Intern Gabrielle Roman looks into what makes French cheeses tick for her blog series, Bon Fromage. Meant to answer any questions you might have but were afraid to ask about cheese made from the country famous for fromage, each post will focus on a specific cheese and take a deep dive into its history and production. Take the plunge and demystify the world of French cheese.
I have long believed that the study of history is essential. In general, I tell people that history is the study of people, and by studying our past, we can learn about why people do what they do and see that someone who lived five hundred years ago might not be as different from us as we thought. Studying the history of cheese can do the same. By giving cheese context and a past, it becomes more relatable. For French cheese, this is especially important.
We’ve all learned from a young age that France is connected to cheese more than any other country. French cheese exists in a weird paradox, where we’re all expected to have heard of it but none of really know anything about it. What does Roquefort taste like? Where does Valençay come from? How in the world do you say Maroilles?
By giving cultural context to French cheese, I hope to shed some light on the cheeses you’ve all heard about but never really understood. While most fromage boasts a pedigree and claims to be the favorite of at least one French king, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some too. The aim of this blog series is to make these cheeses accessible and answer any of those questions you might have had but didn’t know if you should ask. In this way, I hope to make the world of cheese seem less unreachable and mysterious, proving that the only pedigree you really need to appreciate cheese is a willingness to try.
The history of Roquefort starts way back before modern humans walked the planet. Millions of years ago, the landscape of France changed dramatically. Earthquakes caused mountain ranges in southern France to shift and collapse, forming natural caves in the modern day Mont Combalou. These special caves exist near the township of Roquefort-sur-Soulzan, and only cheese naturally aged here can be called Roquefort. In addition to forming caves, the collapsing rock also formed fleurines, or little faults, in the rock. These faults channel outside air through the caves that keep the temperature cool (between 46 and 53ºF, or 8 and 12ºC) and maintain a constant high humidity of 98 percent. The conditions are perfect for ripening Roquefort, yes, but who figured out cool and humid caves made for great cheese?
According to the creation myth, a shepherd was sitting at the mouth of one of these caves eating his lunch, which included some cheese made from his flock. He spotted a pretty girl in the distance, and being at the prime age where hormones make you forget about your appetite, he ran off in pursuit of her, leaving his food behind. When he returned sometime later, the cheese had grown mold on it. Having already proven to be the impulsive sort, he ate it and discovered the first Roquefort.
Of course, there are several more rules now to what makes Roquefort truly Roquefort, and producers today don’t leave forgotten wheels in the entrance to caves for several months. In 1925, Roquefort was the first cheese to receive official appellation d’origine controlee, or AOC status. This status ensures the cheese comes from a specific region and also entails specific regulations that must be followed to ensure the cheese is a true Roquefort.
Some of the regulations include:
- The cheese must be made from the Lacuane breed of sheep.
- The sheep have to be on pasture in the region and at least three-quarters of their grain supply must also be from the area.
- The milk must be whole and raw.
- The bacteria put on the cheese should be taken from the Roquefort caves.
Yes, to make Roquefort, you have to sprinkle bacteria on it. That’s what inspires the mold to grow. For Roquefort, it’s a specific type of bacteria called Penicillium roqueforti. (For the record, you cannot use this bacteria to treat your infections. It’s a cousin to the penicillin used in medicine, but not the same thing.) Traditionally, cheesemakers would put loaves of bread in the caves and allow them to develop mold and then scrape it off the bread and onto the cheese. Some cheesemakers now use bacteria developed in a laboratory to give the flavor greater consistency.
All Roquefort is aged in the natural caves of the Mont Combalou system. The cheese must be aged for a minimum of three months in the caves where, as mentioned previously, the humidity and heat are perfect conditions to develop the bacteria into mold and keep the cheeses nice and moist. The caves go down several stories, which allows for cheesemakers to pack in a lot of product.
Leaving aside the creation myth, is it possible to trace Roquefort back to a specific period in time? Most sources on Roquefort mention that Pliny the Elder wrote about it sometime around 79 CE in his famous work, The Natural History of Pliny, which consists of three staggering volumes. While Pliny does detail a whole chapter to various kinds of cheese, whether or not he mentions Roquefort is debatable: “The cheese of this kind which is made at Rome is considered preferable to any other; for that which is made in Gaul has a strong taste, like that of medicine.” The cheese made “in Gaul” (or modern-day France) could very well be Roquefort, although most fans of the cheese would probably argue with you on the medicine part.
We can at least take some comfort in the fact that if nothing else, Pliny was a fan of cheese and took offense at anyone who didn’t eat it: “It is a remarkable circumstance, that the barbarous nations which subsist on milk have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it.” At least we can all come together on that front.
What we do know for sure is that Roquefort was being made in the Middle Ages. In fact, Charles VI issued a decree in 1411 that it could only be made in the village of Roquert-sur-Soulzon, which means the protected designation of origin for of Roquefort has been around for six hundred years! That’s before the first European settlers came to America—before Shakespeare—before Gutenberg printed the first book! Even if Roquefort wasn’t around in ancient Rome, it has an impressive past.
All right, so now we have our basics. Discovered by shepherds, protected by French kings, made from sheep’s milk, highly regulated, has mold, aged in caves. Got it. What does the cheese look like and taste like, and where can you get some?
Roquefort does not have a rind (different from what you’d get with a Brie, for example). You can immediately see the distinctive blue veins running throughout Roquefort, which are from the bacteria growing in the cheese. One cheesemaking process involves drilling holes into the wheel of Roquefort so that the bacteria can grow throughout the cheese instead of just on the surface. Salt is also added to the top of wheels, so the drilling process also allows the salt to fill into those gaps.
This means that Roquefort tastes salty, sharp, and tangy. Taste-testers for Roquefort producers will actually taste the cheese as it ages to ensure they are developing correctly. Roquefort is semi-hard, which means you can poke it and your finger won’t disappear entirely into the cheese. The texture is rich and creamy, with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency.
There are some cheesemakers in the US who produce cheeses similar to those you find Europe, but because of Roquefort’s particular rules, you’ll have to import it if you want any. Due to the geographic specifications, there are only seven Roquefort producers in the world. Fortunately, the previous importing ban on Roquefort has been lifted, which means it should be possible to get in the US again. A note to anyone buying Roquefort: blue cheeses (and cheeses in general) do better if they are allowed to breathe, so make sure you don’t suffocate it with plastic wrap.
I’d like to wrap this post up with a note about Roquefort’s name. One thing I’ve noticed about my research into French cheese so far is that most of it is often distinguished with an impressive title or claims that it was the favorite of some ancient French king. I’m going to keep an eye out for everyone, mostly as a bit of trivia, but also so you can see how France has developed its cheese not just to taste great, but to be renowned the world over. In Roquefort’s case, it’s often referred to as “the king of cheese” and “the cheese of kings and popes.” Could this be because Charles VI so carefully looked after its quality and production? Very possibly. I’d like to encourage you to put on your crown for a day and see what you think. Does the richness of the cheese live up to its rich history?
Feature Photo Credit: Justacoté