''THIS business is like fashion, with everyone following the latest idea,'' said Jean-Paul Grasmuck, director of sales and marketing for a major cheese importer. And right now in cheeses, blue is big. Imports to the United States of blue cheeses totaled about 5 million pounds last year, an increase of 633,000 pounds over 1980.
For years blue-veined cheeses, especially Roquefort, were regarded more as ingredients for salad and other dishes than as table cheeses. But now the variety of blue cheeses available has greatly expanded, particularly in the New York area, and that attitude is changing. On the cheese tray the blues provide a contrast of color and brightly assertive flavor to compliment other varieties. There is simple, classic elegance to the wedge of rich Stilton served with a glass of Port at the end of a dinner, or some pungent Gorgonzola to complement a luscious ripe pear.
The blue cheese of the moment is what importers and retailers have been calling ''blue-veined Brie,'' a cross between the traditional blue cheese of the Roquefort type and a soft-ripening Camembert or Brie style. It is buttery and smooth, with a mild flavor given a touch of sharpness by the blue veining.
The first of these soft-ripening cheeses to be widely available here, Saga Blue from Denmark, has become the fourth largest-selling imported blue cheese in America in just three years, challenging the traditional blues such as Roquefort and Stilton. Saga Blue has inspired numerous line-for-line copies with white crusts, limited traces of blue mold in the center and names like Blue Castello, Blu Bayou, Bavaria Blue, Cambozola and Blue Moon on the label. The newest one, Sacre Bleu from France (the name is Mr. Grasmuck's doing) has only been in stores about a month. Such cheeses appeal to those who would like a blue cheese but do not want the stronger taste of Roquefort.
The increased variety of blue cheeses available in this country is a result of a change in the import regulations. Until Jan. 1, 1980, only blue cheeses from Denmark and Italy were allowed under a quota system designed to protect domestic producers. After that date, however, the quota was extended to the entire Common Market. Roquefort, because it is made from sheep's milk, has always been exempt from the quota. So has Stilton, due to a specially negotiated arrangement between the United States and England. Now other blue cheeses from France and England, as well as some from Germany, are being imported.
The new soft blue cheeses, which combine the white surface mold of a soft-ripening cheese with a visible internal blue mold, are possible because of a process that adds blue mold to cheese with such precision that the inimical blue and white molds will coexist. By contrast, the more traditional blue-mold cheeses with their assertive, full and somewhat salty flavor and smooth, soft but crumbly texture, first occurred by accident almost 2,000 years ago. Roquefort was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in first-century Rome.
According to legend, Roquefort first occurred when a lovestruck gaulois shepherd left his lunch and bread at the mouth of a cave while he went chasing a shepherdess. When he returned to the spot three months later he found the bread covered with mold, some of which had infected the cheese. He must have like what he tasted.
Roquefort is still being made exclusively from sheep's milk in caves that tunnel four miles into Mount Combalou in the Massif Central of south-central France. The village of Roquefort (it means ''strong rock''), perched on the mountain, has given its name to the cheese that must be aged in these caves, sections of which often figured importantly in the doweries of young women of the region. By law, only this cheese can be called Roquefort. The name is so protected that if a product such as a dip or a salad dressing uses the word Roquefort in its name, it must contain genuine Roquefort cheese.
The mold that creates the characteristic bluish-green veining in Roquefort is called penicillium roqueforti. Another bacterium, penicillium glaucum, is used to make most other blue-veined cheeses. Sometimes the two are used in combination. The blue mold breaks down the casein in the cellular structure of the cheese to give it a creamier consistency.
Although miners in Lancashire, England, found that putting Cheshire cheese that had gone moldy (and at one time was considered unfit to eat) on their wounds would promote healing, the penicillium in blue cheeses is not the same as the antibiotic drug. In a report published by Cornell University in 1977, Prof. Frank Kosikowski concluded, after detailed analysis, ''penicillin is produced by a species of penicillium not found in cheese making.''
