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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Roquefort---a Cheese and a Village

In 1980 I was in a remote part of southern France 10 miles from the town of Roquefort… regrettably, I didn’t know the town was nearby.  I’ve returned to France >30 times, however, I’ve never been back to this particular area in the mountains of south-central France.  I’m a huge devotee of Roquefort cheese so I decided a visit was long overdue to this famous village.  Today, I am in Roquefort with a professional appointment scheduled at the highly acclaimed Roquefort Societe, producer of nearly 60% of Roquefort’s cheese.

Roquefort is France’s second most popular cheese (Comte is number one out of nearly 500 cheeses), but Roquefort is the country’s most historic cheese.  Dating back to ancient Roman times, Roquefort’s rich flavor was discussed by Pliny in his book written in 79 A.D.  In 1411, Charles VI granted the village of Roquefort the exclusive monopoly on making this special blue cheese in their nearby caves.  In 1925 the French government granted the cheese France’s first AOC (controlled origin appellation).  From that point on, only cheese made in Roquefort caves, from local milk, could legally be called Roquefort.

The mold responsible for Roquefort’s distinctive character, penicillum roqueforti, is found in the caves surrounding the town.  The temperature of these caves, a constant year around 45 degree with a humidity of 95%, is the perfect environment for mold to thrive.  Traditionally, huge loafs of bread are placed in the cave and act like monster Petri dishes to grow the mold.  Today, however, most of the mold comes from a laboratory.

Unlike England’s coveted Stilton cheese, which is made from cow’s milk, Roquefort is made from sheep.  The isolated town (actually called Roquefort-sur-Soulzon) has nearly a million sheep that graze on the surrounding hills…. but fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.  The local sheep give milk from December until July and during these months the town swells by several hundred workers who come to work in the making of Roquefort.   At 10 days of age, the embryonic cheeses are transferred to the caves where they are punched full of holes to help stimulate the growth of the famed blue-green mold.

The tour of the production facility and caves ended with a tasting of several cheeses in varying degrees of aging.  All I can say is it was worth the > 30 years wait!  Merci a pencillum roqueforti.

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