Who’s the big cheese around here? Graviéra Krítis or Rogue River Blue?

I’m late to the party. Ever thus. Until the other week I dIdn’t realise that Graviéra, second most popular cheese in Greece after feta, could age for eight years or more. Jay Hickson, founder of Calder Cheese House just down the road from us and a mountain cheese expert, brought a chunk of this aged version back from his treks around Crete.

One Tyrokomeío Patsourákis had crafted this particular specimen on April 15 2015, using raw sheep’s milk from his flock. Jay described it as “bright and rich with honeyed caramel tones” and he was spot on. As a hard cheese it had probably once been buttery but now it was brittle and ultra-nutty. Nice to nibble with a glass of Belgian Trappist’s finest Westmalle Tripel, the rind end was a revelation grated into a dense minestrone. Reminiscent of old gruyere forming a crust of mega cheesiness on the surface of a soupe à l’oignon.

Alas, Calder Cheese House has now sold out of Graviéra Krítis but – shameless plug – the shop is an Aladdin’s cave of dairy-led wonders and considerably kinder on the pocket than La Fromagerie, which has three outlets in London – Highbury (cheese guru Patricia Michelson’s original shop which I first visited 30 years ago), Lamb’s Conduit Street and just off Marylebone High Street. 

It was into the latter that I popped en route to review Chet Sharma’s Bibi restaurant My target was the only American cheese they stock, one mentioned in Patricia’s encyclopaedic  but accessible Cheese (2010), subtitled ‘A journey through taste tradition and terroir’. I‘d assumed the creamery was in California, but couldn’t find it on my California Cheese Trail app (every home should have one) alongside folksy treats such as Bleeting Heart sheep’s and Pugs Leap goat.

It turns out that my other belated major discovery of 2023, Rogue River Blue, hails from Oregon and is a Big Cheese, as they say, and not just in those West Coast parts. in the 2019/20 World Cheese Awards, held in Bergamo, Italy, it was crowned World Champion Cheese, first American entry to ever take the prestigious global award. Not that it has been hiding its light under a bushel since its first release in 2003…

So what makes Rogue River Blue so exceptional?

You could argue the steep price – £63.60 for 500g – but it is the phenomenal care that goes into making it.. After being aged for eight months it then finishes maturing for a further six to eight months wrapped in Rogue Valley grape leaves (Syrah and Merlot, I believe) that have been macerated for a year in Clear Creek Pear Brandy, flagship spirit from one of America’s oldest artisan distilleries. When it emerges from the custom-built ageing caves this is no shrinking violet. Pit an Amarone against it to be on the safe side. My saison beer struggled to contain the densely creamy fudginess shot through with a sharp saltiness in the blue veins. I could swear the aftertaste was of smoky bacon, maybe even barley wine, too.

You might also come across Smokey Blue, the original Rogue recipe for the first blue cheese ever made on the US West Coast. This has traditionally been given a caramel nuttiness by being smoked for 16 hours over hazelnut shells. But staff at La Fromagerie warned me River Blue was definitely the way to go

It has obtained cult status, comparable to say Russian River’s Pliny The Elder in the American beer world. There’s huge hype around the annual release of the cheese, which  often coincides with the autumn equinox. Surely justified by the care that has gone into the production. Both the full fat milk from their own herds from the previous fall and the hand-picked vine leaves are organic and all that ageing is labour-intensive.

We wonder what French President Emmanuel Macron made of it in December 2022 when it was one of three American cheeses serve at a White House state dinner by Joe Biden. Did this devotee of Roquefort relish or resist this rogue element on the cheeseboard and proclaim: “Sacré bleu”?