Blue cheese is not just for Christmas, a new generation is soft, creamy and suitable for summer
Traditionally, blue cheese is a winter favourite but a new style of British blue that’s soft and creamy offers up some beauties that work well in summer, too.
One of the most delicious of the new blues is Beauvale, produced by Nottinghamshire-based Cropwell Bishop Creamery, which is known for its delicious Stilton. The cheese has a balance of sweet yet matured milk, with a sumptuously spreadable texture and the quiet power of the flavoursome blue veins running through. This is the sort of mouthful that makes a cheese-lover purr with pleasure.
Producing a new cheese, especially a blue, is some task. Four years of trial and error went into Beauvale before Cropwell Bishop felt confident enough to put the cheese on the market.
“With cheese-making you have to be patient,” explains the company’s Robin Skailes.
“A tiny change to the recipe or temperature will make all the difference but you can only do one change at a time. If you do two, you don’t know what’s made the difference. Then you have to wait sometimes for 10 weeks to see if it works.”
Part of the inspiration for making Beauvale was to provide a hand-made British substitute for all the soft blue cheeses we import from the Continent.
The craft and good farming behind the best British cheeses makes a real difference. Some of the Continental blues, such as Gorgonzola, have a white curd because the cows do not live outside eating fresh grass. Beauvale’s creamy hue comes from the grass that the cows eat.
Sales of Beauvale were initially limited to the specialist retailer Paxton & Whitfield, then to local shops near the dairy and a few delis. The cheese only got national distribution this spring, appearing on the deli counters of 100 branches of Waitrose.
Softer blues are easy to cook with as they melt into a sauce and are easy to spread on bread or dab over a salad. Skailes uses Beauvale to replace Gorgonzola in simple pasta sauces, melted with cream and prawns or with bacon and mushrooms, and he puts it into quiches.
Blues are also great with summer fruit, such as apricots and peaches. For an excellent, easy starter, Skailes cuts down to the base of a fig so it opens out into quarters, puts a lump of Beauvale in the middle, sprinkles it with walnuts and puts it in a hot oven for five minutes before drizzling with honey.
One of the pioneers of new British blues was Ticklemore Dairy in Devon. In the Eighties, cheesemaker Robin Congdon set out to use unpasteurised ewe’s milk to make a version of Roquefort. Beenleigh Blue is now regarded as a modern British classic. Ticklemore also produces Harbourne Blue with goat’s milk, and Devon Blue with cow’s milk, so you can taste the difference between the three kinds of milk and how they produce markedly different versions of blue cheese.
The sheep’s milk for Beenleigh Blue is taken from January to June and the cheese is then matured for different lengths of time. Eating the cheese in the summer months, rather than just in winter, emphasises the deeply seasonal nature of this artisanal product.
Congdon’s successor as cheesemaker, Ben Harris, describes the cheese’s summer character as “fresh, lemony and tangy” before the flavour gets deeper and more powerful from the longer maturation. The texture is more crumbly at this time and creamier later. Some prefer the cheese younger; others when it’s older.
We do seem to love our blues. Neal’s Yard Dairy, the leading advocate of British cheeses, reports that its Colston Bassett Stilton is the bestseller in its Covent Garden branch, coming even before the magnificent Montgomery’s Cheddar.
The Colston Bassett sold by Neal’s Yard is made to a special recipe, with the cheese pierced for its blueing at a later stage so that the curd can mature without the blue becoming too rampant. The caramel, salty, creamy flavour of this cheese is special. When shopping, I tend to try it alongside another star blue, Stichelton, and see which tastes better on the day.
Stilton is traditionally eaten at Christmas, partly because the four-month-old cheeses sold in December contain milk from the lush, late-summer grass. But these harder blues are good all year round and also worth making part of a summer cheeseboard as an alternative to the more Continental-style softer blues.
All blues should be kept cool, especially in the summer. The mould matures faster in the heat and can become a touch too spicy if left to run away. Some like it hot; many do not.