While I’d always loved cheese, my refrigerator seldom held much in the way of lacto-exotica. There was my fondness for Cracker Barrel™, a wedge of Brie from the supermarket, and salty, briny feta from the local co-op (which was my nod to Cheeses Unusual). Granted, I was a poor graduate student with an aversion to graduating with more debt than necessary, so higher-priced cheeses tended to stay out of my market basket. But I knew that someday, SOMEDAY, I too would join the ranks of the Cheese Cognoscenti.
How I Met the Cheese that Changed My Life
In the early aughts, I moved to Iowa City for a year; I’d taken a contract teaching position at the University of Iowa while I was finishing my dissertation. I joined the local co-op ( New Pioneer Co-op ) within 6 hours of moving there from Delaware. I loved shopping there—the Coralville branch was within walking distance of my apartment and the Iowa City branch within walking distance of my office—and was so happy to be surrounded by such gastronomic (and healthy!) goodness. The produce was exquisite, the breads from the bake shop practically soul-stirring, and the bulk spices so über fragrant. But it was the cheese aisle that widened my eyes and set my mouth agape. Here was value-added dairy nirvana.
Given that I was in Iowa, a state that, while I’d never actually fantasized about living in, I was enjoying very much, I decided to try a native son (native daughter? Do cheeses have genders?). What I tried was Newton, Iowa’s delicious claim to fame: Maytag Blue Cheese. To say I was impressed would be understating my love for the cheese. I consumed quite a bit of it in my year in Iowa. It became a luncheon mainstay for me. And while Maytag Dairy Farms is easy to get to (it’s just off I-80 in Newton), I didn’t make the trip until this summer, after I’d been living in Indiana for over a decade. And what of that cheese? Let’s learn a little bit about the cheese that launched my curiosity.
Whither Maytag? A Brief History of (Cheese) Time
First, let’s look at the name: MAYTAG Blue. Yes, it’s those Maytags, the family that brought you the washing machines. When I first bought the cheese, I thought having the same name as the appliance company was just a coincidence. Then I did a little investigating. Not a coincidence. Anyway, I guess you could always snack on some cheese while laundering your clothes if you want the full Maytag experience. By the way, Whirlpool bought Maytag a number of years ago.
Back to the cheese. So, with prize-winning cattle (Holsteins) grazing on the lush pastures of the family farm, the setting was ripe for cheesemaking. Frederick Louis Maytag II, the son of Elmer Henry Maytag (founder of Maytag Dairy Farms) and grandson of Frederick Louis Maytag I (founder of the Maytag Company) learned about a way of producing blue cheese from cow’s milk that was developed at Iowa State University (the country’s first land-grant college institution). Typically, blue cheeses were products of sheep milk. The Iowa State method used homogenized cow milk and more rennet (enzymes that act as coagulants) than is typical; additionally, higher temperatures were used in the cheesemaking process, which resulted in a more consistently flavored cheese. Using this production method, Fred Maytag made the first wheel of Maytag Blue Cheese that would be aged in the caves on October 11, 1941.
What Else Do We Need for Maytag Blue?
Besides the milk, rennet addition, and temperatures, what else was (and is) needed to make this cheese? Penicillium, a bacteria, is introduced to the cheese. Then, a process called “needling”, in which thin skewers punch a wheel of cheese, is undertaken. This permits oxygen to enter the cheese and spur the growth of its characteristic blue-green mold. The cheese wheels are then ripened in climate-controlled aging caves for a number of months before being cut and packaged for sale.
Maytag Blue is a labor-intensive cheese to make. The wheels are made by hand. The cheese is cut by hand. The wedges are wrapped by hand. And while the milk no longer comes solely from the Maytag farm, it still comes from neighboring Iowa farms so it doesn’t need to travel long distances. And while it may be labor-intensive to make, Maytag Blue ISN’T labor-intensive to sell. You see, Maytag Dairy Farms (it’s singular) doesn’t have a sales force. It isn’t necessary. Nor do they advertise. It also isn’t necessary. This cheese is well known, well respected, and well loved. Customers, whether retailers or end consumers, seek out Maytag Blue, so there’s no need to staff a department to promote the cheese. Its flavor promotes itself!
Okay, But How Does It TASTE?
And what about that flavor? Maytag Blue, while not the most pungent of the blues (I put Spain’s Cabrales in that category), nonetheless has a wonderfully sharp, tangy, salty flavor, with a finish that lasts well after it’s been swallowed. Its texture is dense. Amenable to being paired with beef or bison (e.g. a bacon-bison-blue cheese burger) or crumbled in a salad, Maytag Blue can also be incorporated into dips and cheeseballs. And try it with a beer or late-harvest Riesling, too.
To savor Maytag Blue on its own, let it come to room temperature. In fact, you should eat just about all cheeses at room temperature (cold dulls flavor). Simply remove it from the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to eat it; this allows plenty of time for the cheese to warm up. And Maytag Blue takes well to a drizzle of honey. The sweetness of the honey is a delicious foil for the sharpness of the cheese.
Well, Aren’t You Going to Share a Recipe?
Want to Impress Others at your next Cocktail Party? Here’s a Maytag Factoid!
Interesting Maytag trivia alert. Fred Maytag’s son Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag III brought the old Anchor Brewing Company (in San Francisco), changed the recipe, and spurred an interest in serious beer brewing in America with his Anchor Steam beer. In fact, much of the credit for the resurgence in American microbrewing can be credited to him.