During the Age of Enlightenment, French philosopher Diderot titled Roquefort the “King of Cheeses.” Today the cave-ripened cheese from the south of France remains one of the world’s greatest blues.
Made from raw sheep’s milk, Roquefort has a characteristic aroma and flavour. The rindless exterior is edible and slightly salty. The white pate is slightly moist and crumbly, with distinctive veins of blue mould that offer a sharp tang.
Roquefort is a complex, but well-balanced cheese. On the palate, it starts out slightly mild and sweet before moving into a smoky, then salty finish. Though similar cheeses are produced elsewhere, European law dictates authentic Roquefort must be aged in the natural stone caves of Mount Combalou of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
History and Legend
According to Roquefort legend, one day a shepherd was enjoying a lunch of bread and ewe’s milk cheese, when in the distance he saw a beautiful girl. He left his lunch in one of the Combalou caves to follow after her.
Upon his return to the cave (without the girl), the shepherd found his cheese covered with mould. Very hungry, he decided to taste it. Of course, the cheese was delicious, and thus, the first Roquefort was born.
As for Roquefort’s documented history, the cheese was first mentioned in 1070. In 1411, Charles VI granted a monopoly for the ripening of the cheese to the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. By the 20th century, Roquefort cheese was famous throughout the world.
In 1925, Roquefort became the first cheese to be granted the title “Appellation d’Origine” (designation of origin), a true mark of quality. Today Roquefort is recognized throughout Europe as a Protected Designation of Origin product.
The production of Roquefort is the main economic activity of southern Aveyron. As defined in the AOC, the ewe’s milk used for Roquefort cheese must come from within the Roquefort region, and exclusively from the Lacaune breed.
To begin, the ewe’s milk is collected at the dairy, heated and poured into vats. The cheesemaker then adds spores of Penicillium roqueforti and rennet, which transforms milk into curd cheese. The curd is cut into cubes, put into moulds, and drained and salted.
From here, the cheese leaves the dairy for ripening in the Roquefort caves where the “fleurines,” natural ventilating faults within the Combalou rock, keep the temperature and humidity of the ripening cellars constant through the year.
To encourage airflow, each Roquefort loaf is pierced about 40 times from top to bottom, and placed on wooden shelves sprinkled with coarse salt. Over the course of two to three weeks, the blue veins of Penicillium roqueforti develop little by little, spreading from the centre of the cheese.
Once the mould is sufficiently developed, the loaves are “put to sleep” — wrapped in tin foil and stored at a low temperature to further mature. Between three to 10 months later, the Roquefort is placed in its final packaging for sale.
In 1930, the General Confederation of Ewe’s Milk Producers and Industrialists of the Land of Roquefort created a collective Roquefort cheese brand known as “Red Ewe.” Authentic French Roquefort packaging will display a foil seal with their red sheep symbol. It is a registered trademark in more than 70 countries worldwide.
Buying authentic Roquefort will ensure the consumer a specific product with high quality control. The exterior of the cheese will look white and slightly shiny. Inside, the pate will appear cohesive, yet slightly crumbly, with pronounced pockets and veins of blue mould.
Roquefort can be kept for up to four weeks when stored under proper conditions. Always keep the cheese wrapped in its original packaging or aluminum foil. Place it in the lower part of the refrigerator (vegetable compartment) or a damp, cool cellar to keep the cheese moist and creamy.
Roquefort is a complex cheese that offers rich versatility. Add a sprinkle of luxury to your everyday meals by crumbling the cheese over pizza, salads, and pasta. Or, blend it into dressings or sour cream for dipping crudités.
To create a simple appetiser, skewer cubes of Roquefort on cocktail sticks along with bits of apple, apricot, or mango. You can also blend the cheese with a bit of butter (mash with a fork) and spread it onto fresh endive or celery stalks. Serve with sparkling Champagne or sweet wines such as Sauternes, Sherry, or Port, and you have the makings of a classy cocktail party.
On a cheeseboard, Roquefort pairs beautifully with accompaniments of Muscat grapes, figs, walnuts, and crusty whole grain baguette. To experience Roquefort’s flavour, moisture, and texture to the fullest extent, remove the cheese from the refrigerator about one hour before serving.