How to make the perfect blue cheese
My mother always loved blue cheese. I remember her eating it when I was a kid. It was a stinky, tart mass that crumbled when cut. Thinking about it still makes my nose crinkle.
My husband is the same. He takes a “stinkier the better” approach to his fromage. Not me. I’m a creamy cheese kinda gal. I like it smooth, rich and soft. So when I found Urban Blue, a Halifax-made blue cheese that my mother, my husband and I all liked, it was cause for celebration. It was even better when I learned that not only was it a local cheese, it was in-my-own-neighbourhood local. Since that first taste, it’s been my go-to hostess gift for every dinner party and get-together.
Having weighed and measured it with the taste buds of all my food-loving friends, I decided to learn more about Urban Blue from the cheesemaker herself.
I meet Lyndell Findlay, owner of Blue Harbour Cheese, on her backyard doorstep in Halifax’s North End. She’s just getting back from a delivery when I arrive. “You’ve come at a good time,” she says. “In about 20 minutes we’ll be cutting the curds.”
Findlay is 63 and has had a number of successful, varied careers throughout her life, ranging from computer programmer to protection officer with the United Nations refugee agency. Two-and-a-half years ago, she traveled to Ohio to study with Brian Schlatter, a fifth-generation farmer—and award-winning cheese maker—and spent four months learning to make eight different kinds of cheese. But she always knew she wanted to make blue.
“Blue cheese is a bit of a niche market. People aren’t used to it so much here, just the Danish blue which is very strong, very dry, crumbly.” Back from Ohio, it took her 41 test batches in her research kitchen, in the basement of a converted cottage, to find her Urban Blue.
It’s 11am at the Blue Harbour cheese plant, and Findlay is already a few hours into this week’s batch of Urban Blue. At the moment, the soon-to-be cheese is still a warm mass of dairy and cultures. Findlay and I pull on matching long white coats, hair nets and rubber boots. “It gets pretty wet in there,” she says. We finish the look with a pair of thick teal gloves.
Once we’re properly dressed, she leads me on a tour of the small production space. The whole area is surgical-room clean, with all-steel fixtures and tables and instruments to match.
By the time our tour is complete, it’s time to cut the curds. “See how it’s a clean break, and here, it isn’t sticking to the side. That’s how you know it’s set,” says Findlay. As she hand-cuts the gelatinous milk to test the batch, it peels away in clean lines, forming funny little white cubes that remind me of Jell-O jigglers and smell like warm buttermilk.
Findlay pulls out a long multi-pronged curd knife and begins to hand-cut curds. The process is similar to cutting brownies, only this isn’t a brownie pan, it’s a 300-litre vat. Cutting the curds is an impressive feat, especially when it comes time to make the horizontal cuts.
Findlay carefully lowers her cheese cutter down the centre of the vat through one of the delicate centre slits she’s just made, and rotates the cheese cutter in a full circle. For that first cut, she’s more than bicep-deep in the vat. Then she carefully slides her cutter up a few feet through the mixture, starting her next rotation where the last cut ended, never double cutting. The result is perfectly formed cubes floating in a sea of whey.
It’s an act of true patience, but Findlay seems to delight in every step of the process. “Do you want to play with the curds,” she asks.
“Yes!” I blurt, excited to get my hands on these magical little curds that will one day form one of my favourite cheeses.
We re-sanitize our hands and she gives me one of the white, jiggly cubes. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever touched: warm, silky, wet and delicate. “On the surface of the curd there is a chemical reaction going on,” she explains. “This is very delicate now, but the more it drains, the harder the surface will get. You can’t rush the curds.”
So we wait some more, giving the curds time and space to do their thing. But the waiting is about to come to an end. “Once we start to drain the whey off, it’s all hands on deck for about an hour.”
She’s right. The rest of our session flies by in a blur of whey, cheese curds, cheesecloth and hoops or moulds (for forming the cheese). I can see why Findlay fell in love with blue cheese. The process is slow, precise, hands-on and almost meditative. But it’s also fun.
By the time we’re done for the day, the curds have been sorted into 20 square cheese hoops lined with cheesecloth to drain. Over the next few days, they’ll shrink to half their current size as the curds continue to expel the whey. Then the cheese will be removed from the hoops, dry-salted for two days, wrapped and placed in a cold room (set to about 9 or 10°C) to age. Findlay has plans to help blue-cheese skeptics like me learn to love strong cheese. She’s got two new blue cheeses in the works, each a little stronger than Urban Blue. Newbies will be able to start with the milder blue, and work their way up to the strongest. It will take eight more weeks of care, and aging, before today’s batch is ready to meet my dinner guests. And this time, I know I’ll have a great story to serve up with it.