Before I begin singing the praises of this lovely blue cheese – an apology. C+C has been woefully neglected this summer, mostly due to the newborn craziness that Colleen and I are both experiencing at our homes, and also due to the fact that I had to abstain from all dairy for almost two months to see if it would improve my little guy’s disposition. When my son’s pediatrician suggested I try a dairy-free diet, I sputtered, “But, but, I’m a cheese blogger!” But I knew it would give us the best shot at figuring out if he had food sensitivities, so good-bye ice cream, cheese, yogurt and other treats. It sucked. Thankfully, my recent trial back on dairy hasn’t given him any problems and he is a much happier baby overall, so bring on the cheese again!

I finally made it back to the Cheese Shop at France 44, and after getting my hands on a wedge of Kunik (oh, how I missed you, Kunik!), I scanned the counter for newcomers and set my sights on Sweet Grass Dairy’s Asher Blue. Regular C+C readers know that I’m a big fan of this Georgia cheesemaker’s Green Hill, so I figured Asher Blue would be equally delicious. I was right! (I love it when that happens.) This raw cow’s-milk cheese comes across as both creamy and spicy, thanks to the thick veins of blue running through it. It’s a little too sophisticated to be called a beginner’s blue, but the creaminess of the paste prevents it from being overwhelming.

The Sweet Grass Dairy website suggests using Asher Blue as the basis of a blue cheese dressing, but rather than dilute the cheese’s flavor with herbs and liquid, I’d rather crumble it directly onto a salad with toasted nuts and sweet dried cranberries. The old cracker-and-honey-drizzle treatment would work fabulously, too. Pair with Port, Sauternes, Cabernet or a dark ale.

We may have had a whole box of cheeses waiting when Jill arrived for her visit last month, but that didn’t stop us from venturing to a cheese shop.  After all, Jill hadn’t been to La Fromagerie yet and we’re certainly not ones to miss out on visiting a new cheese shop! And of course we managed to come across something new, Bloomin’ Idiot from Hook’s Cheese Co. of Wisconsin. Yes, the same Hook’s whose 15-year cheddar has become something of an obsession around the cheese world. But that’s no reason to overlook their other fine cheeses, particularly the clever double-creme-slash-blue specimen here. In fact, prior to the cheddar craze Hook’s was known for their variety of blues. And since it’s Valentine’s week, it’s worth pointing out that Tony and Julie Hook were college sweethearts who’ve been making cheese together for over 30 years. Now that’s romance.

Bloomin’ Idiot is a cows-milk, semi-soft and creamy cheese that at first glance resembles a brie-style cheese. In fact, if you scoop out a bite from the middle and exclude the rind, it has that same mild, creamy, slightly sour milky taste you would expect. Take a bite with the bloomy, mottled rind, however, and you’ll get the tangy astringent flavor of a blue. Huh?

is it just me or is that cheese smirking?

In traditional blues, the milk is inoculated with mold and mold spores are injected into the cheese to encourage its development. By skipping the injections, this cheese develops blue only in the rind, creating a cheese with almost a split personality. We give this experiment two thumbs up, with bonus points for the amusing name.

There are blue cheeses, and then there are blue cheeses, and Persille de Malzieu, from the Langeudoc-Rousillon region of France, definitely falls into the latter category. See all that marbling in the cheese’s paste? That means it doesn’t skimp on sharp, spicy blue flavor. When Colleen and I did our taste test/photo shoot with the cheese a few weeks ago, I thought it may have tasted so strong to us because our pregnancy-altered palates are a bit sensitive, but no, apparently it tastes like that to everyone!

You may not have heard about Persille de Malzieu before. I certainly hadn’t before embarking upon this project. Availability can be spotty (hence, our ordering it from Murray’s rather than buying it at a Minneapolis or D.C. area cheese shop), and it’s a raw sheep’s-milk cheese, which often results in smaller production because sheep make far less milk than cows. But if you’re a blue-cheese lover and can get your hands on it, jump at the chance. Pesille de Malzieu is very moist and salty with a fantastic tang to it. It’s not as creamy as C+C favorite Roquefort, but with a good whole wheat cracker (we love Carr’s) and something sweet on the side, like a raisin chutney or dates, it would be a very satisfying dessert. Wine pairings tend toward the sweet as well – look for a Sauternes or Port.

Though my cheese drawer is chock full of cheeses from the Wine Spectator list, I recently made room for several off-list varieties for a Heavy Table story I was writing about Rochdale Farms cheeses. Made in Wisconsin from the milk of more than 325 Amish farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota, these cheeses have starting appearing in co-op dairy cases in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the Upper Midwest. All are good, some are fantastic, so seek them out if you live here or will be visiting these parts!

