Blue cheese overwhelms me, but not because of its flavor. The number of varieties commercially available is what blows my mind. Blue cheese is one style of specialty cheese that can be found almost everywhere, with wildly differing quality and flavor. The varieties range from the nondescript grocery store containers of moist and salty crumbles to the crowd-pleasing but bold traditional Roquefort or Gorgonzola to the mild amber paste of a nutty Stilton to the mouth-numbing crunch of a leaf-wrapped Spanish Valdeon. The United States even has a few excellent artisan examples. On our coast, some notable blues I’ve found are made by Rogue Creamery in Oregon, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese in Point Reyes, California, and Twin Sisters Creamery in Ferndale, Washington.

Perhaps my fascination with blue cheese is a bit more personal: raised with a Midwestern palette, blue cheese was always seen as an extreme food, even too extreme for salad dressing. In my family, you never ordered the blue cheese dressing because it might be too strong. As an amateur cheesemaker and cheese taster, I’ve learned that blues should be destined for more than dressings and sauces—quality blues should be eaten the same way any other excellent cheese is enjoyed—alone my preference or on a cracker. The more variation of paste color, blue or green mold veins and strength, the better. There is nothing outrageous or strange about a good blue cheese—it is just another flavor variation in this artful food that uses mold, bacteria and milk.

At its heart, blue cheese is all about two molds: Penicillium roqueforti blue mold and Penicillium glaucum green mold. In the case of a quickly maturing petit blue—a variation of Brie, except it uses blue P. roqueforti instead of white P. candidum—the mold powder is added to the milk before processing. For longer-aged blue cheeses, the mold powder is actually added to the curds after they have settled for a period of time. Have you ever wondered why some blue cheese veins seem so straight that they form a pattern? That’s because blue mold thrives with oxygen, and the best way to get oxygen into the center of the cheese is to pierce it with a sharp and skinny metal rod during maturing. In the home cheese kitchen, I simply use a kabob skewer, but commercial blue cheese piercing machines BCPMs are much more thorough and fast, and look like a torture device you might see in a horror movie.

Following the common factor of blue or green mold, the process for making blue cheese and the time for aging it varies greatly. The longer a blue cheese is aged—like any aged cheese—the more the flavors will change and develop, some mellowing, others intensifying. Other molds may grow on the outside of the cheese and will either be suppressed by the affineur that’s a fancy word for a person who monitors the aging of cheese by washing the rinds, or in some cases, those molds will be allowed to flourish. The process for making the blue cheese involves some room-temperature ripening times to let the milk or curds get good and sour. For my petite blues, the bacterial culture sours the milk during a ripening of nearly two hours before rennet is added for curdling, and for aged blues, the milk is not ripened. Instead, the curds are left to drain for a day or two for this to happen. Once the curds of aged blues—like Gorgonzola or traditional Roquefort—have drained, the curds are broken into chunks, are sprinkled with P. roqueforti or P. glaucum powder and are pressed into mold forms for aging.

Look for Part II of this story in the July issue.