Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: Roquefort and Ewe’s Blue

Old Chatham Sheepherding Company

In this blog series our intrepid intern Molly will find and interview American cheesemakers attempting to re-create traditional European cheeses. Learn about the difficulties as well as the benefits of this type of cheese making, as well as how terroir and the idea of a cheese tied to a location so distant changes when that cheese is made in a new location. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win an issue of culture: the word on cheese. Last week’s winner was Ashley Robin!


In a blog about traditional European cheeses, I’d be crazy not to write about Roquefort. The poster child of the legally-protected, this sheep’s milk blue is perhaps the best example of how closely a product can be tied to a place–in terms of both chemistry and culture.

Described as rich and flavorful by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder as early as 79 AD, Roquefort cheese stretches so far back that its discovery is the stuff of legend. As the story goes, the first Roquefort was created when a shepherd was picnicking on fresh sheep’s milk cheese and rye bread lunch one day. He saw a pretty lady, and in the interest of chasing her down, abandoned his lunch in a nearby cave. When he returned a few months later, the mold in the cave had turned his cheese into Roquefort. In a gutsy move that would change his French town forever, he ate the old moldy cheese, and discovered that it was, in fact, delicious.

It’s these limestone caves, carved into the rock beneath a giant cliff called Colambou in the South of France, that are responsible for Roquefort’s blue-green veiny deliciousness. The contrast between the warm air outside and cool air in the caves causes air to flow in, where a stable 95% humidity and a temperature of 46 to 50°F is conducive to the development of Penicillium roquefortiP. roqueforti is the mold distributed throughout the veins of Roquefort cheese. Growing naturally in the caves’ soils, it also grows in the cheese, giving it its characteristic tangy flavor.

Roquefort cheese slice on left; Combalou area of France on right

Roquefort cheese; Combalou area.
Photocredits: unknown and unknown

In 1411, in the interest of protecting this geographically unique product against imitation, Charles VI granted the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (the village at the base of Colambou) the exclusive right to ripen the cheese. It’s the earliest example of a cheese being legally protected, and it’s a protection that’s been continuously solidified throughout the ages, with a Parliamentary endorsement in 1666 and the very first AOC designation for a food product in 1925. Today, AOC and PDO legislation specifies the type of sheep breeds that can be used, how the sheep are raised and pastured, how quickly milk must be delivered after lambing, the use of whole, raw milk, the use of P. roqueforti from local caves, and the geographic location of the whole process.

Charles VI on left; Pliny the Elder on right

Two guys who really liked Roquefort: Charles VI and Pliny the Elder.
Photocredits: University of Geneva Library; National Institutes of Health

Because of all these controlled variables coupled with the long history of exclusivity, the production of Roquefort cheese, the second-most-popular French cheese, is today controlled solely by seven producers, with one of these responsible for 60% of all production.

So given the presence of this mold in the Comablou caves, can Roquefort exist anywhere else? According to legal restrictions, no. But the mold has been cultivated and transported for centuries; traditionally, it was extracted by leaving a loaf of bread in the caves for 6 to 8 weeks until it was consumed by the mold, and then the interior was dried to produce a moldy powder. Today, it can be grown anywhere in the world in a lab. It’s usually added to curd or introduced as a sprayed aerosol through holes poked into an already-formed wheel of cheese. Yet while cheesemakers anywhere can create similar blue-veined sheep’s milk cheeses using the same famous mold, they’re not able to call it Roquefort.

I was interested in learning more about one of these cheeses, so I contacted Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, NY. Owners Tom and Nancy Clark had long desired to make a rindless, blue-veined sheep’s milk cheese, and they looked to Roquefort for inspiration. They envisioned their cheese as something similar to–but not exactly the same as–a traditional Roquefort. They knew that given the different landscape and conditions there would be some necessary diversions, and they wanted to adjust their cheese to better suit American palates.

Nancy and Tom of Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. on left; Ewe's Blue cheese on right

Nancy and Tom of Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.; Ewe’s Blue cheese.
Photocredit: Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.

