Great blue cheese is always about a balance of tension between opposites – sharpness against luscious richness, creaminess versus crumble, vivid blue marbling laced across pale ivory paste. Where a cheese falls along those various spectra very much helps define its personality and provenance. With literally thousands of variations, there are other key factors, like milk source, technique, and region that can also leave their flavor marks. But few land so squarely in a happy middle place (and at a reasonable price) as Buttermilk Blue. It has such a nice blend of character and approachability it’s no wonder this cheese from Wisconsin’s Roth Cheese is referred to as the company’s “gateway blue.” The raw milk of Jersey and Holstein cows (though, perhaps confusingly, not buttermilk) is transformed over two-plus months of aging into foil-wrapped wheels that deliver a bright tang I associate with classic American blues like Maytag and Point Reyes. But there’s also an extra-unctuous creaminess that rises up to hold it in check, with well-defined pockets of blue-gray mold whose tiny crystals delicately crunch against the unctuous paste.
At $17.99 a pound at Downtown Cheese, I find it a great middle-tier value in a blue cheese category that can range widely from $7 to $40 a pound. And Buttermilk Blue is also a versatile cheese, great for using in salads and dressings (it’s the secret weapon in the killer Cobb salad at Bud & Marilyn’s) but also suitable to star on a cheese plate. If Downtown Cheese has its occasional supply of Buttermilk Blue’s Affinée edition, which gets a deeper flavor from six months of aging versus the standard two, go for it (still extremely reasonable at $20.99 a pound). Moody Blue is a unique version of Buttermilk smoked over fruitwood. More adventurous blue cheese lovers, meanwhile, might want to step up to Blue Jay ($27.99 a pound) from Wisconsin’s Deer Creek, which fills its “quintuple crème blue” with crushed juniper berries. It’s intense but also fascinating. I’ve seen an increasing number of recommendations to pair blue cheese with gin and cocktails (not just the sweet wines of conventional wisdom), and this one really brings that home. The best way to resolve the natural tension of a great blue cheese, it seems, may well be a crisp martini.
– Craig LaBan
Buttermilk Blue, $17.99 a pound, Downtown Cheese at Reading Terminal Market, 215-351-7412; on Facebook