Mold spores that are naturally present in caves and cellars or other damp places led to the fortuitous creation not only of Roquefort but also of Gorgonzola. The latter was first producted It occurred during the Roman era in caves near the village of that name north of Milan. English blue cheeses began the same way, by accident. ''I don't know of a single one that didn't start by chance,'' said Oulton Wade, chairman of the English Cheese Exporters Consortium.
Roquefort continues to be made with mold spores that are allowed to develop on rye bread, then sprinkled with the fresh curds. Many of today's blue cheeses, however, depend as much on laboratory technology as Mother Nature and the molds are simply injected. Even those that may be aged for months in caves, an excellent, naturally cool and humid environment, are monitored every step of the way.
The round wheels may be turned periodically so that they develop evenly, the rinds brushed from time to time, the cheeses moved from one spot to another on schedule. Most of them, including Stilton and Roquefort, are punctured at regular intervals with thin stainlesssteel needles, creating air spaces that encourage the mold to grow.
These molds are incapable of surviving in an anaerobic atmosphere. If you cut into a blue cheese, you may see thin vertical streaks of mold and puncture marks on the outside, both evidence of the needles. In the 1930's, one English cheese maker created air spaces in his Cheshire cheese to help it turn blue by rolling the cheeses down his cellar stairs, thereby breaking up its internal texture.
It is better to store blue cheeses wrapped in foil, which is not totally airtight, than in clear plastic wrap. At the same time, the cheese must not be allowed to dry out. Keep it in the refrigerator, preferably in the vegetable crisper. The traditional bandage of moist linen wrapped around a wheel of Stilton accomplishes the same purpose. If odors are likely to be a problem in the refrigerator, place foil-wrapped cheese inside a closed plastic or glass container. Large pieces of cheese can be kept for many weeks. Remove portions as you need them and allow these to come to room temperature before serving. A spokesman for Swift & Company recommended storing its Treasure Cave blue cheese in the freezer, but Roquefort producers advise against it.
Most blue cheeses are round, and range in size from a hefty 16-pound wheel of a standard Stilton to tall cylinders and flat disks. Some are rindless, while others have brown or white crusts. The blue veining may be dense and intricate or sparse and may vary in color from midnight blue to forest green. The cheese itself can be snowy white, ivory, creamy gold or, in the case of Blue Cheshire, reddish orange, but should never be gray or brownish. The texture of the cheese is usually smooth and creamy, and while the veining makes it easy to crumble, there should be no grainy quality. Blue cheeses usually slice well and melt to a satiny finish quite readily.
Whole cow's milk is used to manufacture in making a majority of the blue cheeses (Roquefort is one notable exception). A traditional blue cheese usually has a butterfat content of 45 to 50 percent, but the new soft-ripening blue cheeses such as Saga Blue and Sacre Bleu are double cream, made from milk enriched with cream, with from 60 to 74 percent butterfat. There are no low-fat or low-salt blue cheeses, but their assertive flavor tends to limit the amount of cheese consumed.
Blue cheeses can be anywhere from strongly pungent and salty to quite mild. Variations in the same cheese from one week to the next or one shop to the next result from age and storage conditions, but a blue cheese in good condition should not have an ammoniated odor nor an excessively acid taste. Because these cheeses can vary so in quality, it is wise to ask for a sample before buying. blue cheeses ranging in price from $3.50 to $9 a pound. Whenever possible, buy blue cheese cut from a large wheel. Here is a rundown of some of the best places in the city to buy blue cheeses.
Macy's: One of the largest assortments in this city with hard-tofind Blue Cheshire and the Gabriel Coulet Roquefort. Zabar's: An extensive assortment, reasonably priced. Balducci's: Good variety, including a number of the Brie types. Dean & DeLuca: Over a dozen varieties, including some esoteric ones from France and Italy. E.A.T.: Mostly French, a couple of exclusives and the Gabriel Coulet Roquefort. Bremen House: About a dozen blue-veined cheeses with an emphasis on Germany and Scandinavia. Fairway: A good selection, especially of French blues, notably Fourme d'Ambert and Gabriel Coulet Roquefort. Good, if somewhat more limited, selections are available at Ideal Cheese, the Pasta & Cheese Shops and Bloomingdale's. end.
And all upstaged by a tropical piquant piece of perfection - PINEAPPLE........