Blue in the cheese

Color changer.

Color changer.

A shepherd allegedly used a cave as a food larder, and it was there, in that cool and musty cave in the southern French hills, that the first cheese turned blue.

That moldy block may have gone to the pigs, but eventually someone—a person now dead and gone a dozen centuries or more—took a liking to the taste, placed molding bread beside a bucket of curds, and so replicated the process and opened a new avenue into the future of commercial cheese making.

If you like Roquefort sheep cheese, smelly stuff that it is, you owe your thanks to a fungus called Penicillium roqueforti, a powdery, blue bread mold closely related to the critter used in making antibiotics. Outside of France, microbiological mishaps of the Penicillium persuasion occurred in cheese caves near Milan, where P. glaucum jumped from crusts to curds and produced the first Gorgonzola, and in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa, where P. roqueforti gave us Cabrales and Valdeón cheeses.

In California, cheese makers often emulate more than innovate, and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company in western Marin County—not quite “homegrown,” but close enough—makes their semisoft, semicrumbly Original Blue in a French style that combines cow’s milk and P. roqueforti. The cheese goes out the door at a hot 600,000 pounds per year and is said to be the only true, traditional blue made in California.

Up the road near Petaluma, the Marin French Cheese Company may make the only other Penicillium cheese in the state: the Marin French Blue, unusual blue brie that gains its veins from P. candidum.

Mark Todd, a Sonoma County cheese-and-beer culinary consultant known in the industry as “The Cheese Dude,” says the Marin French Blue is an ideal blue for cheese rookies, calling it “a blue cheese with training wheels.” But if you’re ready for the stinky stuff, jump straight to the Point Reyes Original Blue. Both are available at local fine groceries and natural-foods cooperatives.