My blue Valentine

Cheese and chocolate, cheese and Champagne, cheese as an aphrodisiac and even heart-shaped cheese. All are worthy topics with Valentine's Day upon us, but did you know that legend says the mischievous ancient Roman deity Cupid is the reason we have blue cheese?

Some 2000 years ago, a young impassioned French shepherd sat down for a bit of lunch. He parked it on a rock just outside of the limestone caves of Cambalou, then pulled out a wedge of cheese and a chunk of crusty rye bread. At that same moment, a beautiful village maiden passed on the path below. Her hair swayed in the same breeze that carried her scent up the hill to the caves, and bull's-eye: Cupid's arrow sprung from his bow and the bewitched shepherd completely lost his faculties. Needing his hands free for groping, he hastily clamored down to the path to chase some tail, leaving his lunch on the rock by the cave. Whether this romance was destined to last is unclear, but the young man eventually had to return to gather his sheep. His amour kept him away long enough that, upon his return to the caves, the cheese had developed a greenish mold now known as penicillium roqueforti. The adventurous spirit of the lovesick shepherd provided the bravery he needed to try the moldy cheese (or he was just really hungry from driveling sentiments of love for the last few days) and voilà: Roquefort!

Clearly Cupid, as an all-knowing deity, was aware the circumstances were perfect for this discovery to occur when he shot his arrow at the shepherd. The limestone caves have cracks and fissures that allow the cool air inside to circulate natural molds. Rye bread encourages the growth of penicillium roqueforti and loaves of rye are still used today in the process. After months of allowing the bread to grow a gray furry coat, that substance is dried, turned to powder and then sprinkled over the newest wheels of cheese that are aged in the Cambalou caves. The result is a mouth-watering cylinder of buttery, spicy, moldy cheese. Roquefort also holds claim to being the first legally protected cheese through the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) in 1666. This is a designation system set up to protect the origin and name of a cheese that develops unique characteristics due to its terroir.

Cupid worked his bow and arrow in the name of blue cheese in Italy, too. A tall, dark and horny cheesemaker in the town of Gorgonzola couldn't wait to rendezvous with his stunning young lover. Abandoning a bundle of moist curd to a damp cellar for a night of passion and romance, our Casanova returned the next morning to find patches of greenish-blue on his hanging curd (remember we're still talking about cheese). Trying to conceal his mishap, he added the evening curd to the fresh morning batch anyway. It was weeks later that the Italian stallion found the same greenish-blue mold running through the middle of his cheese and that's, as they say, amore.

Gorgonzola cheese is as sexy as its beginning. Both sweet and spicy with a melt-in-your-mouth sensuality, Gorgonzola will rock your mouth with its seductive flavors. Some small artisan cheesemakers still make Gorgonzola using the two-day curd method mentioned above, but most is made in factories in one day with blue mold added to the milk for a more uniform blueing. This cheese's name and integrity are also protected through an Italian system of designation: the DOC (Denominazione d'Origine Controllata).

Regardless of the longevity of either affair, it's because of Cupid's playful aim that we have blue cheese. In memory of the little imp, grab a nugget of French Roquefort or Italian Gorgonzola and share it with your lover this Valentine's Day — for Cupid's sake!

Kira Jefferson is the resident "cheese guru" at SideBern's in South Tampa.

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