Roquefort cheese holds a special place in French cuisine, a status that goes back many centuries.
The story of how it was created dates from more than two thousand years ago. A young shepherd who lived near the limestone caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, near modern Toulouse in south-west France, was having his lunch of bread and sheep’s milk cheese when a pretty young girl passed by in the distance. Distracted, he left his lunch in the cave where he was taking his break and started to follow her, forgetting all about the bread and cheese.
It was several months before he went back to the same cave, but when he did he found that his cheese now had blue veins running through it. Instead of throwing it away he had a nibble at it and liked what he tasted. Roquefort cheese had been discovered!
Whether that particular story is true or not, it does contain an element of truth in that this is how Roquefort cheese is made. The basic cheese, made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk, has spores of the mould Penicillium roqueforti added to it and it is then left to mature for three months in a cave, where the damp air encourages the mould to develop and produce blue veins.
The resulting cheese is semi-hard and crumbly, with a distinctive tangy taste. There is nothing unique about blue-veined cheeses, but what sets Roquefort apart is the fact that it is made from sheep’s milk and is veined by a specific local mould.
(Cheeses maturing in the Roquefort cave)
It is known that Roquefort has a very long history, having been mentioned by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD. Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor in the early 9th century, is known to have been particularly fond of it.
In 1411 King Charles VI decreed that only the citizens of Roquefort had the right to mature the cheese, thus ensuring that no copies could be made elsewhere. This status was confirmed in 1926 when Roquefort cheese was given its “appellation d’origine”, making it the first cheese to be so honoured.
Such is the status of Roquefort cheese that a true French gourmet will only eat it when it is accompanied by a similarly honoured wine, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The French refer to Roquefort as “the cheese of kings and popes”, but personally, when it comes to blue cheeses, I prefer to stick with my own local delicacy, namely Stilton!