Invite Roquefort “King of cheeses”, on your table for the festive season – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is a small village of the Aveyron in Southwest France, mostly known for being the place where one of the most famous French cheeses was born. This sheep’s blue cheese is the unexpected result of three local elements: flocks of an old local sheep breed, deep caves and a unique lactic bacterium starter, the Penicillium Roqueforti.
The legend says that “once upon a time” a shepherd left a piece of cheese and a piece of rye bread in a cave in order to eat them later. Meanwhile he went flirting with a young girl. At that point you may wonder what love has to do with cheese! Not much actually since our poor shepherd tried his luck again and again with no result at all. Sad and hungry he came back to his cave where to cap it all his bread and cheese were all mouldy! Furious but starving he took a piece of cheese and… loved it!
Of course this is only a legend but we can assume that this cheese was discovered by sheer luck a long, long time ago and even Julius Caesar is said to have enjoyed it during the Gallic Wars. Ever since the success of this cheese has never failed and many cheese makers tried to imitate it, creating mere blue cheeses that were sold as real Roquefort. But as always, food is an awfully serious matter in France and in the beginning of the 20th century the local producers waged a war against these counterfeits and in 1925 Roquefort got the very first French Label of Origin (now AOC/AOP) signed by the President of the French Republic himself! Ninety years later Roquefort is only made in this small village with the milk of the local ewes and following the same old recipe.
The Roquefort is made only with raw sheep milk. These sheep spend at least six months a year in the rich pasture of the area and even in wintertime they are fed with local hay. From January, three weeks after lambing, the sheep are milked twice a day until late June. Pasteurization as well as microfiltration is strictly forbidden since they would destroy the precious microorganisms of the milk that give its unique aromas to the Roquefort. Then the milk is slowly heated to 28 to 34°C and the P. Roqueforti that has been grown on rye bread, is added to the warm liquid to make it curdle. Then the curds are moulded in round boxes and allowed to slowly drain without any pressing. Later all the round cheeses are kept in the caves on oak shelves, aging for 3 to 6 months during which the blue veins grow and the subtle aromas develop.
Knowing this, you will understand why the Roquefort cheese makers had to start a new fight in the early 2000’s when the European Parliament under pressure from the food industry decided that unpasteurized milk and wood shelves were to be banished. On the pretext of consumers’ security and health that were supposedly endangered by the lactic acid bacterium, industrial cheese makers meant to eliminate any kind of competition. Fortunately along with other traditional cheese makers and concerned consumers they succeeded to keep their savoir-faire alive. In addition to the aromas that these raw milk microorganisms give to the cheese they are very useful in strengthening our biological defence system. In France informed moms regularly give Roquefort to their children to avoid colds, sore throats and other infections. I can still remember the taste of the slice of bread and Roquefort that my mother made for my sister and I when we were little girls and we used to make it through the winter without any problem. If your kids are not total sugar addicts they might like it too!
The village of Roquefort stretches at the foot of a small mountain, the Roc of Combalou. Ages ago the steep cliff collapsed creating natural caves linked to the outside world by long cracks called “fleurines”. These fleurines allow natural ventilation, keeping constant temperature and air humidity, thus creating the perfect conditions for the Penicellium Roqueforti growth and for the making process of the Roquefort. If you go to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon you can visit some of them, going down into the earth in a dark and humid world where invisible microorganisms cleverly turn simple curds into an incomparable cheese. At the “Roquefort Société Caves” there are guided tours several times a day and their own restaurant “La Cave des Saveurs“, a good place to enjoy tasty hot and cold dishes made with Roquefort.
Roquefort gets its full maturity in December, right in time for Christmas’ or New Year’s Eve! If you get a baguette and take it off the fridge at least one hour before eating it, it will be even tastier. Last but not least you have to find the right wine that will sublimate your Roquefort. Its strong aromas could “kill” a red wine usually drunk with cheeses and a sweet white wine such as a Sauterne, a Montbazillac or an Alsatian late harvested white wine will be a much better choice. A white port wine can be a clever option too. Roquefort also is your friend in the kitchen and you can cook it in many different ways: Roquefort macaroons, Roquefort and pumpkin tart, salted Roquefort and walnut cookies, pasta with Roquefort sauce, coconut milk and Roquefort with shrimps… Let your imagination take power!
For more information:
Aveyron Tourism Office: www.tourisme-aveyron.com
Roquefort Tourism Office: www.roquefort.fr
To visit the Roquefort Société Caves: www.roquefort-societe.com
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny