The King of Cheeses!
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.
Fluerines (faults or tunnels through the limestone) provide the caves with a perfect year-round environment for ripening cheese: fresh air, a constant temperature of 10°C and 90 per cent relative humidity. These faults can extend up to a kilometer through the rock mass to the outside, so no sophisticated climate and humidity control systems are necessary. It’s all très naturel.
All stages of ripening – an extremely complex process - are carefully monitored by the Master-Ripener (yes...there really is such a vocation). The cheese loaves or pains (to the French) take a minimum of three months to mature in the caves.
Quality, it’s the law
Roquefort has been protected by Royal Charter since 1407 and was the first cheese to be granted its own Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), a French certification more readily recognized for wine. This designation means only cheeses ripened in the caves at Roquefort-sur-Soulzon can bear the celebrated name.
Under French law, the cheese-making process is held to rigorous and clearly defined standards. Traditional methods of production are meticulously mandated and the ingredients must be local.
For milk to make the leap towards Roquefort immortality, it must be 100 per cent from sheep - and not just from any old sheep. Only milk from the local Lacaune ewe can be used in the cheese production. The milk must be raw (as in unpasteurized) and whole – as in full-fat. Mon Dieu... tell me again, how do French women not get fat?
Goatgonzola, Okanagan’s very own King!
Take heart, you don’t have to travel to France for quality blue cheese. Clinging to the hillside approximately twelve kilometres south of downtown Kelowna, a boutique, family-run dairy and cheese-making enterprise, is churning out Goatgonzola - a Canadian cousin to French Roquefort. Using traditional methods imported from France, Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan Inc., crafts a variety of rich, complex cheeses from locally produced goat milk.
Whether it is in belle France or right here in our own uniquely beautiful Okanagan Valley, remember the French proverb, “A meal without cheese is like a day without sunshine.” Oh, and wine – don’t forget the wine. That would be an obvious faux pas!
Laura Gosset, a recovering lawyer, is a passionate traveller, serial adventurer, sports enthusiast and writer. She believes wholeheartedly wine is to women as duct tape is to men, it fixes everything! Visit her at http://www.lauragosset.com to read her published work and sign up for her travel blog, Away, eh!