In Delphine Carles’ first memories of Roquefort cheese, she’s following her father around a drafty limestone cave, one of the many that naturally occur in the rugged, dolomitic rock of France’s Mont Combalou. At 1,970 feet above sea level in the country’s southern Massif Central, this intricate network of caverns has earned global renown as the only place in the world Roquefort cheese can be aged. The esteemed sheep’s milk Blue — a staple on holiday cheese plates and one of France’s most popular cheeses after Brie and Comté — can only be made by seven approved cheesemakers, and Delphine is one of them.
“Since I was a tiny girl, around four years old, I followed my father around, and very soon Roquefort had no secrets for me,” says Delphine, who now serves as chief executive of Roquefort Carles and the modern link in a chain of three generations, beginning with her grandfather in 1927.
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Rye bread defines Roquefort — the penicillium roqueforti mold used to make the cheese is cultivated in large loaves of dark rye bread, and that mold is responsible for the viridescent blue veins that cut across Roquefort’s pure white paste. It’s even woven into the cheese’s origin story: Legend holds that Roquefort (and Blue cheese, more broadly) was accidentally invented in the seventh century by a sheepherder who’d settled down to eat cheese on a piece of brown bread at the mouth of a cave. At one point, he abandoned his lunch to chase after a girl, returning later to find it covered in mold. Being a shepherd and not a billionaire, he had no choice but to test out what had become of it, making him the first person to taste the fudgy cream, salty crunch and snappy tang of a hunk of Roquefort.
Despite some holes in that story, the regal Blue is no doubt ancient. Some speculate that Emperor Charlemagne and Pliny the Elder favored it, while its first written record appears in a 1411 decree from Charles VI — to protect the geographically unique product against imitation, and to aid a region not hospitable to other French crops like grapes or grains — he granted the people of the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon village the exclusive right to make Roquefort. Charles VII strengthened that decree in 1666, making it sanctionable to produce fakes.
In 1935, it became the first cheese to receive an AOC designation, which defined the seven rules that producers must follow to this day. To be called Roquefort, a cheese must be made with the raw, unfiltered, whole milk of sheep who are pastured on the land around the caves. Their milk must be delivered at least 20 days after lambing and made with animal rennet within 48 hours of milking. Penicillium roqueforti is then added, and the whole process of maturation, cutting and packaging must occur in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon on a strip of land only a mile and a quarter long.
That painstaking process doesn’t just govern Roquefort in France, either. In 1951, eight European countries signed an agreement to regulate the use of cheese names, confirming Roquefort as an Appellation d’Origine on an international level. Later, in 1996, the rindless, foil-wrapped wheels also received the official stamp of the Appellation d’Origine Protegée to further protect their name. Even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted a geographic certification mark to the name “Roquefort,” which can now only be used in the United States to mark sheep cheese originating from the Combalou caves. The name is so protected that even dips and salad dressings in France must contain genuine Roquefort cheese if they want to use the word in their packaging.
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A Worldwide Treasure
These rules haven’t kept the decorated wheels from traveling the globe — crumbles of the cheese turn up on top of steaks, poached pears and walnut salads in restaurants the world over. At chef April Bloomfield’s institution, The Spotted Pig in New York City, the award-winning burger is always topped with Roquefort.
Hervé Bourgeois, export director at Papillion, loves to enjoy Roquefort on a cheese plate beside Valencay, Comté and raw milk Camembert.
How do the seven chosen cheesemakers create that festive experience? It starts atop the plateau of Larzac, the summit of Mont Combalou, where Lacaune sheep feed on wild herbs and grasses. Some 80,000 ewes live in the area, and they’re tended to by some 2,200 dairy farms, most of whom send their milk to make Roquefort cheese.
Those employees not shepherding or making cheese can be found in the caves, carefully tending to the aging cheeses. The Roquefort caverns enjoy a near constant 95 percent level of humidity and a temperature between 45 and 60 degrees F, thanks to fault lines, or “fleurines,” that provide natural ventilation. Wheels of Roquefort will spend a minimum of three months in these caves, bathing in the salty, moist air.
Before they reach the caves, the lives of these wheels begin with calf rennet infusing raw ewe’s milk, then heated to a temperature of 82-93 degrees F. The resulting curds are stirred, cut and drained, then transferred to cheese molds, where they drain further as they are flipped three to five times a day and dry-salted at a cold 50 degrees F. After about a week, they’re off to the caves, where they age, uncovered. During this time, affineurs wipe moisture from the exterior as blue mold breaks down casein in the cheese’s structure.
For every consistent variable, there are close-guarded family flourishes that set each Roquefort maker apart. For starters, there are 700 varieties of penicillium roqueforti in existence. Traditionally, cheesemakers created the mold for their cheese by leaving bread in the caves for six to eight weeks, then drying it to produce a powder, a method Delphine and her family still adhere to.
The mold can also be created in a lab, in whatever form is most convenient — liquid, powder or even aerosol. Societé, the largest of the seven makers, responsible for 60 percent of all Roquefort production, streamlines their process by adding a liquid penicillium at the curd stage. Others sprinkle blue-green powder in the curd. Some use a combination of these methods.
Finally, beyond the mold, the Roquefort variations also occur in how much salt is used (this has been reduced over the years in response to demand), what type of containers are used for draining (earthenware, metal, plastic), or what shelves the young wheels age on. The Carles family uses oak.