Let’s start by pointing out the fact that many people think “blue cheese” is a specific kind of cheese and “Gorgonzola” is not blue cheese. Gorgonzola is, in fact, a blue cheese, and blue cheese, like “Swiss cheese” is a blanket category that is bigger than most people will ever know.
We’re going to focus our lens on just one little old blue cheese today, Gorgonzola. There’s more to the name (and the cheese, really) than meets the eye.
A Lombard cheese, Gorgonzola is perhaps the most famous of all Italian blue cheeses. Rossini, Erborinati, Monteblu, and even Castelmagno all disappear in Gorgonzola’s big shadow.
Gorgonzola hails from the Italian city of Gorgonzola, which used to be a small village that cowherds used as a stop to milk their cows as they brought them up or down the Italian Alps in the spring and fall. The official name of Gorgonzola is Stracchino di Gorgonzola, with the word “Stracchino” coming from “tired” (stracca), as the cows would surely have been exhausted from their travels.
The cows were milked twice in Gorgonzola: once in the evening, when they came to a stop, and a second time in the morning, before they set out on the next leg of their journey.
This means that the Gorgonzola cheese is a layered cheese, with the first layer of curds having already drained, cooled and set overnight before the warmer curds from the second milking were placed right on top of them in the morning. The whole thing was set in a wooden mold and left in a cheese cave to age.
The blueing in Gorgonzola historically came from ambient mold getting onto and into the cheese, and then taking off into blue veins as it had the time of its life inside the aging cheese. Today, the blue veining comes from mold being pierced into and washed onto the outside of the cheese—a process that is actually the norm for almost all blue cheeses that are commercially available.
Now here comes the kicker: Gorgonzola is one type of cheese, but it comes in two formats.
There’s Gorgonzola Dolce, a gooey, soft version that is ripened no more than three months. The 18- to 26-pound wheels are typically split into half-wheel forms, and sometimes even quarters or eighths, because the cheese is so delicate and soft, and thus difficult to handle.
We sold one version of Gorgonzola Dolce over the holidays that came in a full wheel and was so tender that it had to be scooped out of the wheel into a cup. Now that’s decadent.
The firmer version of Gorgonzola is referred to as Gorgonzola Piccante, Naturale, di monte, or stagionato. Yet the textbook distinction is typically made between Gorgonzola Dolce and Gorgonzola Naturale.
Whereas Gorgonzola Dolce is soft and sweet, Gorgonzola Naturale is firm and sharp. Dolce is mild and a little bit salty, and Naturale can be powerfully punchy.
Gorgonzola Dolce’s paste is a darker cream color, with greenish-blue veining. Gorgonzola Naturale’s paste is whiter, and typically carries darker blue veins. Both versions are pretty odorous.
Both Gorgonzolas are also encased in a natural rind that is brined during the aging process. Gorgonzola Dolce’s rind, because of its quick aging, is tender and fits the paste more like a fragile eggshell. Gorgonzola Naturale’s rind is crustier, drier, and more heavy duty, but still fairly soft as far as cheese rinds go.
Gorgonzola Naturale wheels usually weigh between 14 and 18 pounds, and are taller than most of the wheels of blue in our cheese case (Stiltons aside). Like the delicate Dolces, Gorgonzola Naturale wheels come wrapped in foil.
Whereas Dolce is good for cooking—especially in cream sauces, pastries, and so forth—Naturale is going to be the better option for crumbling into salads and the like (a common request in our shop is for a good crumbling Gorgonzola). The key to crumbling Gorgonzola Naturale, or any blue for that matter, is to keep it very cold until go-time. Colder = firmer when it comes to cheese, and the colder and firmer the cheese, the easier it will be to crumble (rather than squish or smear, which is the more likely option for Gorgonzola at a more pleasant eating temperature).
I might as well mention that there are still other types of Gorgonzola, although it’s less likely you’ll find them in your neighborhood cheese shop unless you live in Italy.
There’s Gorgonzola Dolcelatte, which is extremely young and mild; Gorgonzola Bianco, which is not blue but still comes from the city of Gorgonzola; and Gorgonzola Pannerone, which is also not a blue cheese and also comes from Gorgonzola. Both Bianco and Pannerone are more similar to another cheese called Stracchino, a Lombardian Alpine cheese that comes in small loaves.
It’s a safe bet that you can find both Gorgonzola Dolce and Gorgonzola Naturale in your neighborhood cheese shop. Next time you see them both, ask your cheesemonger for a side-by-side taste comparison. Or just take home a bit of each and do the taste test yourself with a nice glass of Barolo, Chianti, or Marsala.
And hey, here’s a video of me cutting a half-wheel of Gorgonzola Dolce in quadruple time. PhCheese: 1. Soft Cheese: 0.