese-making variables that differentiate one blue from another including things as simple as how much moisture is left in the beginning curds. For example, a wet, spongy curd will collapse when pierced with mold, meaning that bigger pockets of blue are likely to develop vs a dry curd that develops into a sturdier cheese with more even veining.
The strain of blue mold that’s used also makes a major difference. Cheeses made with p. glaucum generally have a softer, sweeter, nuttier flavor than those made with p. roqueforti. (If you think you don’t like blue cheese because it’s too strong and pungent, it’s probably been made with p. roqueforti!). These two different molds also create drastically different looks with p. roqueforti producing a dark greenish-black color while p. glaucum delivers a lighter blue suede toned vein. The length of time a cheese is aged before it’s pierced will make a difference too as well as how long it’s aged after. Most mold-containing cheeses take three to six months to mature.
Here’s a tip for you! If you’re hesitant about blue cheese or find the flavor a bit strong; seek out cheeses with fewer pockets of blue mold and those with softer, creamier textures. Here are a few of our favorite mildly sweet “Starter Blues” for you to try:
Bleu D/Auvergne. This semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from France has a milder finish thanks go p. glaucum. It has a buttery taste with a deliciously nutty finish and hazelnut-like flavor. Try it on cheeseboards or use as you would a traditional blue for dressings.
Gorgonzola Dolce. What makes this Italian cow’s milk cheese so unique for a blue is how little “blue” there actually is in it. Because there’s more moisture in this cheese it falls in on itself after being pierced. This stifles the oxygen and thus the mold development too! The result is a sweet, creamy, spreadable cheese that’s amazing paired with fruit and jams.
Blue Stilton. This crumbly-textured, yet creamy and smooth cow’s milk cheese from England is tangy and strong but less pungent than other blues. It pairs deliciously with Sauternes and Port for dessert.
But don’t stop there! Once you develop a taste for blue (or if you’re already a huge fan) there are so many wonderful options to sample:
Bleu en Blanc from South Africa is a blue veined cheese that has a bloomy white rind, like Camembert. It’s sweet and tangy and pairs well air with a Port wine or sweet Rosè for a picnic.
Shropshire Blue is a semi-soft, strong sharp crumbly cows milk blue from England that pairs well with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cote du Rhone wines.
Blue Cabrales from Spain is matured in damp, mold rich caves with a sharp tangy taste that’s acidic and slightly salty.
Classic Danish Blue is the crumbly, marbled-vein variety that you’ve probably already tried. It has a sharp rustic taste and is often used in salad dressings.
Castelmagno is a semi firm blue from Italy with a sharp strong flavor and crumbly texture. It’s delicious for snacking or as a table cheese and pairs well with big reds such as Barolo.
Fourme D’Ambert from France is a semi soft, rich and salty blue with a natural rind and heavy blue veining. It’s delicious served with white wine or even beer.
And of course don’t forget the original imported French Roquefort! This semi soft, blue-veined cheese that started it all is actually made from sheep’s milk. It has a moist yet crumbly texture making it perfect for dressings, over salads, or paired with beef.