Your annual holiday party is upon you once again, and you're at the cheesemonger to assemble a cheese plate for tomorrow's party. Keens aged cheddar? Check. Pyramid of Coach Farm goat's cheese? Check. As the clerk packages your Taleggio, Manchego, membrillo and Hoch Ybrig, your gaze settles on the rounds of Cashel blue and fig leaf-wrapped Cabrales, the Stiltons and the Point Reyes blue. Should you? Can you?
Elaborate spreads of cheese, crackers, dried fruits and bread can be both the simplest and most striking presentations at upscale holiday gatherings, but the real artistry is in assembling the perfect mix of soft and hard cheeses, balancing the goat's milk offerings with the cow's milk ones, and introducing your guests to some of your particular favorites. Veiny, blotchy blues, though, cause even cheese lovers great consternation: Would the mild type or the pungent kind suit your guests' tastes better? Should you go with soft and creamy, or crumbly? Why bother with these cheeses at all, if they are just going to overpower your carefully chosen wines?
The truth is, these cheeses span such a wide flavor spectrum that very few wines won't complement at least one veiny blue. (And, contrary to what you may have heard, dessert wines aren't the only heavenly matches.) Here's our guide to understanding blue cheeses, and the wines that make them shine.
Exclusive Online Recipe
Mussels with Blue Cheese
Here is Masson's blue cheese-laden version of moules et frites, a dish more often associated with Belgium than his native France. Serve this dish with a side of fries, as they are in Belgium.
1/2 cup Chardonnay
Debeard mussels, if necessary. Wash them in several changes of water to remove all sand.
Wine recommendation: Pouilly-Fuissé or another medium-weight Chardonnay with lively acidity, goes well with classic moules, and would work just as well with the moules au bleu.
What makes a blue blue
All blue cheeses are made by mixing a mold, usually Penicillium roquefortii, into milk, along with some salt. (Yes, the Penicillium is related to the mold that makes the antibiotic. And yes, there are other cheeses that owe their personalities to mold. It's the blue color created by the Penicillium strains that make blue cheeses stand out.)
Some blue cheese formulas call for the mold to be mixed into the curds; others call for piercing the curds with a needle to allow the mold to spread. Still others rely on naturally occurring mold spores in the air and let nature take its course. The general result is the same: a cheese with blue or green veins running through it, with flavors ranging from mild and creamy to downright pungent, even spicy. Food technologists have determined that this flavor signature is due to lipase enzymes produced by the mold.
Each blue has its own flavor profile, and this owes in part to the kind of milk used. "Cow's milk cheese will have a more soured milk flavor. Sheep's milk has a more 'animal' flavor—their milk is much stronger to the palate than cow's milk," explains Raymond Hook, a San Francisco-based cheese consultant who goes by the name "The Cheese Guy." "Goat's milk blues are hard to find."
Max McCalman, maître fromager of New York's Artisinal and Picholine restaurants and co-author with David Gibbons of Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best, uses slightly different descriptors, calling cow's milk cheeses "buttery"; sheep's milk, "nutty"; and goat's milk cheeses "chalky."
Considering the alternatives
How to pair wine with a big blue cheese? You've probably heard the classic matches, like Sauternes with Roquefort, and Port with Stilton. But what to do about the other blues—and what to do if you don't like dessert wine?
First off, "if it's a strong blue, it needs a bigger wine partner," says McCalman. Because blues can be both salty and strong, "it helps if the wine is a little sweet, or at least fruity," so yes, sweet wines are often great matches. Because dessert wines aren't very popular in America, both he and Hook typically offer several pairings alternatives, table wines among them.
"For cow's milk blues… Chardonnay and some Cabernet-based wines will work," especially fruity ones, McCalman says. For sheep's milk cheeses, he says, some Cabernet-based wines work, as can Zinfandel. As for the few goat's milk blues, he says, "I don't see that many table wines that work well with them."
