Last week, I tried most of the blue cheeses the store currently has. As I sorted them out in my mind, I realized I would probably need to break this up into parts. While researching for this section, I grew increasingly fascinated by the fabrication and history of these blues. I know some people don’t like the strong flavor, some others don’t like to see mold, and some people are just terrified of cheese in general, but blues are each unique; there may be one for everyone. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Roquefort, or, if you want to go back to the langue occitaine (Occitan language), ròcafòrt
Country of Origin: France (Aveyron)
Milk: (Lacaune) sheep (raw)
Type: blue, semi-soft
Rind: none (exterior covered in foil)
Age: 5 months
Everyone should know the King of cheese, if only by name! Most people should have at least some vague recognition of ts ivory, semi-soft paste persillée, or sprinkled, with deep blue-grey-green mold. Scholars estimate that Roquefort has been in existence since at least 79 A.D., when the first mention of it was made by Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder (I certainly will write about this small fascination of mine–Roman influence in French culture–but another time!). By the time word reached his ears, the cheese was already well-established. There is also archeological evidence, in the way of ancient cheese strainers, to suggest that the caves in which the cheeses are aged have been in use for longer than that. Despite the uncertainty about the cheese’s exact age, it is one of the oldest French cheeses, along with Maroilles, Cantal, Pont L’Evêque, and Livarot. Legend has it that a shepherd accidentally created the cheese when, distracted from his meal of rye and sheep cheese while sitting in a cave, he ran off to pursue some beautiful maiden. He returned to his meal a few months later to find that his meal gone moldy. His rye bread had crumbled to dust, and the mold had spread to his cheese. In any case, he hit gold; the locals and the caves at Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in Aveyron have been producing the cheese ever since.
Artisanal cheese production, like wine, relies heavily on the notion of terroir, which encompasses all the elements that go into cheesemaking: soil type, climate, type of animals, the condition in which they are kept, their feed, the condition of the caves, etc. etc. Roquefort provides a prime example of the notion of terroir. The caves in which the cheeses are aged have formed with a natural system of airways so that humidity always remains at 95% or higher, and temperatures remain at 50 degrees Farenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Only the Lacaune breed of sheep can produce milk for production, and they are all raised locally.
The notion of terroir rings especially true for a place like the Aveyron. I first encountered it when I was living in Provence. My love of traditional French music and dance led me to discover this place, where you can dance the musette to accordion and hurdy gurdy music in the fields, and the lush greenery hides beautiful crumbling cathedrals and ancient towns. The people I met were, as luck would have it, farmers and cheesemakers, and they carried the land with them wherever they went. Their home, the Aveyron, always calls to them, and they nurture it well. They speak with a rolling patois, and their weathered, wrinkled faces and hands are their badges for all of their work. The people have thrived on this land carrying a strong respect for its riches; it is no surprise that such a regal cheese as Roquefort is made under this earth.
As for production, it is the famous penicillium roqueforti mold that gives this cheese a spicy, sharp, sinus-clearing explosiveness. This species of mold grows best on rye bread, so to cultivate this mold for cheesemaking purposes, Roquefort producers bake up plenty of rye bread and allow it to grow moldy and completely dry. They then grind the moldy bread to mix it in with the curds. The mold is then allowed to develop throughout the cheese during the ripening period.
When you examine the cheese, not only, I am sure, will you reflect on this long, proud cheesemaking tradition, you also will notice the bone-white paste and and the famous blue veins. There is no rind, and the exterior is covered in foil. This allows for the paste to remain moist throughout, up until the very most exterior part. The cheese usually is made in small 3-4 lb. wheels. Roquefort’s aroma is quite rich, a portend of things to come. You might smell mold (a bit yeasty), or the earthiness of the caves.
Now, for the tasting. Roquefort, when first placed on the tongue, begins mildly, but quickly develops its characteristic spicy, almost sinus-clearing flavor after a second or two. It is slightly crumbly on the tongue. Despite the strong taste, it is not particularly salty, except closer to the rind. It is classically paired with Sauternes, or you could try it with another sweet wine, like a late harvest Chardonnay or Gewürztraminer. Champagne might also be another possibility.
With that, I have a baseline with which I can compare the other blue cheeses in the store!