The other day, a mother and her pre-teen daughter were in the shop buying cheese. In our soft-ripened cow’s milk section (which is not labeled as such), the mom picked up a small wedge and put it in their basket.
“Mom, why does it say Bloomy?” the daughter asked, peering at the cheese’s label.
“I don’t know,” Mom said, before walking over to the wheel, reading the sign, and shrugging. “It’s just the name, I guess.”
Let’s forget for a moment the daily injustice of cheesemongers having to listen to people making conversation about their lack of cheese knowledge right in front of the cheesemonger, who is pretending not to eavesdrop but really hoping you will ask a question.
The cheese this family had picked up was called Jacobs Bloomy. It is one of three cheeses on our books from Jacobs Creamery, which is based near Olympia, Washington. The cheesemaker names her cheeses after their style: Blue, Gouda, and Bloomy.
So “Bloomy” is the style of cheese, not just its name.
We can say “Brie-style,” “soft-ripened,” “bloomy-rind,” and “blooming-rind,” and we’re talking about the same thing. “Soft-ripened” is going to be the least specific descriptor for this type of cheese, whereas “Brie-style” is going to be the most specific, hearkening to a name-protected cheese with its own recipe and characteristics.
Bloomy-rind, or blooming-rind, cheeses are those with that soft, fuzzy white rind. Yes, it is always an edible rind, but no, you don’t have to eat it unless you want to. (Although most cheesemongers wish you would; there is so much flavor in the combination of rind and paste that you lose out on when you hollow out the rind like a sad little shell.)
So what does it mean, anyway: bloomy?
Well, for one, flowers aren’t the only things blooming.
Mold and yeast bloom, too. And let’s not forget that cheese is made with mold and yeast. Of course it’s not the kind of mold that is going to kill you; people have been doing this stuff for centuries and determined which molds to use in which cheeses—all without dying or getting sick.
According to the official definition in the Oxford Companion to Cheese, “bloomy-rind cheeses are characterized by a white, edible rind consisting of a more or less complex community of molds and/or yeasts that ‘blooms’ on their exterior as the cheeses ripen” (pg. 74).1
The book goes on to clarify that many of these molds and yeasts were “naturally present” in historical cheesemaking, meaning that they were living in the caves or cellars where people made and aged their cheeses, somehow got onto the cheese, and created a delicious treat that could only have been made in that place. Through trial and error, people figured out that the environment had something to do with the way the cheeses looked and tasted, and eventually through science we figured out more or less which molds and yeasts needed to be added to milk to make a specific cheese.
Back in the olden days, you kept a little bit of your leftover whey around to start the next day’s cheese—think of it like a sourdough starter. It really is called a “starter culture,” and today cheesemakers can buy it from a culture house, which prepares the cocktail of molds and yeasts in a scientifically sanitary environment, in exact weights.
The discovery and addition of cultures basically describes all cheesemaking, so let’s get focused on those bloomy rinds.
Another way of calling these cheeses is “mold-ripened” or “surface-ripened.” That’s because the molds gravitate to the extremities of the cheese—to the air—and thrive in a colony on the outside of the cheese, creating a rind.
The white, fuzzy rind can get really whispy and long, so most cheesemakers will brush or pat the rind to keep it from turning into a head of hair. The rind may be really beautiful with long, white fuzzes, but letting the mold go wild like that will also make the cheese bitter.
Bloomy rind cheeses tend to be quite delicate. When they are being made, the curds are cut as little as possible and are then ladled into their forms, where they are gently drained of their whey through gravity. This is not a cheese wheel that is going to be flipped numerous times as it is aged; it is not a cheese wheel that will take a beating in transport.
After all, they are referred to as “soft-ripened” cheeses, which means they are young and, well, soft.
Another function of the mold and yeast types that make up the bloomy rind is how they affect the cheese’s ripening. Bloomy-rind cheeses ripen from the outside to the inside, meaning that the center could be kind of chalky and firm while the outside will be gooey and soft. Think Humboldt Fog or Bucheron as you picture that.
This is why some cheese aficionados will squeeze Brie and Camembert before choosing a wedge or a wheel, because they want to see how firm or soft the cheese is—will it be ready to eat tonight, or do I have to let it hang out for a few days? The softer the cheese is all the way through, the riper it is.
Certainly, some people prefer their cheese younger and others prefer it older. This is a matter of taste. A younger soft-ripened cheese will be milder, more milky or lactic in flavor, and perhaps a little saltier; an older cheese of the same variety will be more mushroomy and pungent, and maybe grassier depending on the milk that was used.
There are many, many varieties of bloomy-rind cheeses. I have written in the past about Brie and Camembert, and about double-creams and triple-creams. Essentially, any soft cheese with that fuzzy white rind is going to fall into this big, happy family.
That can mean cow, goat, and sheep milk cheeses, buffalo milk, milk blends, whatever. There are even some blue cheeses with bloomy rinds, like Cambozola.
And then there are soft-ripened cheeses with different kinds of molds or yeasts added to them.
Most of your Brie-style varieties are going to have the mold penicillium Candidum added to them, and that will be the most active mold that creates your fluffy, white rind. Some varieties—mostly goat’s milk—will have the yeast Geotrichum Candidum, and that produces the wrinkly, brainy rind that you see on cheeses like Bonne Bouche, Valencay, and Chabichou du Poitou.
It is likely that both Geotrichum Candidum and penicillium Candidum are used in the same cheeses, as well as other blends of molds and yeasts. The different cultures create different flavor, texture, aroma, and appearance characteristics in a given cheese. Depending on how they are applied—in what quantities and combinations, and in which kinds of moisture and temperature settings, certain cultures will be stronger—and “show up more” in the cheese than others.
I encourage you to try the rind while you are eating soft-ripened cheeses—especially if you are trying cheeses at different levels of ripeness. (Hint: The younger rind will be milder, and the older rind will be stronger.)
Get out there and eat a bunch of bloomy-rind cheeses. It won’t hurt to tell your cheesemonger that you are experimenting—ask him or her to recommend a variety so that you can taste the differences. Get a warm baguette, open a bottle of Riesling, Port, Pinot Blanc, or Gamay, and go to town. This is your homework, got it?
- “Bloomy-rind cheeses.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Catherine Donnelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 74-5. Print.