The Approachable Roquefort

Both pungent and flavorful, Roquefort is a
versatile cheese worth exploring.

In Middle Ages-era France, a shepherd preparing to lunch on a slice of brown bread and a cup of fresh milk was distracted when a beautiful woman walked past. He abandoned his food in a cave and rushed after her. He never found her, and after several days, he returned to the cave, forlorn and starving. The bread had molded and the spores had crept into the milk, which was now shot through with green-blue veins of mold. Desperate for food, he consumed the milk and found it creamy and delicious.

So goes the legend of Roquefort, the French blue that has captivated people’s imaginations with its distinct aroma and flavor. While its beginnings likely come from a less romantic story, the paste-like cheese has been seducing cheese lovers for a very long time. “In the 15th century, Charles VI specifically mentioned Roquefort in documents for his successor, noting its importance and the need for it to be protected,” says Liz Thorpe, author of “The Book of Cheese” and president of The People’s Cheese.

Modern-day French also have deep affection for this special product. “When a cheese is named after the town, it indicates a taste of place and a cheese that’s really special to not just the industry in that area, but also the town,” says Kathleen Serino, manager of training and curriculum for the New York City-based Murray’s Cheese national team. Manufacturers have taken steps to protect their product so that every time you unwrap a wedge, you know you’re getting the best quality cheese there is to offer.

To the uninitiated, Roquefort might seem intimidating. “People are apprehensive when they approach it because it has a pungent tang on the nose,” says Serino. “But once you sit with it and let it mellow out a little, it’s so different than what you’re expecting. Its bark is worse than its bite.”

When a customer approaches Cowbell’s cheese counter in Portland, OR, and says they’re looking to explore blues, Roquefort is the one operations manager Ian Conway reaches for. “I think it’s the most approachable. It’s right in the middle of salt and acid and blue and really long umami. It’s at a good price point, too,” he says.

Roquefort can be eaten on its own, paired with a wide range of foods or used in several dishes. The richness of the cheese complements everything from a simple salad to a luxurious steak. Or set it out for dessert alongside a variety of wines and liquors that will help enhance its flavor.

Dive in to the rich world of Roquefort to learn where this “stinky” cheese comes from and how to enjoy it to its fullest potential.

The Details

Roquefort and Gorgonzola are some of the earliest blue cheeses, with origins dating back to more than 1000 years ago. Roquefort is also one of France’s earliest name-protected cheeses. It first received protection in 1925 and became a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product in 1996.

The blue cheese is always made with whole, raw sheep’s milk. The sleek, white Lacaune ewe is the most common source of that milk, but it can also come from the Manech and Basco-Bearnaise breeds. Lacaune produce only 16 gallons of milk per year, according to Roquefort producer Lactalis/Societe des Caves de Roquefort, which is far less than cows give in an average year. The lower quantity means that the animals’ milk is fatty and rich and perfect for a blue cheese, says Serino. It also draws delicious flavor from the sheep’s diet of local grasses, weeds and herbs.

During the cheesemaking process, the milk is cultured with Penicillium Roqueforti, either during the coagulation phase or as the curds are being packed into cheese forms. That’s what will allow the cheese to develop the distinctive blue ribbons that run through it. “During this phase, the cheese is turned and flipped at least five times a day,” says Thorpe. “The wheels are then dry salted and begin a ripening period of no fewer than three months.”

While the cheese can be made in multiple places throughout the region (there are seven producers), it must be ripened in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the department of Aveyron thanks to a decree set forth by Charles VI in 1666. The fact that it must be ripened in limestone caves — more specifically, the earthen cracks that dot Mont Combalou — is one of the things that makes Roquefort special. “They allow for this very regulated, constant temperature and humidity, which happens to be very conducive to the aging of this cheese,” says Serino.

Finished wedges of Roquefort, which are rindless save a light dusting of blue mold spores on the outside, are wrapped in foil because it helps limit the cheese’s exposure to oxygen and light.

Thorpe describes the flavor of Roquefort as intense, “with concentrated salt, licorice notes, black walnut astringency and a long, lingering finish.”

According to Serino, “Roquefort is a sublime-tasting blue cheese because of its creamy nature and its high fat content. It’s extremely creamy and spreadable. On the first taste, it might have a little of that sharp, almost astringent flavor on the tongue. But once you savor it on your palate, you notice it’s melting on your tongue and coating your mouth. You get this buttermilk sweetness and this earthiness that is extremely pleasurable when you pair it with all kinds of things. It’s ideal for experimenting with in the kitchen.”

Sweet and Savory Pairings

Fall is good time to enjoy fresh Roquefort because it will have been made during the season for pasturing sheep, making the milk extra flavorful, says Serino. But there is no bad time to eat it, whether on its own or at mealtime.

Classic combinations with Roquefort include walnuts (plain or candied), figs, pears and endive. Conway will sometimes serve a wedge made by Gabriel Coulet, his favorite producer, with apricots, peaches or other stone fruits, or any fruit with a sweet-tart combination. “The tart helps with the fatty aspect, and the sweet helps with the blue,” he says.

Thorpe likes Roquefort with crisp, slightly watery foods such as jicama, celery and green apple. “I don’t ever cook with it because it’s quite expensive,” she says. “It’s amazing served on bread with butter, as the French do, to cut the intensity.” She’s also partial to enjoying it with Medjool dates, dried cherries and toasted nuts.

Serino, on the other hand, will use Roquefort crumbles to dress up a salad or blend it gently into blue cheese dressing. “It’s so soft that it can emulsify with sunflower oil and a little milk, salt, pepper and cayenne,” she says. “That makes for a seriously divine, creamy dressing.” As an alternative, make the dressing with less milk and serve it as a dip with fresh vegetables for the ultimate crudité platter.

Roquefort sauce or crumbles are outstanding on top of steaks, burgers, croquettes, chicken wings or salmon, Serino adds. Or do like the Italians and make a beet risotto with Roquefort added near the end. “Beets and blue cheese are a really classic paring, too,” she says, citing the earthy flavor of both. “Look at your Roquefort like it’s a stick of butter and have fun with it.”

For dessert, put it on a cheese platter with a drizzle of honey over the top, or set out a bowl of gingersnaps and consume them with a few crumbles on top, suggests Conway. Or skip the food and serve the cheese with an after-dinner drink. Recommended pairings include sweet Reisling, ice wine or port.

“Roquefort is classically paired with Sauternes (because) it does well with deep sweetness to balance its intensity,” says Thorpe. Another option is to serve chunks of it with Pedro Ximénez, a sweet sherry made with sun-dried grapes in the Jerez region of Spain.

Citing the idea of “what grows together goes together,” Serino will sometimes pair Roquefort with younger, fruit-forward Côtes du Rhône or Chateauneuf du Pape. It’s great with walnut liqueur, given the popularity of the cheese/nut pairing, or pear eau de vie. Although far from the cheese’s place of origin, Serino has had some luck pairing it with Japanese whiskey, finding that the drink’s robust, gamey flavors are a good foil. Some days, Roquefort calls for no pairing at all. “The flavor is incredibly complex and layered so just savoring it on its own, in small portions, is the greatest way to enjoy the cheese,” says Thorpe.

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