Today is traditionally held to be the day that Roquefort cheese was first made accidentally in the year 1070 near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the south of France, when a young shepherd boy, eating his lunch of curds, saw a beautiful girl in the distance. Abandoning his meal in a nearby cave, he set off to meet her. When he failed to catch her he returned home. Several months later he happened upon his abandoned, and now moldy, lunch and ate it out of pure hunger. It turned out to be delicious. Nice story. However, Roquefort is mentioned in literature as far back as 79, when Pliny the Elder remarked upon its rich flavor, and cheese making colanders have been discovered amongst the region’s prehistoric relics. Regardless of the date of invention, on June 4th 1411 Charles VI granted a monopoly for the ripening of the cheese to the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
The mould (Penicillium roqueforti) which gives Roquefort its distinctive character is found in the soil of the local caves. Traditionally the cheese makers extracted it by leaving bread in the caves for six to eight weeks until it was consumed by the mold. The interior of the bread was then dried to produce a powder which was mixed with the cheese curds, or injected into the unripe cheeses. In modern times the mold is grown in a laboratory, which allows for greater consistency.
Roquefort is made entirely from the milk of the Lacaune, Manech and Basco-Béarnaise breeds of sheep. Prior to regulations of 1925, a small amount of cow’s or goat’s milk was sometimes added. Now it must be 100% ewe’s milk. A total of around 4.5 liters (9.5 pints) of milk are required to make one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of Roquefort.
European law ensures that only those cheeses aged in the natural Cambalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon may bear the name Roquefort, as it has a protected designation of origin. Regulations governing its production even within the designated region are very strict. These include:
• All milk used must be delivered at least 20 days after lambing has taken place.
• The sheep must be on pasture, whenever possible, in an area including most of Aveyron and parts of neighboring départements. At least 3/4 of the grain fed to the sheep must be grown in the same area
• The milk must be whole, raw (not heated above 34 °C; 93.2 °F), and unfiltered except to remove macroscopic particles.
• The addition of rennet must occur within 48 hours of milking.
• The Penicillium roqueforti used in the production must be produced in France from the natural caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
• The whole process of maturation, cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese must take place in the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
We use the word “terroir” these days for such regulations, that is, food from a particular region has a unique taste by virtue of the soil that brings it forth.
Around 19,000 tons of Roquefort are produced annually (about 3 million cheeses), almost all of which is consumed within France where it is the second most popular cheese (after Comté). Spain is the largest importer with 1,000 tons annually.
Roquefort is an incredibly versatile cheese. I always have some in my refrigerator for cooking, or just as a snack on crackers. You can crumble it into salads. You can make a delectable sauce for steaks by melting Roquefort into heavy cream with a few chopped shallots. This sauce also works well over pasta or raw oysters. You can make a spread called Auld Alliance (celebrating historic treaties between Scotland and France – mostly to harass England), by pounding Roquefort to a paste and slowly adding Scotch whisky until the cheese will not absorb more. Just about any recipe that uses cheese, such as quiche or soufflé, can be made with Roquefort. Here’s a pureéd cauliflower and Roquefort soup recipe. The original was vegetarian, but I prefer chicken stock as the base. For the vegetarian version, place the leftover trimmings from the cauliflower in a medium-sized saucepan with 2½ pints (1.5 litres) of water, and salt to taste. Bring it up to the boil and simmer covered for 20 minutes. Strain and discard the trimmings.
Cauliflower and Roquefort Soup
2½ pints (1.5 l) stock (chicken or vegetarian)
1 medium cauliflower
2 oz (50 g) Roquefort, crumbled into small pieces
2 bay leaves
1 oz (25 g) butter
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large leek, trimmed, washed, and chopped
4 oz (110 g) potato, peeled and chopped into dice
2 tablespoons crème fraîche, (with extra for serving)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
snipped chives for garnish
In large saucepan with a well-fitting lid, melt the butter over a gentle heat.
Add the onion, celery, leek and potato. Cover and let the vegetables gently sweat for 15 minutes. Keep the heat very low.
Add the stock and the bay leaves and bring it to a simmer.
Cut the cauliflower into florets and discard the larger stems. Add them to the stock, and simmer very gently for 20-25 minutes, until the cauliflower is completely tender. Do not cover the pot.
Remove the bay leaves, then purée the soup in a food processor or blender and process until smooth and creamy.
Return the soup to the saucepan. Stir in the crème fraîche and cheese and keep stirring until the cheese has melted and the soup is hot but not boiling.
Serve in hot bowls, garnished with a little more crème fraîche and chives.