Today, everyone involved in the process, from the shepherds who raise the sheep to the ladies who sell the final product in the shops of Roquefort, are justly proud of their tradition.
Every single thing about the production of Roquefort cheese is tightly regulated. Rules and strict guidelines are laid down and they must be observed at every stage. The sheep must be Lacaune; it is the only breed authorised to produce the milk for Roquefort. They produce milk with a unique flavour thanks to the grasses, cereals and herbs that grow naturally in this area.
The continuity of tradition is important and time-honoured techniques are still used today. Milk is used in its whole form, curdled and then cultured with Penicillium Roqueforti spores. The mould is mostly produced in laboratories these days to ensure consistency and it is injected into the cheese for even distribution. This is the only nod to modernity; everything else is done as it has been for centuries.
Each Roquefort ‘wheel’ is salted and brushed and holes are made over its entire surface. This moulding, turning and salting is carried out by hand as it ages in the caves, the same caves the Romans found.
Depending on the depth of flavour required, between three and ten months later, each Roquefort wheel will eventually be hand-wrapped in foil, the final packaging when it is ready for sale. Only those cheeses aged in the natural caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon can use the name Roquefort and the special oval, ‘red sheep’ stamp of authenticity.
I love the way France works like that; I love the way they preserve and champion local produce. They care about tradition, and all the regulations encourage the production of excellent food.
The entire process; everything, from the raising of the sheep, the collection of the milk, the maturation, the cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese takes place in and around the small town, providing a living for more than 10,000 people. While admitting that it is not the easiest of lives, no-one I met wanted to change or do anything else.
Coach loads of tourists from all over the world flock to Roquefort, swelling the town’s numbers, visiting the caves and carrying away precious packages of the most wonderful cheese in the world.
The businesses have of course grown, but they have preserved the character and tradition of a local cheese-maker. The giant Société brand has the lion’s share of the market but the smaller producers I met, like La Pastourelle and Gabriel Coulet are flourishing too, supplying customers all over the world, including New York City.
Gabriel Coulet and his family, now fifth-generation cheese makers, in the heart of the town, regularly brings home Gold Medals from the Concours General Agricole of Paris. It all began back in 1872, when a Monsieur Coulet began to build a wine cellar, and discovered a natural underground cave. He matured some Roquefort in it and now the family sends their mouth watering cheese, matured in the same cave, across the Atlantic. I felt privileged to be there.
The countryside around the town is picture postcard. The earth in this part of France is a startling shade of red, then there is the mix of green and gold of the fields, the sky a vivid blue, flocks of the ochre coloured Lacaune sheep, and finally, I could scarcely believe the millions of wild poppies. An artist’s heaven. But, this is France and it’s all about the cheese. To taste a piece of Roquefort, standing above the caves where it had ripened is an experience I will not forget.
Later in the evening, I sat on a sun drenched balcony at a gaily coloured tiled table, with only the drone of the bees and the odd burst of joyous birdsong and enjoyed a ‘tranche’of the King of Cheeses, accompanied by the local Côtes de Millau white wine. How can I put it? Welcome to a sort of Paradise.
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