Alchemy in France: Roquefort's Legendary Tradition
I finally made a trip I’ve long wanted to do, a sort of four day pilgrimage really, to a special town in the department of Aveyron.
It’s not a big town, indeed it looks like many others in rural Southern France, but the name is instantly recognised all over the world. My first impression was of vibrant, flower bedecked streets. Buildings are painted in an array of stunning colours and there is a feeling of prosperity in the air as the proud citizens go about their business.
Meanwhile, deep underground, in shadowy caves where the sun's rays never reach, where the air is damp, mouldy and humid, something akin to a miracle is taking place.
Some caves are enormous, with corridors you can walk through, others are smaller but share the same advantage; the curious cool air that blows through the cracks, pits and corridors, creating a perfect atmosphere. Down here, far away from light, in a temperature that stays at ten degrees and with ninety-five percent humidity, alchemy is at work.
This is no ordinary town; we are in Roquefort, where under the very streets, thanks to nature providing this unique, moist, cool microclimate, one of the world’s favourite foods, the one they call the King of Cheeses, is slowly maturing.
Nobody can really say when Roquefort was first discovered, but locals tell of the legend of the young shepherd, who, on seeing a beautiful girl, left his lunch of bread and cheese in a cave and followed her. On his return he found the bread too mouldy to eat, but the cheese, which had turned blue, was delicious. This story is thought to be from the days when the Neolithic shepherds drove their flocks right up from the plains of the Mediterranean coast to the rich meadows of this part of France, four thousand years ago.
So loved is this fabulous cheese that Louis 14th decreed it should be protected forever. Further protected, that is, since a French crown patent had already protected Roquefort in 1411. The King was by no means the first foodie to pass this way. When the Romans built the Via Domitia, linking the Pyrenees with Italy, the route passed not so far from Roquefort. The precious cheese would be sent over to the coast and then by sea down to Rome, where wealthy aristocrats paid high prices for it.
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