A week ago, my wife and I attended our first cheese class at Del Ray's Cheesetique, which just celebrated its third anniversary with the announcement that they will be moving to an even bigger location on Mount Vernon Avenue in the next few months.
"Best Blues" was an introduction to blue cheeses, for everyone who's ever wondered how they get that 'good mold' into some of the most distinctive (and fragrant) varieties of cheese. We entered the shop after it had closed to the public and it was just starting to get dark outside -- anyone who has ever dreamed of sneaking into their favorite store after-hours would be right at home. A long table took up most of the floor space, with chairs all around it. At each place was a plate featuring ten unique looking slices of blue cheese around a small rectangle of what appeared to be raspberry Jell-O. Bottles of sparkling water and small baskets of crackers stood at intervals along the table. We took our seats and tried not to drool.
Proprietor Jill Erber began the hour-long class with a discussion of the history of blue cheeses and the process through which they are manufactured today. I won't recreate the lecture here, but I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest to simply ask Jill the next time you're in the store -- I'm sure she'd be glad to tell you about it, as she loves to share her vast knowledge of cheese with customers.
After the history lesson, the discussion turned to pairings with wine and other foods. Everyone present seemed to grow just a bit more attentive at this point...or maybe that was just us. There were a few pairings that would not surprise anyone who has ever eaten at a steak house -- red meat for one, apples and bitter greens for another (house salad with crumbled Gorgonzola, anyone?). But there were others that did not come to us as easily, such as figs, honey, dried apricots, and quince.
That's right - quince. One of those "Foods that Start with the Letter Q" that Rosie Perez made semi-famous in White Men Can't Jump. As it turns out, the raspberry Jell-O looking thing in the middle of our plates was a quince paste called membrillo. And it tasted every bit as amazing with the blues we had before us as had been promised.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Jill also provided us with a few choice wine pairings, should we want to wash the cheeses down with something stronger than water. Try a salty Gorgonzola with a sweet muscat or a similar dessert wine. Sip on a full-bodied red with a piece of tangy Stilton (but be careful not to pair it with an overly tannic red or you'll end up with a bitter, metallic aftertaste). For best results, try a full-bodied Roquefort with a glass of your favorite port -- a truly decadent and delicious pairing.
When we could stand it no longer, Jill unleashed us on the samples that sat before us. I've recreated the list of cheeses we tasted below, with a few of my own notes in place of the descriptions provided.
All in all, the class provided a wonderful overview of one of our favorite types of cheese in just under an hour. It made for a terrific foodie "date night," and it has definitely provided us with some new cheeses to look for next time.
1. Mountain Top Bleu
Origin: Firefly Farms, MD
Sold in pyramid(mountain)-shaped molds, Mountain Top has that tangy flavor common to most goat cheeses, but its rind is similar to that of brie. The blue veins weren't all that pronounced, so it tasted much more of goat than of blue.
This has been one of my favorite cheeses for a while now -- a double-cream cheese with healthy veins of blue-green running throughout. I like to describe it as the perfect marriage of stinky and creamy cheeses, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourself.
3. Cashel Blue
Cashel is a mild blue cheese that was described as being young and less salty, but most of us at the tasting felt like this was actually a rather salty cheese. It had a nice texture, but it wasn't especially flavorful.
4. St. Agur
Out of all the new cheeses I tried, this was my favorite. Creamy and rich, but not quite as soft as the cambozola. This cheese seemed like it would melt over a burger or steak perfectly, and the flavor was sweet and salty at the same time.
5. Ba Ba Blue
The only sheep's milk blue we tasted, Ba Ba Blue was overwhelmingly salty, but the blue veining gave it a great appearance. Definitely not one of our favorites.
6. Aged Stilton
Aged four months (instead of the usual two), this Stilton had a mellow flavor that was reminiscent of some aged cheddars I've tasted while featuring the drier, tangy character that makes Stilton so popular.
7. Mountain Gorgonzola (Gorgonzola Piccante)
Sharp, tangy, and crumbly, this cheese is full-bodied and flavorful. This is one of the blues you'll see most often in steak houses. We were encouraged to try it drizzled with honey (apparently an Italian tradition). Haven't had a chance to try that yet, but it sounds wonderful!
Milk: Cow, Sheep and Goat (Raw Milk)
This was the cheese that Jill recommended as best paired with the membrillo on the plate, and it didn't disappoint. The sweet and salty combination was great. And the cheese comes wrapped in sycamore leaves, which makes it attractive as well as tasty.
9. Whiskey Blue
Milk: Cow (Raw Milk)
I'm a bourbon drinker, so you'd think this cheese would have been right up my alley. But the alcoholic sweetness was too much, overpowering the taste of the raw milk cheese and even the tang of the blue veins. It's definitely smoky, but I think it may be an acquired taste.
10. Smokey Blue
Milk: Cow (Raw Milk)
Cold-smoked over hazelnut shells, this cheese's rich flavor is somewhat reminiscent of barbecued pork, but it has the sweet creaminess of a raw-milk cheese and nice blue tanginess. A much more enjoyable variation on blue cheese than the Whiskey Blue.