They start out like any other cheese, then blue cheeses go rogue. They forge an illicit alliance with Penicillium mold. Yes, the same genus of fungi that gives us penicillin. The mold needs oxygen to develop, so the cheese is pierced to create air passages that result in the trademark blue (or, in many cases, green or teal) veining, and an intense love-it-or-hate-it smell and flavor.
“It’s the California Cab of the cheese world,” says Steve Jones, owner/monger of Cheese Bar, Chizu and Cheese Annex in Portland, Oregon. “They’re big and hulkish, but people still love them because there’s such a range of flavors going on. But there are a lot of terrible blues out there.”
That range of flavors includes many familiar to any wine lover: sharp acidity, spice, fruit and a hefty dose of funk.
“The different acidity you get with blue cheese is the big game-changer for me, but each variety is still so distinct from the others,” says Jones. “That’s what I find really appealing—the blue-cheese family tree is a broad one.”
Blues are produced in almost every cheese-producing country, but here are some classics that every cheese enthusiast should try.
Perhaps the oldest known blue cheese, Roquefort was also France’s first Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation, in 1925. The cheese must be made entirely from the milk of Lacaune sheep and aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the South of France, where the Penicillium roqueforti mold is extracted from the soil. (Penicillium roqueforti is now grown in labs, and is currently the most common species used for blue cheeses in the world.) There are several producers of Roquefort, and Jones says that “the Gabriel Coulet Roquefort is a Top 10 cheese for so many people. It’s amazing.”
Alternate: Bleu d’Auvergne
Though usually inoculated with the same mold used for Roquefort, Blue d’Auvergne is a milder, creamier cow’s milk cheese aged just four weeks. It’s a great alternative to Roquefort when cooking.
The honeyed quality of a botrytized wine softens the sharp, funky notes of the cheese while the intense acidity of the Sauternes cuts through the fatty creaminess of the cheese.
England’s favorite blue has strict controls over its production. Stilton can only be made in three counties: Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Local milk must be used, and the cheese is never pressed, which gives it a characteristic flakiness. With an earthy flavor that Jones equates to peanut shells, Stilton has a very creamy base despite its crumbly texture, and melts beautifully on sandwiches or in soups.
Alternate: Wensleydale Blue
Predating Stilton by centuries, Wensleydale was brought to England by monks from Roquefort who adapted their sheep’s milk cheese to the cows of North Yorkshire. While a non-blue version has passed the blue in popularity, Wensleydale Blue can hold its own against slightly softer, saltier Stilton.
Pairing: Vintage Port
A classic British pairing, both luxuriously rich, the bright blue berry and raspberry fruits as well as mellowed tannins of an older vintage port balance the Stilton’s saltiness while lifting the cheese’s earthy notes.
Maytag Blue (United States)
First produced in 1941, this iconic American blue is still made exclusively on the Maytag family farm. “I grew up near Maytag Dairy, and my dad was a herdsman there, so this was my introductory, ‘a-ha moment’ blue,” says Jones. “I think it’s a classic American blue: dense, acidic, sharp, a forerunner of all other American blues. It’s a great cheese, and a beautiful farm, too.”
Alternate: Point Reyes Bay Blue
Point Reyes Original Blue, a dense, creamy raw cow’s milk cheese, has become a domestic classic, but Jones thinks the producer’s newer blue may be even better. “It’s so delicious. It starts sweet and finishes savory, incredibly delicious—one of the best American blues, for sure.”
Pairing: Ice Wine
The piercing acidity of a well-balanced ice wine refreshes the palate and cuts through the dense cheese, while the concentrated sweet-fruit notes make for an indulgent pairing.
Now made primarily in Piedmont and Lombardy (its name comes from a town within the Milan metropolitan area), Gorgonzola has been produced since at least the 11th century. The cow’s milk cheese comes in two styles, which differ in their aging. Gorgonzola Dolce is aged for less than two months, while crumbly Gorgonzola Piccante (also called Mountain Gorgonzola) is aged up to five months. “My favorite is Dolce, for sure,” says Jones. “I love when blue cheese has a kind of ice cream quality to it, like the edge of the bowl of ice cream that’s melting.”
Crumbly Castelmagno, which dates to at least the 13th century, is as iconic to Piedmont as Barolo. Though Penicillium spores are introduced to the milk, the cheese is so dense that it doesn’t always develop blue veining. Regardless, it’s intensely flavored and particularly delicious when melted into risotto.
Playing off the classic pairing of dried fruit and cheese, this Italian dessert wine, made from dried grapes, has a deep raisin flavor to compliment this blue.