The maître fromager advises cheese enthusiasts to also take into account the acids in the blue cheese—not just in choosing a wine, but in determining when and how the blue cheese will be eaten. "I encourage people to consider…hav[ing] it be the last cheese. All those acids…are penetrating, piercing. The blue does linger for a long time." For a cheese course that is served as a dessert course, naturally, McCalman's pairing recommendations are sweet wines: Late-harvest Chenin Blancs and Gewürztraminers, for example—even Moscato d'Asti.
The problem with pairing blues with sweet wines (aside from the fact that many American wine enthusiasts don't drink them), is that in this country, cheese is often served as a pre-dinner finger food, rather than as a final course, in place of dessert. Who wants to drink Port before, say, a Chardonnay?
"In America, we do eat the cheese first," says Hook. That can rule out not only dessert wine, he says, but for some, blue cheese itself, because of its ability to overwhelm the palate. He recommends serving a milder blue cheese if you're offering the cheese plate before the meal, and suggests pairing it with a rosé.
Blue, by way of steak, salad and other gastronomic vehicles
Blue cheese can shine beyond the cheese course, too. These cheeses, for example, are staple ingredients in many salads. McCalman says that including blue cheese in a salad actually makes pairing that salad with wine, an exercise that is typically dreaded because of the acidic vinaigrette, a lot easier. He likes to pair a frisée salad topped with crumbled Roquefort with a crisp, medium-bodied white wine. "That little bit of salt in the cheese helps to fatten the vinaigrette," he says. Hook, on the other hand, would serve a floral Portuguese Vinho Verde or a minerally Viognier with a salad topped with blue cheese.
And what of the blue cheese-topped steak, now ubiquitous on restaurant menus? "That's when you bring on the biggest red wine you have," says Hook. Eric Masson, a native of France who is chef-owner of the Saratoga Lake Inn in Saratoga Springs, New York, uses blue cheese in several dishes, including Tournedos au Bleu, beef tenderloins topped with a blue cheese sauce. He favors Bleu d'Auvergne, a mild cow's milk blue from the Auvergne region of France. Not every blue cheese can be made into a sauce, but the Bleu d'Auvergne, with its higher fat content, works well because it melts evenly and has a robust but not overpowering flavor. At the restaurant, they pair the dish with a meaty, hefty Rhône wine, or California Cabernet.
Which wines don't work with blue cheese? Masson's first rule of thumb is, be wary of serving blues with "any wine that would go with seafood—wines that are very dry." (By the same token, he warns against trying to eat blue cheese with seafood, except mussels, which he serves "au bleu," because the cheese will easily overpower more delicate fish or shellfish.) McCalman agrees. He says that dry Rieslings, in particular, "fall short when it comes to blues." Sweeter Rieslings are sometimes successful matches.
The experts agree that Pinot, particularly more delicate ones, can also suffer when served with blue cheese. Though Hook says that that Pinot "can be overwhelmed by the salt in blue cheese," some Pinots, particularly New World ones, can be fruity enough to hold their ground.
What follows are recipes that integrate blue cheese into a three-course meal. One thing's for sure: Whatever your favorite wintertime red wine (not to mention the fireside Ports and Sherries!), there's a perfect blue out there for you.
Escargots au Bleu (Snails with Blue Cheese Sauce)
Snails and blue cheese might seem like an unlikely combination, but the snail devotees at the Saratoga Lake Bistro gobble up this appetizer.
For the sauce:
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 pound Bleu d'Auvergne, Roquefort or other blue cheese, cut into cubes
For the escargots:
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil, or more as needed
1 can escargots (around 40 pieces), drained
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced, or to taste
1 package fresh baby spinach
To prepare the sauce: Pour the cream into a saucepan and bring it to a simmer, being careful not to scorch it. Add the cheese and whisk until it is melted and thoroughly combined with the cream. Remove from the heat and keep warm until ready to serve. The sauce will keep for 1 hour.
