Cheese 101: Gorgonzola

It’s like a convoluted roadmap, this Penicillium glaucum. A grid of twists and turns, ending abruptly and starting again, the blue-green fungus weaves through the cheese in what seems like an arbitrary, unpredictable pattern. But those blue lines aren’t really a map of the mold; it’s more that they’re a map of the curds, of the newly pressed hunks of cheese that separated from the whey. The mold, the Penicillium glaucum simply grew between them as the cheese aged, the same way it did more than 1,000 years ago. The same fungus, the same raw milk, the same area of Northern Italy. That mold is what makes Gorgonzola what it is: one of the most distinct and highly esteemed styles of cheese in the world.

Acoording to Paula Lambert’s Book, The Cheese Lover’s Cookbook and Guide, mention of Gorgonzola cheese was first made in 879 in what is now Italy’s Po Region, well more than 100 years before any documentation of the other great European blue cheese, France’s Roquefort. Unsurprisingly, the town of Gorgonzola, which is just a few miles outside of Milan, lays claim to being the birthplace of the cheese, though several provinces in the area also insist that theirs is the home of the product.

Regardless of its birthplace, though, Gorgonzola can indeed – by law, in fact – be made only in the region and still be called Gorgonzola. Sure, there are many imitation Gorgonzola cheeses (or Gorgonzola-style cheeses) but the real thing absolutely must be made in the general area that the map on the right delineates (in the red oval). This denominazione di origine controllata, or controlled designation of origin, ensures that the cheese that reaches the consumer is of a quality acceptable to those who were responsible for its origins. It’s an effort to maintain the integrity of a cheese that retains a unique flavor and production process that has claimed the adoration of even non blue cheese lovers.

“A lot of times, someone will come in and say ‘I don’t like blue cheese, but I like Gorgonzola,” says Rich Rogers of Scardello Artisan Cheese on Oak Lawn. “What they don’t realize is that they like a blue cheese, just a particular style of blue cheese.

“For each cheese type, there’s a sort of ‘gateway cheese’ that gets people into that style of cheese, where they say ‘wow, I didn’t think I like this kind of cheese, but I like this one.’ And I think Gorgonzola, especially Gorgonzola Dolce, is a great way for people to get started with blue cheese; a way for them to really enjoy it.”

The Gorgonzola Dolce that Rogers mentions is one of four major styles of the type that can be made. Dolce, which is aged the least amount of time, and is thus the creamiest and typically the least spicy of the four. Then, in order of how long they are aged, Gorgonzola Natural, Mountain Gorgonzola and Gorgonzola Picante. Each has its own unique charicteristics, but it can be generally stated that they increase in firmness and spiciness (as Gorgonzola picante’s name indicates) the longer they are aged. All types are members of the Stracchino family of cheeses; that is to say, it is a whole milk, white (except for the mold), uncooked cheese.

And yes, it’s the mold that makes it what it is.

Penicillium glaucum isn’t really the more preferred mold for blue cheese in Europe. Rather, that distinction belongs to Penicillium roqueforti, or the same mold with which Roquefort cheese and the English Stilton are made (for those who are curious, Penicillium notatum is the mold with which many of the original experiments were done leading to the proliferation of the antibiotic Penicillin). All the cheese makers need to do is make sure the mold is added to the cheese and then given a chance to grow.

“When they make the cheese, they inoculate the actual curd with the bacteria, but it doesn’t actually turn blue until it’s exposed to air,” says Casie Wiginton, of Whole Foods on Forest and Preston. “So what they’ll do is puncture the cheese with needles. They’re not inoculating the cheese at this point – they’re just creating pathways for the air to get into the cheese, and then as the bacteria inside the cheese are exposed to the oxygen, the blue veins start to develop where the curds come together.”

As for which Gorgonzola to use in a particular dish, Wiginton recommends that The dolce be left off the cheese tray (it’s likely to create a gooey mess) and instead be used for things like sauces, while Rogers even commented that he had used a dolce to make a souffle. Sweet wine, even dessert wine, goes well with Gorgonzola (again, generally speaking), and helps to counter the spice that the cheese provides. Really, though, it’s a matter of taste, and the specialness of Gorgonzola is not what it can be paired with, but rather how it tastes on its own: creamy, rich, and even spicy. It’s more than 1,000 years of cheese making experience from a very particular area of Italy, and to taste it is to taste not just the culture of Northern Italy, but the living cultures of northern Italy.

After all, it really is all about the mold.

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