Smoky Cheese Addiction : Part 1

by Marina Chotzinoff

While I certainly love to splurge on cheese at the local Truffle cheese shop, I often make due with the increasingly interesting offerings at Safeway and the forever weird King Soopers. A few days ago I picked up some smoked blue cheese that looked interesting. I usually steer clear of too much stinky, funky cheese since Ryan is not a fan. But my dad taught me early on that sometimes it is ok to buy a tub of caviar for the whole family and a tub of caviar just for yourself so occasionally I support just my stinky cheese habit.

At first I was a little leery of the slightly yellowish tinge and I can’t honestly say that smelling blue cheese is any indication (to me anyway) of whether a cheese is good or not. I assumed it was the smoke making it that color, though, and cut a slice to taste. It was perfectly smokey with some sharp, but not overpowering, blue flavors coming through. While parts of the cheese were creamy, it was mostly crumbly and very hard to spread, so I sort of smooshed it onto a Carr’s whole wheat cracker with my fingers and topped it with a bit of apricot jam. I probably would have used fig if I had it, but apricot is my second favorite.

It was a perfect afternoon snack treat and I immediately started dreaming up all the things I could do with this expressive cheese: stuffed with pecans into some ravioli, melted on flatbread with arugula and a fig and pecan vinaigrette, folded into polenta with any number of things on top, baked into some kind of high post cheese stick with a pungent, sweet dipping sauce.

Assessing the fridge and pantry I decided to start with a polenta. We also had a variety of greens that wanted eating, a can of white beans, some mushrooms and some baby carrots. I could not shake the notion that this cheese would be great with pecans so I picked some up imagining maybe a toasted pecan and olive oil or brown butter pecan drizzle.

As seems more usual than not lately, we weren’t able to start cooking until our daughter was in bed so around nine Ryan and I set to conquering what would have been a quick assembly had I been able to prep more. I got the polenta started while Ryan began sauteeing some chunky slices of baby portobellos with garlic. I tossed the carrots in olive oil and salt and roasted at 425 for about 20 minutes. He then cooked the greens (dandelion, spinach and red chard) with some more garlic and aleppo pepper and added the quickly sauteed beans. I stirred some cream cheese and the smokehaus blue into the polenta and seasoned with s&p. Because we had used oil and butter in most of the toppings, we decided to just sprinkle the toasted pecans on top, but I really think they would have better drizzled.

This was a great combination overall. The polenta was laced with creamy smoke and the earthy mushrooms, bitter greens and sweet carrots made a great pairing.

I already started daydreaming of the next meal I’d make which would be a flatbread topped with melted cheese, a pile of salad greens and a toasty pecan, fig vinaigrette. And while I waited for that next meal I decided to find out more about this cheese that had captured my cravings.

Salemville blue cheeses are made by an Amish co-op in Cambria, Wisconsin. The cows are hand-milked twice a day and the cheese is hormone and additive free. This variety is cold smoked over applewood for 60 days giving it a slightly less pungent flavor than their gorgonzola aged 90 days. It won first place at the 2010 Wisconsin State Fair which I can only imagine is no small feat!

I found a cheesemonger blog where the writer had visited the co-op and had this to say:

From the making room, we went into the room where the hooped cheese is left for 36 hours for more drainage. The hoops are all hand-flipped periodically. The cheese is not pressed; the weight of the cheese does that job. From there the cheese is put into brine vats (90% salt), salted on top and allowed to brine for another forty-eight hours. BTW, The Lady counted the wheels and there were 220 wheels from one vat of cheese, each weighing about 5 pounds when all is said and done.

Then the wheels are bagged and each wheel is pierced to allow the oxygen in to start the blue mold developing. BTW, the mold is added back in the making room before the curd and whey is separated.

And this is the point (pardon the pun) where The Lady began to really grasp the importance of what was going on. The facility has two piercing machines; two to pierce every wheel of cheese and it’s all done by hand; it is NOT automated. 220 wheels per vat and some days they make 6 vats.

The Lady marveled at this and Laverne explained that back when they started he pierced each wheel with an ice pick. After a time, he figured out he could use two ice picks, one in each hand, and get finished twice as fast.

Amazingly simple, hands-on technology.

Each batch has a vat date/number and then sent into the aging room where they are periodically checked for quality. Along the way, decisions are made as to which wheels will continue on to become gorgonzola.

From there they go up to the finishing room where they are cut into wedges, crumbled or wrapped as whole wheels; packaged and shipped out. The crumbles are on a small assembly line of young women who scoop the cheese into cups, weigh it, put it into a machine that vacuum seals the container, add the lid, label it, box it and labels the outside. There were less than a dozen women and they had it down to a science. On the other side of the room, a small group was wrapping the wheels with the same simple efficiency.

I am not quite sure who “The Lady” is in this blog…possibly Marcella The Cheesemonger herself…though why she refers to herself this way I have no idea. Alas, the description made me all the more infatuated with this cheese. If you find it, give it a try.

    One comment on “Smoky Cheese Addiction : Part 1

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