Though Bleu de Basques Brebis is undeniably a French cheese (just look at its name), the fact that it’s made with sheep’s milk gives a hint as to which part of the country it’s produced. The Pyrenees mountain range covers both France and Spain, so it’s no surprise that a part of France so close to Spain would make a cheese using Spain’s favorite cheese-making milk.

Unlike the Bleu d’Auvergne I snacked on earlier this week, Bleu de Basques Brebis isn’t overwhelmingly creamy. While the yellowish-white paste is certainly smooth, the large pockets of blue veining give the cheese a bit of a crunch as well. It also retains some of the oiliness expected from a sheep’s-milk cheese, so Bleu de Basques Brebis is a cheese that suits a certain mood. If you just want a creamy comfort cheese, this shouldn’t be your pick, but if you’re looking for a cheese that offers an interesting contrast of textures and flavors, Bleu de Basques Brebis would be a good choice. Serve with Sauternes or Port, as suggested by Artisanal.

Note: This is one of the last cheeses I purchase at Premier Cheese Market. Sadly, Ken and Amy are closing the shop after three and a half years, and the last day of business will be this Sunday, Dec. 6. If you’re in the Twin Cities area, please visit one more time to support our friends in cheese! Best of luck on your new endeavors, Ken and Amy.

On Wisconsin! Yes, it’s the state song, but it’s the also the attitude I hold toward Wisconsin’s blue cheeses. Though blues may not be the first cheeses you think about when you think of America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin is proving itself to be a champion blue-cheese-producing state. I picked up a couple of blues during my jaunt to Madison late last month at the fantastic cheese shop Fromagination (wow, the weight I would have gained in college if this store existed then!) and hope I’ll be able to find them here in Minnesota once my stash runs out.

The first cheese, Ader Käse Reserve from Seymour Dairy Crest, is a particularly creamy and salty blue that takes it cue from German blues by going through an intensive aging process. This pasteurized cow’s-milk cheese is carefully monitored for six months, and the result is a fragrant but not overpowering blue. Port is the no-brainer pairing, and you could echo the cheese’s saltiness by serving it with cured meats or mitigate the tang with a handful of unseasoned nuts and dried fruit.

When my Ader Käse Reserve was being cut and wrapped, the cheesemonger offered me a sample of another local blue, Moody Blue from Roth Käse, and I almost fell over from the sumptuous smoky flavor. Made from local cow’s milk and aged for a minimum of four months, this cheese is smoked over fruit wood, which makes it smell like a campfire and taste like no other blue I’ve had before. It has a much stronger flavor than the Ader Käse Reserve but offers a similar level of saltiness and creaminess. Dark chocolate would be a decadent pairing, while fruit compotes or chutneys would provide a lighter touch. Roth Käse recommends serving Moody Blue with Côtes du Rhône red wines or – if you prefer beer – stout, porter or Belgian Lambic.

The thought of reviewing the “Best of Show” winner from the American Cheese Society awards is, honestly, a little daunting. After all, you’ve surely already read all about this seasonally-produced, leaf-wrapped, buttery blue from central Oregon. You probably have heard of Rogue Creamery, one of the West Coast’s most celebrated cheese producers. (Did you know they were the first to export American raw-milk cheese to Europe? That they test every batch of milk to ensure it’s antibiotic and growth-hormone free? That the founder, Tom Vella, spent three months studying blue cheese making in Roquefort, France?) Honestly, I could describe Rogue River Blue in one word: yum. But perhaps you’d like a little more description.

This particular cheese is a testament to Oregon’s terroir.  It is made only for a short window in the fall (during the autumnal equinox and winter solstice) when the milk is at its highest butterfat content. The cheese is wrapped in Syrah grape leaves from nearby Carpenter Hill Vineyards; the leaves are first macerated in locally-made Clear Creek Pear Brandy. The cheese is aged in caves built to resemble the famed caves of Roquefort, allowing natural molds of the Rogue River Valley to ripen the cheese. The resulting cheese develops a wonderful, complex flavor. It is buttery, silky and rich, sweet with soft fruit flavors and a slight smokiness.

Not having any Clear Creek on hand, I tasted this with a sip of my post-dinner Dark n’ Stormy. Maybe not a perfect pairing, but the ginger was an interesting match. Of course it goes without saying that a fresh pear will make a lovely companion for a hunk of this blue.

By the way, Rogue River Blue’s 2009 release started shipping yesterday, so head to your favorite local cheesemonger … right now!