Best of the blues

I have many food loves and one of these is cheese. But after a summer of mozzarella and burrata layered with basil-scented tomatoes, autumn requires something more robust to match the drop in light and air temperature. What could be better than a rich and salty blue cheese?

When I was growing up a bit of mould on your food was a common mealtime occurrence, either as a furry topping to homemade jam or invading the cheddar at the back of the fridge. Since we were instructed to scoop or scrape the blue stuff off before making our sandwiches, the Christmas obsession with Stilton was a bit of a mystery. It was veined with vivid mould, and yet we were encouraged to eat it.

Legend has it that Roquefort was discovered when a young boy left his lunch in a cave after spotting a pretty girl

Blue cheese is thought to have been discovered by accident when cheeses were stored in caves with favourable temperature and moisture levels. And it’s an ancient delicacy: analysis of paleofaeces sampled in the salt mines of Austria showed that miners of the Hallstatt Period (800 to 400 BC) consumed blue cheese with beer!

French Roquefort is made from ewes’ milk and is one of my all-time favourites; it vies with Gorgonzola for being the world’s oldest-recorded blue cheese. Legend has it that Roquefort cheese was discovered when a young boy left his lunch of bread and cheese in a cave after spotting a pretty girl. He set off in hot pursuit and only remembered his abandoned meal months later. Feeling hungry, he decided to eat the leftovers despite the covering of mould, and a legend was born.

Roquefort’s lineage can be traced back to 1070, when it was described in customs papers, though chronicles from monasteries mentioned the transport of Roquefort across the Alps as far back as the eighth century. Charles VI granted an official monopoly for maturing the cheese to the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in Aveyron in 1411, but they’d been doing it unofficially for centuries. By 1820, the town was producing 300 tonnes a year; today, the figure is more like 18,000 tonnes, with a global retail value of €350 million. Roquefort was in fact the first French foodstuff to be awarded the protection of an appellation in 1925 and the cheese is still aged in the same caves today. Stored on wooden slats, it must stay in the cave for at least 90 days before being carefully wrapped to avoid drying out.

If the salty, pungent flavour of Roquefort isn’t to your taste, you might use it to treat wounds, as shepherds did – a habit seen as quackery until the cheese mould’s antibiotic properties were recognised. Researchers at Lycotech, a biotech company in Cambridge, England, hope the anti-inflammatory compounds in Roquefort cheese can someday be extracted to create drugs that can fight cardiovascular disease or be used in anti-ageing creams.

Italian Gorgonzola looks similar to Roquefort but is made from cows’ milk. It too gets its name from the town where it is produced and bears a similar legend: this time a cheesemaker added fresh curds to a vat and accidentally left it open all night because he was in a rush to meet his lover. Next day, he added new curds in an attempt to rectify his mistake and a few months later was surprised to find it run through with delectable blueish mould. Dolce gorgonzola is my absolute favourite, it’s a little milder in taste, but retains the distinctive flavour. It’s also soft enough to be spoonable, perfect for a midnight snack.

Our famous British Stilton is a harder in texture, and doesn’t sound too appealing in a 1724 account by the writer Daniel Defoe: “We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.” It was first marketed by Cooper Thornhill, owner of the Bell Inn in Stilton, near Huntingdon, a hub of stagecoach routes that spread its popularity far and wide.

It seems blue cheeses are riddled with transformation stories. Dorset Blue Vinny was originally the butt of “cheesy” Dorchester jokes because of its hard, crumbly texture and unpleasant taste. It was rumoured to be so inedible that when a Victorian grocer left some outside his shop for beggars, they brought it straight back the following night. And this from the 1970s: “Man had a Blue Vinny cheese that was too hard t’eat, wanted wheelbarrow wheel, zoo he drilled a hole droo the idle of the cheese an’ putt en on. Ader fifteen years hard wear the wheelbarrow fell t’pieces, and ‘ee sold the wheel for woold iron.” Happily, the punchline is that Woodbridge Farm revived Dorset Blue Vinny in the 1980s and it’s now delicious!

Roquefort Grapes

Makes 12
125g pecans or walnuts
75g roquefort or gorgonzola
75g cream cheese
12 seedless grapes

Lightly toast the nuts then roughly chop in a food processor or by hand, set aside on a plate. Place the cheeses in a food processor and pulse until smooth but not runny. Tip out onto a plate and roll the whole grapes in the cheese mixture until well coated. Place on a plate lined with baking parchment and chill for one hour to firm up the mixture. Roll in the nuts until completely covered. Serve as a canapé or instead of a cheese course.

Lydia Brownlow is a former cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and contributor to The Daily Beast. She currently inspires children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com

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Food For Thought, Life, October 2023

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