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Cheese of the Month - September 2016

A little goes a long way: Blue cheese packs in the flavor

Editor’s Note: “Cheese of the Month” is Cheese Market News’ exclusive profile series exploring various cheese types. Each month, CMN highlights a different cheese in this feature, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing, sales and in-depth aspects of each profiled cheese type. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheese: Blue.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — Despite evidence that the creation of blue-veined cheeses may have been accidental, their pronounced flavor makes them an unmistakable presence amongst all cheese varieties.
There are several types of blue-veined cheeses, whose family includes Blue, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Danableu, Rosenbourg and others.

According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), no record exists of the first Blue cheese, which has a creamy-ivory hue and a piquant, full and earthy flavor. Some historians suggest that mold from the Penicillium family accidentally transferred from bread to cheese sitting nearby, WMMB says.

Others say the original blue-veined cheese is Roquefort, which dates back many centuries, according to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist, Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR).

Roquefort is made from ewe’s milk and has an AOC designation, which is a French legal description of a food product and conditions of manufacture. To be sold as Roquefort, the cheese must fit certain criteria. One such requirement is using powders and cultures prepared in France, from the traditional sources in the micro-climate of the natural caves in the specified area of Roquefort, says Mark Johnson, assistant director, CDR.

Gorgonzola, another type of blue-veined cheese, was first made in northern Italy and also was made from sheep’s milk — although today it is typically made from cow’s milk, especially in the United States, according to Sommer.

Blue and Gorgonzola are the only two blue-veined cheese varieties that hold a U.S. standard of identity in FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Sommer says.

According to the regulation, Blue cheese is characterized by the presence of bluish-green mold, Penicillium roquefortii, and must be at least 60 days old before sale. The minimum milkfat content for the cheese is 50 percent by weight of the solids, with a maximum moisture content at 46 percent by weight.

Gorgonzola, on the other hand, must be at least 90 days old before sale and has a maximum moisture content of 42 percent by weight. It also contains Penicillium roquefortii, and the minimum milkfat content is 50 percent by weight of the solids, according to CFR.

• Blue cheese make, characteristics

There are two general categories of mold-ripened cheese: blue-veined cheeses and white-molded cheeses. In blue-veined cheeses, the mold grows inside the cheese, whereas white-molded cheeses grow mold on their exteriors, Sommer says.

In order for mold to grow inside blue-veined cheeses, the cheese must have oxygen in its interior. As such, these cheeses have an open texture on the inside and are typically punched with stainless steel needles, Sommer says.

The flavor associated with Blue cheese comes from a class of compounds called “keytones,” Sommer adds. The compounds are a breakdown of milkfat, from which Blue cheese’s flavor originates. Therefore — unlike most other cheese varieties — milk for making Blue cheese often is homogenized to divide the milkfat globules into smaller sizes, increasing the total surface area of the globules in the milk and resultant cheese.

This process allows the enzymes in the cheese to break down the milkfat much faster than in most other cheese varieties. Sometimes, lipase is added to the milk to speed up this process even more, Sommer adds.

When Blue cheese is made at Caves of Faribault in Faribault, Minnesota, it is punched after it has been formed into a wheel, allowing oxygen to move through the cheese and the blue veining to “bloom,” according to Jill Ellingson, plant manager, Caves of Faribault, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Swiss Valley Farms Cooperative, Davenport, Iowa.

Before they are punched, the company’s Blue cheeses are hand salted. Once punched, they sit in an open environment ­— the company’s historic sandstone caves — for about three weeks before they are bagged to stop additional blooming, Ellingson says.

“The sandstone has the ability to breathe,” she says, noting the caves provide an environment that facilitates the cheese’s development. Water can move horizontally and vertically throughout the sandstone, and the sandstone also is able to absorb ammonia, Ellingson says. In addition, the sandstone caves are 99 percent pure quartzite, have about 99 percent humidity and maintain 52 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

Caves of Faribault’s Blue cheeses, AmaBlu and AmaBlu St. Pete’s Select, are then moved into a colder area of the cave for storage until reaching 75 or 100 days of age, respectively.

• Production and retail sales

U.S. production of Blue and Gorgonzola cheeses increased 1.8 percent from 2014 to 2015, totaling about 94.5 million pounds, according to the USDA’s Dairy Products 2015 Summary published in April 2016.

However, while Blue cheese retail sales recently have increased 0.3 percent (52 weeks ending Aug. 7, 2016, U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores), its retail sales generally have been on a modest decline over the last five years, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc.

Natural Blue cheese (fixed weight only) has 0.32-percent volume share among all cheese types, and sales tend to spike during holidays such as Christmas and New Years, the data says.

The most common Blue cheese formats sold in U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores are crumbled and partial rounds, according to the data.

