Sunday, November 20, 2011

Roquefort - King of Cheeses

In the brightly painted, flower bedecked streets of a small town in the department of Aveyron, southern France, the proud citizens go about their business.

The place looks just like thousands of other towns; a colourful, peaceful small French town, basking in mid-morning sunlight. Meanwhile, deep underground, in shadowy caves, where the sun's rays never reach, where the air is damp, mouldy and humid, a miracle is taking place.  In these naturally occurring caves, cool air blows through the cracks, the pits and corridors creating a perfect atmosphere. Far away from light, in a temperature of 10 degrees and with 95 percent humidity, alchemy is at work.

Caves of Gabriel Coulet - Roquefort
We are in Roquefort, where under the streets, one of the world’s favourite foods, the King of Cheeses, is slowly maturing. Nobody can really say when Roquefort cheese was first discovered, but everybody tells of the legend of the young shepherd boy, who, having spotted a beautiful girl in the distance, left his lunch of bread and cheese in a cave and went after her. On his return he found the bread too mouldy to eat, but the cheese, which had turned blue, was delicious. This story may have come from the days when Neolithic shepherds, four to six thousand years ago, drove their flocks from the plains of the Mediterranean coast to the rich upland meadows of this part of France.

When the Romans built their great highway, the Via
Domitia, linking the Pyrenees with Italy, the route passed not very far from Roquefort. The cheeses were sent over to the coast and then by sea to Rome, where wealthy aristocrats, who appreciated the special taste of Roquefort, paid high prices for it.
Before maturing, the Roquefort is salted and brushed, then holes are made over its entire surface. The moulding, turning and salting of the wheels is still carried out by hand. Each wheel is eventually hand-wrapped in foil by the cheese-makers and then aged in the caves. Between three and ten months later, the Roquefort is placed in its final packaging. 

The women who work with the cheese are still called Cabanieres - a name from the old days, when the cheese makers built little cabins beside the cellars to house them.

The entire process; from the raising of the sheep, the collection of the milk, the maturation, the cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese takes place in the commune, providing a living for about 10,000 people. The place is thriving and while admitting that it is not the easiest of lives, no-one I met in Roquefort wanted to change their way of life. It is, like so many things in France, a link to something older, a link to the earth, the 'terroir.'

Coach loads of tourists from all over the world flock to Roquefort, swelling the town’s numbers, visiting the caves and taking away precious packages of one of the most wonderful cheese in the world.

The giant Société brand has the lion’s share of the market. The smaller producers I met, like La
Pastourelle and Gabriel Coulet are flourishing, supplying customers all over the world, including those of the legendary Dean and Deluca outlet in New York City. Gabriel Coulet, fifth-generation cheese makers in the heart of the town, produces a delicious creamy textured cheese which has won Gold medals at the Concours General Agricole of Paris for years.

The earth in this part of France is a startling shade of red. This, coupled with the many shades of green, the sky normally a vivid blue, the flocks of richly coloured sheep and the millions of poppies make the place look like a postcard.  But it’s all about the cheese. To taste a piece of Roquefort, standing above the caves where it has ripened, is an experience I will not forget. And later in the evening, to sit on a sun drenched balcony, at a gaily coloured tiled table enjoying a ‘tranche’ of the King of Cheeses, accompanied by the local Côtes de Millau white wine is...welcome to a sort of Paradise.

1 comment:

  1. The earth in this part of the US is a startling red color too--but I don't know anyone making sheep's milk cheese! Memories of eating in Normandy and the Languedoc (with the same friends) return with full sensual force when I read you on the subject of food--complete with raging envy! Wine is relatively easy to come by, but great cheese...almost never. Good, maybe.
    And the "de pays" doesn't really exist for anyone without connections, so the cost is always a problem for the best available except when it comes to such things as local tomatoes and sweet corn.

    P.S. Your pictures are as pretty as your prose! Congratulations!