To prepare the escargots: Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and heat until it ripples. Add the snails and garlic and cook, stirring and shaking the pan for 3 to 5 minutes, or until heated through. Remove the pan from the heat, add the spinach and toss with escargots until the spinach is just wilted.
Divide the snails and spinach evenly between 4 appetizer plates. Drizzle each with a generous amount of sauce and serve. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Masson thinks that a medium-bodied Chardonnay like Meursault is the way to go. It has some richness, but also good enough acidity to cut through the blue cheese.
Tournedos au Bleu with Potatoes Au Gratin and Sautéed Green Beans
Chef Eric Masson serves this at the Saratoga Lake Inn and Bistro in Saratoga Springs, New York.
For the potatoes:
4 Idaho potatoes, cooked, peeled and sliced 1Â¼8-inch thick
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
Pinch of salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of grated nutmeg
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
For the sauce:
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 pound Bleu d'Auvergne, Roquefort or other blue cheese, cut into cubes
For the green beans:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 pound haricots verts
For the tournedos of beef:
4 (8-ounce) tournedos of center-cut beef tenderloin
Salt and freshly ground black pepperto taste
To prepare the potatoes: Preheat the oven to 375Â°F. Layer the potatoes in a 9×9-inch shallow baking dish. Pour the milk and cream over them and sprinkle with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Top with the cheese, spreading it evenly over the surface. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the cheese bubbles and is golden brown. Remove from the oven and keep warm until ready to serve.
To prepare the green beans: Pour the oil into a sauté pan set over medium-high heat and heat until it ripples. Add the garlic and cook, shaking the pan, for about 30 seconds, until slightly softened. Add the beans and toss so that they are coated with oil. Cook, stirring and shaking the pan, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the beans are tender and crisp. Remove from the heat and keep warm until ready to serve.
To prepare the beef and sauce: Heat the broiler or gas grill to high. Season the tournedos with salt and pepper and place them on a broiler pan, or directly onto the grill. Broil or grill for 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium, or until desired doneness. Remove from the heat and let the meat rest for 5 to 8 minutes.
While the meat is resting, prepare the sauce by pouring the cream into a saucepan and bringing it to a simmer, being careful not to scorch it. Add the cheese and whisk until it is melted and thoroughly combined with the cream. Remove from the heat and keep warm until ready to serve.
When you are ready to serve, divide the beans and potatoes equally between four dinner plates. Place 1 piece of meat on each plate. Pour a generous portion of sauce over the meat and serve. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Wines of Chateâuneuf- du-Pape. "The blue cheese is strong, but you get a little sweetness at the end, and the Chateâuneuf-du-Pape is the same," says Masson. "It's smooth and it lingers in the mouth like the blue cheese does. It's got a bite at first and then it lingers."
Cabernet-Poached Pears au Bleu in Puff Pastry
Masson says that frozen puff pastry will make this appetizer easy for the home chef. Defrost the pastry and then cut it into 2×2-inch squares.
1 bottle Cabernet Sauvignon
4 whole cloves
1 stick cinnamon
10 black peppercorns
1 tablespoons brown sugar
4 Anjou Pears, peeled
4 (2×2-inch) squares puff pastry
1/2 pound Bleu d'Auvergne, cut into 8 slices
Pecan halves or toasted almonds, optional, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 425Â°F. Pour the wine into a saucepan big enough to hold the pears, set over high heat and bring to boil. Add the cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns and brown sugar. Place the pears upright into the pan, and poach for about 15 minutes, or until tender.
Halfway through cooking time, place the pastry squares on a baking sheet and bake for about 8 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cut the pears in half lengthwise and remove the cores. Place 2 halves on each of 4 appetizer plates. Top each half with a slice of cheese, and then top each plate with a square of warm puff pastry, sprinkle with pecan halves or toasted almonds and serve. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: At the Saratoga Lake Inn, this dessert is most often served with sweet wines, such as Sauternes or Monbazillac.