While traditional Roquefort is a raw-milk cheese, their version, called Ewe’s Blue, is not. I’ve already discussed some of the difficulties and limitations related to sheep dairying in America, and Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, despite its great success, faces some of the same challenges. According to Todd Pontius, Old Chatham’s Creamery Manager, although Old Chatham is one of the largest dairy operations in America, the milk supply is limited. “If we were a cow operation, we would probably only need about 40 cows, rather than the 1400 ewes that we currently have,” he says. Unlike traditional cow dairies where the milk can leave the cow and hit the vat at 5:30 am, the sheep dairy must store milk until there’s enough to use, so pasteurization is used to ensure that everything’s safe. “The French will tell you that you can’t make good cheese with pasteurized milk, but our market seems to demand it,” Todd says, “We also make an unpasteurized version called Shaker Blue, and I secretly think people would prefer the raw in a blind taste test.”

Like other sheep’s milk cheesemakers I’ve described, Old Chatham has used nearby resources to combat some of these industry challenges. They’ve partnered with nearby Amish farms to ensure a more reliable milk supply, and in doing so have improved the quality of their milk. Most of their Amish farmers milk by hand. “Not only is hand milking easier on the udders, but it makes for amazing quality milk,” Todd says, “since we get every last drop. There is so much fat, protein, and minerals in the milk during the spring and late fall that the milk looks more like cream than anything else. That’s a real revelation for cheesemakers who have only worked with goat or cow milk.”

The Clarks also adjusted their recipe to include less salt, because they thought that that the sometimes-overwhelming saltiness of blue cheese could be a little much for the American public, which tends to favor milder cheeses. Salt is an important ingredient in traditional Roquefort, however, as it’s usually rubbed on the cheese and on the wooden planks they’re aged on during maturation. It helps to control moisture and some of the unwanted bacteria that can form on wheels. At Old Chatham the cheesemakers rub on pure coarse salt, and then follow up with a dip in a naturally-derived natamycin solution. This helps control unwanted fungus and yeasts on the surface of the cheese, but it doesn’t effect the taste of the final product.

After young cheeses are salted, they rest until the mold starts to appear. Wheels are then pierced with needles to create space for the P. roqueforti to grow. Since they don’t have access to the caves at Cambalou, the cheesemakers at Old Chatham age their cheeses in cyrovac plastic bags, which creates a kind of individual cave around each wheel. While these lack some of the drama of limestone caves carved into a mountainside, the humidity and temperature are similar, and the cheese finds itself in a perfect place to age. Like the French Roquefort, Ewe’s Blue is wrapped in foil in the final stages of maturation. In both cases, the cheese ends up being rindless and slightly moist.

In its ideal state, Todd describes Ewe’s Blue as ivory-colored and creamy, with a small greenish-blue veining throughout. “It smells like clean cream,” he says, “and the blue bits taste like tropical fruit: mango or papaya.” Creamy and tangy, it’s similar to Roquefort, but not the same. Yet it was never intended to be the same; most importantly, it’s what Tom and Nancy Clark originally envisioned–a Roquefort-style cheese that utilizes the rich milk from pastured, sometimes even hand-milked ewes, reflects the lush landscape of upstate New York, and satisfies the tastebuds of friends and neighbors.

It hasn’t always been an easy journey; the Clarks had to build an entire new cheesemaking facility in which to fabricate Ewe’s Blue, so that blue spores wouldn’t contaminate the other (white mold) cheeses they were making. And the development of their recipe required several adaptations. But it’s been worth it; Ewe’s Blue has taken home awards in three ACS competitions, including a Top Finish in 2005. King Charles VI may have stopped the Clarks from calling their cheese Roquefort, but who says they’d need to? They’ve made it into something of their own, a sheep’s milk blue cheese that Pliny the Elder himself would likely have applauded.

Next week’s post is all about bringing Loire Valley cheeses to Indiana. Click here for the post.

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