The secrets of Penicillium roqueforti: understanding and enjoying blue cheeses

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If there’s one family of cheeses that doesn’t get unanimous approval, it’s certainly the blues. It has to be said that they are not very easy to approach! The smell, the intensity, the visual aspect; nothing seems to help them. Fortunately, the epicureans and gourmands of this world don’t stop at appearances, because they know that taste is always king!

Whether you’re a seasoned connoisseur or a beginner in search of new flavors, here’s everything you need to know about blue cheese and how to enjoy it!

A little historical background

First things first…

The first blue cheese was discovered by chance in the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon region. Legend has it that a shepherd left his meal in a cave to woo a passer-by. When he returned, the cheese and bread on his plate were now covered in blue mould with a powerful, complex taste! The region’s very specific conditions enabled shepherds to reproduce a cheese that would become firmly rooted in its terroir under the name of Roquefort. The popularity of this cheese, and its many counterfeits, prompted King Charles XV to give the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon region a monopoly on its manufacture.

Penicillium roqueforti

Blue cheeses get their distinctive color from a mold called Penicillium roqueforti. In the Roquefort PDO, it is always harvested from loaves of rye bread left to mature in natural cellars, then ground into a fine powder to be added to the cheese during production. Also available as a “domesticated” ferment, this mold is purchased and selected according to criteria specific to each Penicillium variety, which are the typicality of the flavors produced, the color (green, blue, gray…) and the impact on the texture of the cheese. When a cheesemaker chooses his Penicillium, it’s a bit like an artist choosing the pigments for his painting.

How do you make blue cheese?

Recipes vary from one appellation to another, but the idea remains the same: the cheesemaker seeds the curd with lactic ferments, including Penicillium roqueforti. Once acidification has begun, the cheesemaker will add animal or vegetable rennet, which will solidify/clot the milk. This is followed by decanting and stirring to drain the curd grains and achieve the desired texture/moisture. During or at the end of stirring, the cheesemaker will try to cap the grain (dry the outside of the grain) so that cavities can form in the cheese. The curd is then molded and left to drain. Once removed from the moulds, the cheeses are salted and placed in a warm cellar to allow the yeasts to do their work (raising the pH) and prepare the ground for Penicillium roqueforti. Once the target pH has been reached, the cheesemaker pricks the cheeses to allow oxygen to penetrate and initiate the growth of Penicillium roqueforti. All that remains is the maturing process, during which the aromas and texture develop. Once the organoleptic objectives have been reached, the cheesemaker seals the cheese with aluminum to cut off the oxygen supply and halt the development of Penicillium roqueforti.

Tasting the blues

In addition to their distinct “blue” flavor, they can release fruity, farmhouse and, when properly matured, nutty aromas. If you wince when you eat blue cheese, don’t give up – there are many ways to get started! The best way to enjoy blue cheese is to contrast its salty taste with sweet ingredients. In our last article, we paired blue cheese with pear, but it would have been possible to use fresh date, plum, mango or black cherry jam. For drinks, consider sweet, syrupy spirits such as port, sauternes, ice wines or mead. Perhaps the most unusual accompaniment to blue cheese is dark chocolate! In fact, blues go well with the taste of cocoa, and we invite sweet tooths to try this surprising and delicious combination!