Roquefort cheese – mouldy bread comes good
It’s hard to imagine anything tasty resulting from a piece of mouldy bread. But the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, a small village in Southern France, have managed to turn mouldy bread into France’s second most popular cheese thanks to some ingenuity and some 160 million year old cracks in the earth.
Legend has it that the original Roquefort cheese was created by accident. A young shepherd, watching over his flock while enjoying a lunch of bread and cheese, spotted a fair maiden passing by with her flock. He quickly hid the remainder of his lunch in a nearby cave and ran off in pursuit. Some time later he returned to the cave to find that the cheese had become green with mould from the bread but that it tasted better than ever.
Both the bread and the caves are essential to making Roquefort cheese distinct from any other blue cheese. Loaves of bread are left for several months in caves within the Combalou mountain which surrounds Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. The bread eventually turns mouldy and can be reduced to a fine, green powder containing Penicillium roqueforti, a fungus unique to the caves. One loaf of bread can provide sufficient Penicillium roqueforti to produce over 13 tons of cheese. Penicillium roqueforti is also used in other blue cheeses such as Cashel Blue and Stilton. However, only cheese produced within the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon region and in accordance with a number of strict rules can use the name “Roquefort”.
One of the requirements is that the cheese is matured in the Combalou caves, which come with their own, natural ventilation system in the form of fleurines. Fleurines are natural faults running through the Combalou mountain and are a consequence of the crumbling of part of the mountain during the Jurassic period, about 160 to 175 million years ago. The word fleurine comes from an Occitan word “flouri” which means “to go mouldy”. The faults can blow air either into or out of the caves, depending on the atmospheric pressure.
This natural ventilation ensures the caves maintain the consistent rates of humidity (90-95%) and temperature (6-12 degrees celsius) necessary for good ripening of Roquefort cheese. What a beautiful system – 100% ecological, economical and never out of order.
Roquefort is produced in large rounds of about 2.5kg. The individual cheeses are laced with Penicillium roqueforti and pierced about 30 times to allow air to circulate through the cheese, producing the blue/green veins. The cheeses are then left to mature for a minimum of 3 months, but can be left as long as 15 months for a particularly pungent cheese. The cheese is generally sold as half-rounds, quarter-rounds or wedges.
Roquefort is not as crumbly as blue cheeses from the British Isles such as Cashel Blue or Stilton. Instead, it has a creamy consistency, holding its shape when sliced and easily spreadable on a chunk of fresh baguette. A young cheese (three months old) has a fresh tang to balance the creamy texture. The more mature cheeses have a bit more kick, but remain creamy and thus have a less pungent feel than mature Stilton or other mature blue cheeses.
Roquefort is made exclusively from raw ewe’s milk, primarily from the Lacaune breed, although milk from Manech and Basco-Béarnaise breeds are also used. The milk is collected only from a defined region surrounding Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Despite this seemingly limiting factor about 18,000 tons of cheese (over 7 million cheeses) are produced annually.
The Roquefort cheese producers also produce other cheeses from the ewe’s milk. On our tour of the caves at Papillon (one of only seven producers of Roquefort) we tasted about eight different ewe’s milk cheeses, ranging from a Camembert style cheese to a log similar to goat’s cheese. Some were mild and creamy, others were deep and flavourful, all were delicious. We bought a selection of cheeses, a few sticks of baguette and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the beautiful surroundings of Mont Combalou.
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