For the last two months, I’ve been eating as many kinds of blue cheese as possible. No, no, this is not some culinary form of Fear Factor. I just happen to love strong cheese, and one day I realized that, for as much time as I spend lurking about cheese counters, I don’t actually know all that much about my favorite food. Being a former Wisconsinite – and, at one time, a food writer for Isthmus Newspaper – I decided it was time to teach myself about the secret life of cheese, and I began to look for a guide.
Lo, I came upon The Cheese Primer, by Steven Jenkins, the original cheesemonger of New York’s Dean & Deluca. Here I learned about the 8 types of cheese – fresh, bloomy, washed-rind, natural-rind, uncooked/pressed, cooked/pressed, processed, blue-veined – and a natural order came to me. I would go crumb by crumb, curd by curd, through them all, beginning with the strongest. Why? I’m a strong-headed grrrl, and I’ve always liked strong cheese, the stinkier the better.
This blog is my written record of nibbling. And learning. So far, my blue cheese summer has taken me – well, my tongue – all over the world. I’ve been amazed to discover how many countries take pride in a sharp, veiny blue. The French have their Roquefort, the Italians their Gorgonzola, the Danes their Saga. The Brits make a proper Stilton, which is much milder and subtler, and even the Irish have a creamy Cashel from County Tipperary. The strongest sample so far came from Spain, a wedge of Cabrales that set my tongue on fire.
Naturally, I visited Wisconsin recently to sniff out some blues, and wasn’t I surprised to find an artisanal blue wonderland?! Everyone in Madison talks about Hook’s, which produces five different blues (a deep bow toward Mineral Point), but there are many more blues giving off gorgeously whiffy fumes in other parts of the state. In fact, I’m wondering if Wisconsin produces more domestic blues than anywhere else.
One of the most interesting blues I picked up at the Madison Farmers’ Market was Bohemian Blue, from Hidden Springs Creamery, a bright, crumbly dream made from sheep’s milk. Think of feta, then add sharper flavor and blue veins. I liked the sweet, slightly sour finish of this medium-bold, clean-tasting cheese. Crumbled on a salad, served alongside grilled lamb, Bohemia would induce bliss. I can almost taste it crumbled on slices of still-warm-from-the-garden tomatoes.
Brenda Jensen, who owns and runs Hidden Springs near Westby, is something of a dairy wunderkind. Her first entry in the U.S. Cheese Championships won a gold medal – check out her “Driftless” cheese. Jensen’s only been at it for four years, and already she’s making remarkable stuff. What’s her secret? She raises the same sheep breed that the French use in making Roquefort. Aha! To learn more, check out the great profile that ran in the Westby Times last month, and for heaven’s sake, pick up some Hidden Springs Bohemian Blue. Unfortunately, that may mean driving to Westby or reserving a table at Madison’s much-lauded L’Etoile, a James Beard Award winner. Surely, you can also snag a few crumbles by mail from Hidden Springs' web site.