“I call Cabrales an electrifying blue,” says Jones. “It has a tongue-shocking quality.” It’s made from raw cow’s milk from Asturias, located in Spain’s northwest corner. Sheep and/or goat milk can be added, which makes a sharper, spicier cheese. The high humidity and cool temperature of its ripening caves encourage aggressive Penicillium proliferation, which contributes to Cabrales’s extensive veining and wild flavor.
An affordable alternative to Cabrales, Valdeón is similar, but a bit less extreme. (Some see that as a weakness, others consider it a strength). Like Cabrales, it can be made entirely with cow’s milk, or with sheep and/or goat milk added. It’s usually aged only six to eight weeks, rather than Cabrales’s two to five months.
Pairing: Pedro Ximénez Sherry
The chocolaty notes of this viscous, sweet Sherry style counters the cheese’s salty character for an unusual but pleasant flavor combination, while fig flavors complement the cheese’s spicy accents.
Chiriboga Blue (Germany)Germany’s best-known contribution to blue cheese has been Cambozola, a mass-produced cross between Camembert and Gorgonzola that trades complexity for likeability. But this newer Bavarian blue may change that. “The guy who makes Chiriboga Blue is a cheesemaker from Ecuador who fell in love with a Bavarian woman and wanted to make a unique Bavarian cheese and just invented the recipe,” says Jones. “It’s a super-creamy, custardy blue, the acidity is in check, very wine friendly. It’s really something else.”
Pairing: German Riesling Beerenauslese
The candied citrus, intense tropical notes and striking hit of acidity often encountered in these German dessert wines play off the creaminess of this subtler blue cheese.
Buying, Storing and Serving Blue Cheese
As with any cheese, try to buy blues cut to order off the wheel, and store it in cheese paper, which is sold at cheese shops. If you can’t find cheese paper, substitute wax paper with an outer layer of plastic wrap. Jones then places his blues in a large resealable plastic bag, so they can breathe without exchanging odors with other things in the fridge. “Blues can give off a lot of liquid, so when tightly wrapped in plastic, they suffocate in their own sweaty mess, and can develop a petrochemical note,” says Jones.
But when a cheese is supposed be covered in mold and smell pungent, how do you tell when it’s bad? “No cheese should ever smell morbid, like rotting flesh—that’s when you know it’s over the hill,” says Jones. “The mold that grows on cheese is safe and won’t hurt you, so take a quick taste. Mold that isn’t intended to be on the cheese won’t have the right acidity and will have a ‘dirty’ note.”
Blues are terrific in salads, pastas and gratins, but they shine brightest as the swaggering star of any cheese platter. “I’m a purist with blues—I love them with toasted walnuts, dried fruit, [and] honeycomb,” says Jones. “But, that said, I do love Gorgonzola Dolce in a pasta sauce, and chocolate with blue cheese can be a great combination.”
“The guy who makes Chiriboga Blue is a cheesemaker from Ecuador who fell in love with a Bavarian woman and wanted to make a unique Bavarian cheese and just invented the recipe.”
Pairing Wine with Blue Cheese
There’s a reason that two of the most time-tested pairings—Roquefort with Sauternes and Stilton with Port—are blue cheeses with dessert wines. The sweet-salty-creamy interplay is irresistible, and the wine’s acidity has a palate-cleansing effect. Almost any wine with some residual sugar can work, from sec Champagne and demi-sec Vouvray, to sticky Rutherglen Muscat and Pedro Ximénez Sherry.
For people who don’t love sweet wines, big reds are often suggested pairing partners for blue cheese, but tannins can pose problems. You need big flavor to stand up to the cheese, but tannins clash with the salt and spice of what you’re eating. With blue cheeses, acidity is your friend. Low-tannin reds tend to lack the body or acidity to properly compliment blue cheese.
You can also look to beer. “My personal preference with blue cheese are malt-forward beers,” says Jones. “A malty Trappist ale with an earthy blue, a barrel-aged stout… [or] an English-style barleywine with Stilton is my favorite combination.” Jones also recommends funky, high-acid Spanish ciders as an alternative pairing.
Recipe: The Best Blue Cheese Dressing
By freezing the cheese before grating, it produces fine shreds that make for a silky dressing with blue flavor throughout. If you like it chunky, just add blue cheese crumbles, to taste. Add another tablespoon of milk for a runnier dressing, or a tablespoon less if you serve it as a dip.
☐ ½ cup sour cream
☐ ¼ cup mayonnaise
☐ ¼ cup whole milk
☐ 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
☐ ½ teaspoon sugar
☐ ¼ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
☐ ⅛ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
☐ 3 ounces good-quality frozen blue cheese
☐ Salt, to taste
With fork, combine sour cream, mayonnaise and milk until smooth. Add vinegar, sugar, pepper and garlic powder, if desired. Grate cheese into dressing a little at a time. Mix after each addition to avoid clumps. When all cheese has been added, add salt, to taste (you may need none, depending on saltiness of cheese). Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.