When he proclaimed, “Cheese – milk’s leap toward immortality,” American writer and media personality, Clifton Fadiman may have been referring to France’s iconic Roquefort.
Cholesterol, salt and fat be damned, there is nothing quite like a fresh, crusty baguette slathered with a crumbly wedge of this creamy, marbled cheese - particularly when it is pungently paired with a glass of bold, red wine.
Mais oui, it’s old; it’s moldy; it smells - yet the delectable combination of salty and sharp flavours melt in your mouth, leaving an intense, rich, tangy punch.
In a country that loves its fromage and produces more types than there are days in a year, the French consider Roquefort to be the King of Cheeses and the Cheese of Kings. In France, no self-respecting cheese platter would be without it.
From a personal perspective, I blame my love affair with this cheese on my husband. He made the introduction soon after we met. At first, I regarded the delicate, blue-green veins with curious repulsion, but after tasting the cheese several times, I found my palate was left craving more. Before long, ooh-la-la, I was hooked.
As a result, years later we found ourselves driving the winding road leading to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, a tiny, ancient village nestled at the foot of the Combalou Cliffs in the Midi-Pyrenees region of Southern France. Our objective: to explore the place that has given its name to its famous cheese and tour the caves where the locals have produced it for centuries. Here’s what we learned...
It was a natural disaster - the collapse of a mountain about a million years ago - that created the extensive network of caves in the area surrounding Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
Let there be cheese, s’il vous plait!
Local legend claims that an ardent, young shepherd was resting in one of the caves when he spied a beautiful maiden. Hastily, he tossed aside his lunch of bread and cheese, left his flock to fend for itself and chased after her. Upon his return to the cave days later, his round of cheese had become moldy. Hungry and undeterred, he ate it anyway. As it turns out, it was surprisingly tasty. Voilà – Roquefort was born!
Penicillium Roquefort, the magic microbe that once upon a time turned the poor Romeo’s lunch green, flourishes in the caves and creates the veining and distinctive character of the cheese. Traditionally, cheese makers extracted the fungus by simply leaving bread in the caves until it was consumed by mold. Now it is cultivated in laboratories – not nearly as romantic, but undoubtedly more efficient.
In the case of cheese – age matters
Only seven producers are legally approved to make this cheese. “Roquefort Société”, which accounts for 60 per cent of all production, offer cellar visits to “Roquefortphiles” like us.
As we descended the narrow staircase with our tour group into the very heart of the mountain, the chill and dampness of the air was palpable. Water dripped from stone walls speckled with bits of emerald green lichen.
Deep underground we were surrounded – eleven stories filled with row-upon-orderly-row of round, glistening, ivory-coloured spheres. No wonder the pungent, olfactory aura of maturing cheese followed us like a cloud.