Blue cheese is said to be divisive. You might hate blue cheese, while your sister might love it. The British website, Good to Know, in July 2019 listed the 10 most hated foods in the UK. Blue cheese made number 7, with the most hated food being the slippery, salty, oyster, according a poll referenced by the site. The article goes on to claim that as much as 34% of people asked say they can’t stand cheeses of the broad group that includes British Stilton, French Roquefort and Spanish Valdeon. Cheese taxonomists refer to this group as the “blue veined cheeses.” Sounds a bit like a health condition.
And yet, at last year’s World Cheese Awards, in Bergamo, Italy, the cheese that most impressed the judges, and took the best of show in the judging, earning the right to be called the Greatest Cheese in the World? It was a moldy blue cheese. No ordinary blue, have you, but the superlative Rogue River Blue from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery, swaddled in grape leaves that are soaked in a pear liqueur. Made from organic cow’s milk from Rogue’s dedicated herd, it was the first cheese from North America to win the award.
So, what’s going on here? Does that 34% really detest blue-veined cheeses, or have they not yet met the one that’s right for them? Maybe they need to try Rogue River Blue? At the cheese counter where I work in Chicago, most customers were intrigued last winter when we sampled the World’s Greatest Cheese. When they tasted Rogue River, they died a little and just had to take some home. But we also frequently meet folks who say ‘no thank you’ to blue cheese.
The Blue Cheese Challenge
“I think blue cheese is very polarizing,” says Meredith Fitzgerald, who manages The Cheese Market at Leary’s, Newburyport, Mass. “Customers will come up to me and say, ‘Oh I don’t like blue’, and I will always take that as a challenge.” Fitzgerald says Bay Blue, a cave-aged blue from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company in California is the one cheese she goes on to say will win over the most steadfast skeptics. You might call it the Bay Blue Challenge. “I will take a little nub of Bay Blue and have them try it,” she says. “It’s so sweet and so fudgy and a little gritty, and people will say ‘oh my God, I didn’t know blue cheese could taste like that!’” In the end, Fitzgerald, a Certified Cheese Professional through the American Cheese Society, who spent five years guiding would-be turophiles at Whole Foods Market, feels that everyone, other than those with a “closed pallet” should be able to find a blue cheese they love. That polarization is not the fault of the cheeses, she says.
Blue Cheese Haters
Tonya Schoenfuss loves a good blue cheese as much as anyone, but she’s pretty sure that what we’ll call the vomit factor is an obstacle that just can’t be overcome for some people, especially those so-called supertasters who are sensitive to certain flavors. You may have heard that a percentage of people get nothing but soap when tasting fresh-cut cilantro, while most of us can shovel pico de gallo onto salty tortilla chips all day long. “There are people who don’t like blue cheese,” says Schoenfuss, who holds a Ph.D. in dairy science, and a position at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. “The butyric acid is like vomit.” Butyric acid is among the carboxylic acids, it’s an oily, colorless liquid that presents itself in rancid butter and in blue cheese. Schoenfuss has published research on flavor enhancements, and on reducing salt for blue cheese, but she’s uncertain if anyone has researched the topic of supertasters and blues. For her money, blue cheese is off-putting by nature, and like oysters perhaps, it is an acquired taste that some will never acquire.
As with other cheese, the flavors and aromas in blue cheese come from the breakdown of milk fats. But in addition, the metabolism of blue mold further reduces fatty acids to form chemical compounds knows as ketones, in particular one called 2-Pentanone. Might that be the culprit that gives blue cheese a bad rep? Several of the experts we spoke with (including Schoenfuss) note that many of those who reject mold-laden cheese may have had limited exposure to the broad variety of blues in the cheese universe, and perhaps an initial negative experience with a blue that was just too strong.
David Gremmels, president of Rogue Creamery, says the piquancy can be overwhelming. “I also find that most people are turned off by the acidity, metallic notes, and off-putting texture created by homogenization and standardization in commodity blue cheeses,” says Gremmels, who has helped steer the company since 2002. Gremmels says he has met plenty of people within and outside of the cheese business who say they do not like blues. He has his own challenge which involves a Rogue cheese that is cold smoked over hazelnut shells. “I ask if they would be open to tasting a cheese I created for my dear friend Keziah Baird, who hates blue cheese, but who I have converted to a blue cheese lover,” he says. “I ask them to taste a small crumble of Smokey Blue. At least 95% of the time they are won over to the blue side!” Rogue Smokey Blue is one of my own all-time favorite wheels. While some smoked cheeses can smell like a factory fire, Smokey Blue is like the best smoked salmon you have ever had.
Fitzgerald agrees that blue reticence could be based on lack of experience. “It tells me that someone has not really explored it in a cheese shop,” she says. “Maybe they are used to buying grocery store Danish blue or just a crumbled blue. Once they try a true artisan blue cheese product it’s completely different.” Gremmels thinks the number of people put off by blue cheese is decreasing, and that it might be more like 2 or 3% rather than 30%.
Blue Cheese Lovers
Elizabeth Nerud carries more than a dozen examples of blue cheese at any given time at her counter. She is also a certified pro through the American Cheese Society who works for Kowalski’s Markets, a chain of specialty grocery stores in the upper Midwest. While she believes that reluctant customers may find their way to a blue they love, she is careful to guide rather than to push them. “Do I try to evangelize blues and make converts out of the heathens? Never,” she says. “I used to try to convince folks, just like I used to do for goat cheese. Did I ever have any success? Nope. I want people to have fun, be excited about their cheeses and look forward to the experience with happy anticipation, not trepidation.”
Fitzgerald’s choice of Bay Blue might not be so surprising. Other retailers and cheesemakers mention that cheese, or Rogue’s Smokey Blue as great introductory blues. Among them is Lynn Giacomini Stray, one of the founders of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. The farm-based creamery launched nearly 20-years ago with a blue cheese it now calls Point Reyes Original Blue. There was a natural inclination toward blue cheeses among the Point Reyes founders, but they also did a good deal of research, and discovered that chefs were clamoring for more high quality American-made blue. “There was nothing of that type being made in California,” Giacomini-Stray says. “As a new cheese maker we focused on just one cheese and we wanted to focus on the consistency and quality of that cheese. It was the only cheese we made for nine years.”
Point Reyes Original, a raw milk cheese, is bright and lemony, with a peppery finish and a creamy texture. It recalls a classic Dana blue. In 2012, Point Reyes introduced Bay Blue. It’s pasteurized, and cave aged, so that it develops a natural rind. It looks and tastes altogether different from Original Blue.
“We use different cultures and traditional rennet lending to the savory/sweet flavor profile. It has an earthy, mushroom note with toasted malt and then it finishes in a sweet graham cracker or salted caramel flavors,” Giacomini Stray says. “This cheese is very approachable because if its sweetness.” Bay Blue took second place best of show at the American Cheese Society judging in 2014 and has won numerous other awards.
Back in Chicago, I have challenged customers with Bay Blue, Rogue Smokey, and Rogue Caveman blue, and my success rate is pretty good. We also offer those super-special blues such as Rogue River and Shakerag Blue from Sequatchie Cove Creamery. Rogue River is a seasonal, released in the fall. Rogue Creamery releases a new set of tasting notes for each annual batch. Shakerag is a cow’s milk blue wrapped in fig leaves that have been soaked in Tennessee whiskey. The descriptions of these cheeses, with references to root beer, bacon, chocolate, and rum-laced pastries are usually enough to turn heads all by themselves.
So, until we uncover some science to the contrary, it might be okay to encourage everyone I meet to take the challenge, and find a blue cheese to fall in love with. I’ll sure have fun trying.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Phillips is a cheese buyer and department manager at Potash Markets, a unique small chain of grocery stores in Chicago. He is a Certified Cheese Professional through the American Cheese Society, and has called Chicago home since 1988. He conducts occasional beer and cheese pairing events, and maintains a rusty blog site www.cheeseandcheers.com.