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True blue

Blue cheeses
The differences between French Roquefort (left) and American Maytag Blue become more obvious when you compare them closely side by side.

Let's follow up on last week's tasty gougeres with another cheesy column, this time focusing on blue-veined cheese, one of those foods that divides the whole world into two warring factions: Those who love it and those who hate it.

Put me down in the "love it" camp, with the caveat that the earthy aroma and flavor of blue cheese is something that most of us had to learn to like. When we consider that food that turns blue and moldy in the back of the refrigerator is generally not considered desirable, the world's love of blue cheeses does take some explaining.

Indeed, according to legend, Roquefort cheese - one of the original blues and sometimes dubbed "the King of cheeses" - was allegedly discovered when an early French shepherd forgot his cream-cheese sandwich in the depths of a damp cave, only to return days later and find it transformed into something that looked gross but proved to be seductively delicious.

Like all blue cheeses, Roquefort is intentionally injected with spores of a beneficial mold - penicillium roqueforti, and yes, it is related to penicillin - which grows in the cheese to form a webby network of blue veins that confer its unique color, aroma and flavor.

Roquefort is made from sheep's milk, although other blues around the world are made from the milk of cows and goats. Like Champagne for sparkling wine, the name can only be used legally for cheese made by the traditional method in a specific place - the caves of Mont Combalou near the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the Midi-Pyrenees region of Southern France, about midway between Marseilles and Bordeaux. And like Champagne, Roquefort suffers to some extent from its popularity, its name often borrowed, if not entirely legally, for blue cheeses from other parts of the world.

One excellent blue cheese that needs no such misnomer is the American Maytag, made in Iowa by members of the famous washing-machine family (a family that, by interesting coincidence, also created the excellent Anchor Steam beer of San Francisco). Maytag is a cow's-milk cheese that also gets its blue veins from penicillium roqueforti, and it is widely regarded as America's best blue.

Feeling in an experimental mood the other day, I picked up a wedge of Roquefort and one of Maytag, figuring that it would be educational and fun to compare them side-by-side, on their own and as a match with Port for a grown-up snack on a wintry evening.

In place of the usual recipe, I'll devote today's space to a quick report on my tasting comparison, along with some thoughts about wine matching and a few quick observations about the role blue cheese can play as a supporting actor - or even the lead player - in dishes both savory and sweet.

I started very much as I do wine tasting. After allowing both cheeses to come up to room temperature for full flavor, I peeled the wrappers without looking at them closely and then, using a quick sleight-of-hand technique in which I marked each plate with a code, passed them off to my wife. She noted and removed my code and substituted one of her own, setting up a situation in which neither of us knew for sure which cheese was which. (Although by putting our codes together later, we could find out.)

Having casually assumed that all blue cheeses were probably pretty much alike, I was surprised to discover how different these two were in a close compare-and-contrast analysis. The cheeses, by the way, are pictured above in our HTML/Graphics edition. Text-only readers may look it up, if you wish, in the archives,

The cheese on the left (later unveiled as the Roquefort) was a pure, creamy white in color, with heavy, patchy splotches of deep blue-black. The right-hand cheese (Maytag) was white, too, but with a distinct if slight yellowish hue. Its veins were much more thin and subtle and were a lighter color, greenish-blue tending toward green. The Roquefort looked and felt creamy and smooth, while the Maytag had a slightly shiny look and firmer texture.

In the mouth, the Roquefort was silken, very creamy and almost sweet, with a very slight grainy texture in the blue bits. The Maytag, somewhat to my surprise, showed more of the "funky," "earthy" blue quality than the more subtle Roquefort and seemed a bit more salty.

Both cheeses were excellent, but the rich, creamy texture and more subtle flavors of the Roquefort made it my personal choice.

This conclusion was reinforced by the beautiful marriage between Roquefort and a modest Port (Croft 1997 Late Bottled Vintage). The Roquefort's creaminess seemed to soften the fortified wine's harsher edges and spread its flavors across the palate. The Maytag was good with the wine, but didn't enjoy a similar synergy of texture and flavor.

I enjoy Roquefort with robust dry reds, from Bordeaux through the Rhone to Amarone, but if you're planning a party, you should note that many people find that the blue-cheese and red-wine combination imparts a metallic taste to the wine that most people find unpleasant. Dry, aromatic whites such as Sauvignon Blanc generally go well, and so do lighter reds from Beaujolais to a fruity style, non-tannic Pinot Noir.

Some of the most familiar uses for Roquefort and other blue cheeses are simple and obvious: Crumble it over a green salad with a simple vinaigrette or blend a ration into a creamy salad dressing.

But Roquefort isn't just for salads any more. Put a chunk into a poached pear to elevate a simple fruit dessert. Use it to replace all or part of the gruyere in last week's gougeres recipe, a souffle or even macaroni and cheese. Spread a little on a sizzling hot steak just before serving, just long enough that it starts to melt. Or put a little on your pizza!

I made a delicious, quick pasta sauce the other night by stirring hot, drained farfalle (bowtie) pasta into a blend of creme fraiche and crumbled Roquefort with black pepper, then topped the dish with coarsely chopped walnuts. It made a hearty and flavorful meatless dinner, robust enough to stand up to a slightly over-the-hill Amarone.

For the record, because I'm sure many of you are wondering why I didn't mention your favorites: I love the Italian Gorgonzola and the British Stilton, too, not to mention Irish Cashel blue and many more. But you've got to stop somewhere! Perhaps I'll try more comparative tastings another day ... or invite you to do it and let me know what you discover.

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: True blue,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Gougères (Dec. 23)

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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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