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Say Cheese: Good news about blues

Check out the marbling and rich color of the Belgian Achelse Blauwe. (Domenica Marchetti)

With the holidays upon us, it’s time to start singing the blues. This is a good thing because I am talking, of course, about blue cheeses. With their robust flavor and gorgeous varied veining, blue cheeses belong on a winter cheese plate for appetizers or dessert.

The problem with blue cheese is that, like feta, it suffers unjustly from a bad reputation. I blame that on mediocre, mass-produced supermarket varieties and salad bars with bad blue-cheese crumbles and chalky blue cheese dressing.

The good news is that there are so many lovely types of blue cheeses available now: creamy, crumbly, nutty, pungent, domestic and imported. Choosing what to get is half the fun.

This past weekend I conducted a mini tasting of half a dozen blue cheeses, together with three willing volunteers (one of whom professed not to like blue cheese). With one exception (St. Agur, from France) these were all cheeses that were new to me; or if I had heard of them, I had never tried them. I chose them based on nothing more than the fact that they looked or sounded good and interesting. Almost all of them were winners in our little unscientific sampling. I found the following cheeses at Cheesetique in Alexandria and at Whole Foods Markets. Here’s what we had and how they stacked up:

A parade of blues, from front to back: Little Boy Blue, Oregonzola, Montagnolo, St. Agur, Achelse Blauwe and Persille du Beaujolais. (Domenica Marchetti)

1. Little Boy Blue: This sheep’s-milk blue is produced by award-winning Hook’s Cheese Company of Wisconsin. Chalk-white and crumbly like feta, it also shares feta’s salty and pungent flavor. Out of all of the cheeses we tried this one hewed most to the classic American blue in flavor, which is probably why it garnered the fewest raves. We decided it would be a good cheese to top a hearty winter salad of crunchy bitter greens.

2. Oregonzola: Oregon’s Rogue Creamery, probably most famous for its Rogue River blue, has won a slew of awards over the decades. Aged four months, Oregonzola is a cow’s-milk blue made in the style of a creamy Italian Gorgonzola. I found it to be milder. Creamy with a slightly grainy finish, Oregonzola is tangy and somewhat fruity, though its "blueness" is muted. My taster who does not like blue cheese liked this one a lot for that very reason.

3. Montagnolo: A rich, triple-cream cow’s-milk blue, Montagnolo is made by Kaserei Champignon, the same Bavarian producer of Cambozola. As much as I like mild Cambozola, I like this even better. It has more character; it’s salty and earthy, a little piquant, sweet, and so buttery that it practically melts in your mouth. The cheese’s edible bloomy gray-white rind has a subtle mushroomy flavor that adds to its appeal.

4. St. Agur: This octagonal-shaped cow’s-milk cheese is pale ivory and richly veined. It comes from the mountainous Auvergne region in central France. It is high in butterfat and thus very creamy. But it’s also spicy, with a distinct, though not overly blue flavor and a nutty finish.

5. Persillé du Beaujolais: Smooth and somewhat firmer than some of the other blues we tried, this cheese is produced by a small dairy in the Rhone Alps, and aged by HervéMons, one of France’s most renowned affineurs (the person responsible for aging and refining cheeses). It has an edible gray rind and golden paste that is shot through with blue-green veining. I found it to be less salty than other blues, but with some tanginess and lots of character.

6. Achelse Blauwe: This Belgian cheese may be my favorite of the bunch, in looks and in taste. It is produced in limited quantities by brothers Peter and Bert Boonen of Catharinadal Kaasmakerij, a 100-cow dairy farm in the northern province of Limburg. Because the penicillin mold is added to the stacked curds before they are pressed and shaped, rather than injected afterward as with most blue cheeses, the result is a blue-green marbling effect rather than veining. The marbling and the golden ivory color of the paste make this cheese look rich. In taste and texture it is equally rich, with a deep nutty flavor, a slightly bitter finish and a pronounced blue taste.

There are many, many other blues out there. Two of my other favorites include Buttermilk Blue, an assertively tangy creamy-crumbly cheese from Wisconsin’s Roth Kase; and Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue, a mild blue that is cold-smoked over hazelnut shells for 16 hours to produce a sweet-smoky flavor (with thanks to Colleen at Cheese & Champagne for reminding me of that one!).

A note about serving blue cheeses: While I enjoyed the "flight" of blues, I generally recommend featuring one blue on a cheese plate, as too many can overwhelm. Blues are great on plain crackers or on very thinly sliced fruit and nut bread. For dessert, drizzle a little bit of chestnut honey over a small wedge of an assertive blue and serve with a small mound of toasted walnuts and dried cranberries. Heaven.

Have you got the holiday blues? I’d love to hear about your favorites.

-- Domenica Marchetti is the author of "Big Night In," named one of the 25 best books of 2009 by the editors of Food & Wine magazine.

By The Food Section  |  November 17, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, blue cheeses  
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Next: Holiday favorites: Desserts


I discovered Fourme d'Ambert last winter - amazing! Carr Valley's Billy Blue is a delicious blue goat's-milk cheese that is definitely worth seeking.

Posted by: golda78 | November 17, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Extremely interesting and useful posting. I will refer to it on my Blog Http:// where I have started to cover cheese. My first posting was on the Artisanal in NYC. Question: Why didn't you include the classics, like Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Stilton. I would also be interested in a tasting of Roqueforts from different producers (Societe, Charles, Papillon, etc).

Christian G.E.Schiller

Posted by: cgeschiller | November 18, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Hi Christian. Thanks for your post. There are so many wonderful blue cheeses out there, it's almost impossible to choose. My goal with this post was to shine a light on some kinds that readers may not be familiar with. But rest assured, there will be much more on blue cheeses. I look forward to checking out your blog.

Posted by: Domenica1 | November 21, 2009 7:03 AM | Report abuse

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