Spicy, creamy, rich, crumbly, earthy and sometimes sweet. Blue cheese comes in all sorts of textures and flavors. However, they all have one thing in common: mold. Mold is growing and thriving inside these chunks of curdled wonder. It must have been a brave person (or a hungry one) that first decided to eat the moldy cheese, but we're all glad he or she did.
Penicillium roqueforti and penicillium glaucum are the two most widely used types of blue cheese molds. The first is from France and where Roquefort takes its name and the second is Italian and used in the Gorgonzolas. Well, how did it get there?
The cheese lore goes that a Frenchman left his rye bread in the cheese caves of Cambalou, France, and the bread began to mold. Being that the caves were a nice 58 degrees with plenty of fresh air from the naturally occurring vents and the cheese was good and moist, the mold-growing trifecta was achieved. Voila! Roquefort was born. Today the penicillium roqueforti is still derived from bread that's made from rye harvested on the Levezou Plateau just north of the Pyrenees Mountains.
When people think of cheese, one of the first things that come to mind other than its undeniable sinful goodness, is the smell. When customers ask me for something funky and stinky, the first thing I reach for is a member of the washed rind family. A soft ripened cheese similar in texture to the Bloomy rinds that I talked about in April, washed rind cheeses are the boldest and stinkiest.
Most of the washed rinds were developed in monasteries hundreds of years ago. Some theories suggest that the bold, meaty cheeses were developed to provide a substitute for meat when meat was either forbidden or scarce. As many of you know, monasteries are also famous for making beer. I believe that washed rinds were developed, like so many things, out of people using what they had on hand.
Like the bloomy cheeses, washed rinds are not cooked or pressed. The curd are ladled directly into the form and allowed to drain under their own weight. Then the cheese maker or Affineur (one that ages cheese) begins the washing process. This can be done with a simple salt brine, beer, wine, spirits or a combination. This process causes bacteria to develop on the exterior of the cheese. The bacteria causes the cheese to develop a thin, pinkish/red rind that's somewhat sticky and omits a pungent odor, which I've heard described as the smell of God's feet.
The southern United States has a rich culinary history. Cheese making, however, is not a chapter in the encyclopedia of Southern cuisine. But in the last 14 to 20 years, the cheesy story is finally being written: Artisan cheese-making industry in the South is taking root. Sweetgrass Dairy in Thomasville and Sweet Home Farm in Elberta, Ala., are a couple of the forefathers of the Southern cheese-making business. Dairies and creameries are starting to pop up all over the Southeast.
One of the more recent additions is Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Sequatchie, Tenn., at Sequatchie Cove Farm. There's nothing new about Sequatchie Farm, where beef, pork and produce have been raised for many years. In the last year it's added cheese making to its repertoire. March marked its one-year anniversary as a licensed cheese-making facility.
The farm is a short drive out I-24 West from Chattanooga and is surrounded by the Cumberland Plateau, the Little Sequatchie River and endless acres of Tennessee forest. Cheese maker Nathan Arnold, a longtime Sequatchie Cove employee and native, took a couple of short cheese-making courses at the University of Vermont and in Guelph, Ontario. Then Arnold began a tour of cheese-making regions and visited people that he felt could guide him on his path to cheesy nirvana. Arnold spent time cutting the curd with some of America's top cheese makers as well.
Cheese is basically three ingredients: Milk, salt and rennet. Milk, of course, is the main requirement. Salt brings out flavor and moisture while rennet separates the proteins from the whey. If that's the case, how can there be so many different types of cheese?
Like wine, geographical location plays a major role in the flavor and type of cheese. Camembert and Brie come from largely populated areas, and the cheese makers were able to sell their cheeses at market on a weekly basis. Cheddar and Gruyère originated in rural areas where cheeses had to be able to withstand long aging periods and travel great distances to reach markets.
The introduction of mold causes the cheese to do different things. One type of mold used in cheese production is penicillium candidum. This is the mold that's used on cheeses such as Brie, Camembert and Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill. The candidum is either introduced into the curds during production or sprayed on the exterior after the cheese has been shaped. In most artisan productions, the candidum is introduced during production.
After these cheeses have been shaped (usually in small 1-inch thick or so rounds) and given the optimum temperature and humidity, the candidum will begin to grow. In a few days the cheese will have a beautiful velvety or "bloomy" rind. At this point, the cheese is still fresh and the texture is still relatively firm and flaky. Think about that fresh goat cheese that comes in a log — that's the texture of a fresh bloomy rind cheese. However, give the candidum a few weeks and that'll change.
High up in the northwest kingdom of Vermont, in the small idyllic town of Greensboro, lies Jasper Hill Farm. Started early this century by Andy and Mateo Kehler, Jasper Hill has become a model for up-and-coming producers.
I first came to know Mateo and Jasper Hill cheese in 2003 while working at Murray's cheese counter. I quickly became a fan of Mateo's cheeses, and have been fortunate enough to visit the farm on occasion and develop a friendship with the cheese makers. Jasper Hill has produced many favorites that have become staples at cheese counters around the nation.
People often ask me what kind of cheese they should include on a cheese plate for dinner parties. Cheese is a simple item and should be enjoyed in a simple manner. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing more enjoyable after a meal at a fine restaurant than an exquisite cheese cart, but you would never find a grandmother in Savoie, France, serving a full cheese cart to her family after supper. What you would find is a selection of perfectly aged cheeses from farms and creameries from around her home.
Like the French grandmother, you shouldn't be intimidated or worried about what type of cheese is served, so long as it's fresh. However, preparing a cheese board with a theme is always nice. The cheeses you serve should have some kind of progression.
Start your plate with the mildest cheeses. Fresh or very young goat cheeses are usually a good place to start. Then move up to stronger and older cheeses. Always finish with the blues. Blue cheese will overpower most other cheeses and take away from their full potential. My favorite go-to, no-fail cheese plate is as follows:
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