• Flavor

Blue cheese offers various levels of flavor that appeal to different customer preferences.

For example, at Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Oregon, the company aims to appeal to customers who have experienced various cheese flavors, says Francis Plowman, marketing director, Rogue Creamery.

Oregon Blue is considered its gateway Blue cheese because its flavor is most approachable compared to its other Blue cheese varieties, offering a buttery taste that includes a bouquet of flavors, including huckleberry and sweet nuts, Plowman says. It is Rogue Creamery’s most popular Blue cheese flavor among all of its sales outlets — wholesale, foodservice, retail and internet sales — and some is distributed to the European Union, Australia and South Korea.

The company’s second-most popular flavor, Smokey Blue, has a bolder taste that binds together sweet and savory flavors, Plowman says.

For Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, owner and master cheesemaker Chris Roelli aims for a customer base seeking a more familiar flavor.

As such, Roelli specializes in Cheddar/Blue cheese hybrids, which offer a subtle Blue cheese flavor, he says.

“It’s a transitional Blue cheese,” he says, noting that his cheeses are more Cheddar than they are Blue. “There are people out there who do not like the flavor of Blue cheese.”

Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue is modeled after traditional English farmhouse Cheddar with Blue added, he says.

His other Blue cheese variety, Red Rock, is a colored American-style Cheddar that incorporates blue veins using Penicillium roquefortii. Each recipe is different and offers its own texture and flavor.

Meanwhile, Old Chatham Sheepherding Creamery, Old Chatham, New York, offers a sheep’s milk Ewe’s Blue that has a “fudgy” texture and a rich, lightly salted and somewhat sweet flavor — a good alternative to Roquefort, says Eric Anderson, lead Blue cheesemaker, Old Chatham.

• Applications

Blue-veined cheeses have a variety of applications.

Some, such as Old Chatham’s Ewe’s Blue, do well with cooking.

“It’s flavor holds up well even after it’s been melted,” Anderson says.

Ewe’s Blue also can be used in dressings or added to caramelized onions and garlic to make a quick-and-easy, flavorful pasta sauce, he adds.

Similarly, Roelli says the company’s Red Rock is used when cooking and makes a good topping for a cheeseburger. Both Red Rock and Dunbarton Blue are used in restaurants for cheese plates and appetizers, he adds.

Rogue Creamery’s Blue cheeses also are incorporated into chefs’ dishes to add a dash of extra flavor in their recipes, while consumers will enjoy them by themselves or use them as a topper on foods such as salads, fish and steaks, according to Plowman.

“One of the great things about Blue cheese is there is a lot of flavor in a small amount,” he says.

• Trends

Blue cheese applications extend beyond appetizers and entrees.

For example, Rogue Creamery’s Blue cheese is a popular incorporation into desserts, such as cheesecake. Rogue first created a cheesecake recipe using its Crater Lake Blue in 2006, combining savory and sweet flavors. Since then, the recipe has been used by customers and in fine-dining restaurants, Plowman says.

Rogue’s Crater Lake Blue also is incorporated into an ice cream flavor at a local ice cream company, where it is a popular choice among customers, he says.

“A lot of people don’t like an overly sweet dessert,” Plowman says, adding that the idea for the ice cream arose from European traditions of serving cheese after dinner.

Pairing Blue cheese with artisan ciders and craft brews also is an up-and-coming trend. At Old Chatham, cheesemakers have begun research and development with local breweries and cider makers to incorporate beer or cider in the cheese.

“I think (the idea is) coming from the whole local movement — it seems like everywhere you go there’s a craft brewer somewhere,” Anderson says, noting that, by partnering with another local company to provide a local flavor, consumers likely will be eager to try it.

While the cheese is not yet for sale, Old Chatham is experimenting with local beer and cider flavors to accompany its Blue cheese. Pairing especially well is a dark brown double ale that adds a sweet, fruity taste with notes of caramel, Anderson says. To produce the flavor, the cheese is washed with the brew daily starting several weeks before it is wrapped, he adds.

Similarly, Caves of Faribault offers its Blues & Brews series, a line of seasonal Blue cheeses that are infused with different beers, all from the same company, and include Summer Ale, Oktoberfest and Winterfest brews, Ellingson says. The cheeses are available for each season every year, she adds.

The overarching trend in Blue cheese recipes, however, may be to stick to methods proven tried and true.

For example, Caves of Faribault has not changed its AmaBlu recipe in an effort to preserve the cheese’s heritage, Ellingson says.

Similarly, Anderson notes that Old Chatham tends to stick to traditional methods when making Ewe’s Blue, which he says yield the best results.

This tactic is mirrored by other cheesemakers as well, such as Roelli, who says his philosophy is to stick to what works.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he says.

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