I want to talk about Rogue River Smokey Blue. I mean, really talk. For the past several weeks, I’ve been eying it in cheese cases, wondering if it would taste like blue cheese dressing with cigarette butts. I don’t know why I conjured something so distasteful, except that most people I know pooh-pooh smoked cheeses, and maybe that’s rubbed off on me. I secretly like smoked gouda – go ahead, judge me. I have a weird fascination with smokey things in general– meats and…uhm…smoke rings (I think I read too much Tolkein as a child). Still, the idea of a smoked blue made me cringe.
Then last week, my brother flew in from Wisconsin, demanding a tour of the Italian Market, where the real cheese geeks flock. Before I knew it, I was laying out cash for a wedge of Smokey Blue. “This is the only smoked cheese I’ll eat,” Zeke, our cheese man at the Di Bruno's counter, told us. He had very blue eyes and a drifter’s smile, so I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere, but when he gave me a taste, I knew I had found something remarkable: it tasted like fireplace. In fact, now that it’s been raining for about five days straight, I’ve found myself dreaming about it: it’s a cheddary blue, firm, with a sharp, smoldering taste. Think canoe trip+fog+your grandfather’s sweater. Then add a campfire.
Rogue River Smokey Blue comes from the award-winning Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon. It’s a raw cow’s milk cheese that undergoes 16 hours of cold smoking with hazelnut shells. The same creamery also produces Oregonzola, Crater Lake Blue, Echo Mountain Blue (a seasonal goat-cow blend), and a much-lauded blue that is wrapped in grape leaves macerated in brandy (it’s simply called Rogue River Blue).
My brother didn’t think Rogue River Smokey tasted distinctly “blue” enough, which is fair. When you eat it aside other blues, it does seem cheddary, and its bluesy notes pale in comparison to, say, Bayley Hazen, a twangy, sharp, herbaceous blue from Vermont that has won a lot of acclaim. I confess, the Bayley Hazen is just about the best American-made blue I’ve tried so far, but on a rainy night when the spring air still has a pinch of crispness to it, the one cheese that calls to me from the crisper drawer is the Rogue River Smokey. Its bold flavor makes my mouth water just thinking about it – leading me to think of smoked meats, smoked trout, even the smoky Scotch I love (Laphroaig). And of course, Bilbo Baggins.