Cheeses of France: Roquefort—the “King of Cheeses”

Let's go to southern France and enjoy a true Roquefort! 

I am truly a “cheese-a-holic!”. One of the joys of my time in France was the abundance of cheeses, the variety, and the availability. Unless you live in an urban area with gourmet shops it is hard to find really excellent French cheeses in the U.S. It was my privilege to live in the Napa Valley for many years and because it is a gourmet food haven, I was able to indulge my love of cheese. The great former General and President of France, Charles de Gaulle supposedly said something like “it is impossible to govern a country with over 300 cheeses.” So I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the favorites in this blog series. And for today I have chosen Roquefort, the famous blue cheese from southern France. Roquefort has an interesting history. According to the website of Société Roquefort, the legend is that ages ago a young shepherd was attracted to a beautiful young woman and ran after her, leaving his flock of sheep and his meal, bread and ewe's milk in a cave. Several days later he returned to find the milk curd marbled with green veins and the bread moldy. The Penicillium Roqueforti had turned his cheese into Roquefort. Since I do my best to eat foods that are natural and pure, I am especially fond of Roquefort since it is from the raw milk of sheep. Each sheep gives only 16 gallons of milk per season and the cheese is aged for a minimum of 90 days in the limestone caves of Roquefort. The milk is injected with the mold penicillum, the same substance that gives us the antibiotic.

And the conditions of the limestone caves age the cheese to become the delicious product that we know. There are reports of a cheese like Roquefort dating from the 1st century A.D.,and this was the first cheese to be given an “appellation d'origine”, way back in 1925. This is a sort of trademark saying that this product comes only from a certain designated place and no other product can be called by its name. There is a strict appellation in the wine business, as in “Appellation Bourgogne Controlée” or “Appellation Côtes de Nuit Controlée”. Roquefort is produced in the region around Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the department of Aveyron, in the south of France. I once questioned the different-ness of French cheeses with a French native, asking why a Camembert would be any different produced in Normandy or produced anywhere else. His response was firm: essentially, “are you kidding?” Only the grass that grows in that region has the rainfall, the sunshine, the soil to nourish the cow whose milk will reflect those conditions and only those conditions will give the cheese Camembert which came from that spot. I love this connection to the land that the appellations offer and I realize that it's true that the subtle distinctions that give us the fine cheeses and wines of France are linked to the Earth conditions that produced them. We don't have this system very strongly in the U.S. although you will see cheddar from Vermont or from New York State or Wisconsin as a designated appellation. I like to eat Roquefort on plain rice crackers (although a good baguette would be best) with a bit of butter to accompany it. Bon appétit!