Photo from Delphine Atche
Browse the cheese aisle of the grocery store today, and your eyes might be drawn to the blue-veined slices. Roquefort, the original blue cheese, is famous for its dappled coloring and distinctive smell, but not everyone is willing to give its notoriously salty slices a taste. Are Roquefort’s eye-catching accent colors merely accessory, and are the rumors true that this popular cheese is made from penicillin?
There’s a surprising history to Roquefort, and we’ll unpack it here. Despite humble origins, the story of Roquefort cheese gives testimony to a culinary region proud of what makes it unique and willing to protect the authenticity of its creations for centuries on end.
The King of France
Roquefort is one of the world’s most recognizable cheeses, and an emblem of French culinary artistry, thanks to its mottled blue streaks, salty taste, and moist texture. This soft, crumbly, and rindless cheese delivers a sharp tang with every mouthful that some people find overwhelming.
Roquefort is often referred to as the “king of cheese,” and it’s considered one of the great blue cheeses of the world. For a cheese to be a true Roquefort, it must be made from the milk of the Lacaune sheep, a breed that originated in the same region as Roquefort and that traditionally grazes on the grasses growing above the caves where the cheese ages. Lacaune milk has complex flavors that support the cheese, but what defines Roquefort is the cave-dwelling bacteria used to cultivate the mold that creates its distinctive blue streaks.
An Old, Moldy Cheese
The blend of ingredients and natural fermentation conditions necessary for Roquefort cheese took centuries to take the shape we recognize today. The first possible historical reference for this pungent dairy product comes from Pliny the Elder in 79 A.D. In a manuscript praising the French for a salty blue cheese, he wrote that he considered it “preferable to any other” despite later describing it as having a pungent taste that he peculiarly compared to medicine.
What we do know is that the elements necessary to make Roquefort long predate modern humans, dating back to a time of geologic change across Europe. The famous caves found below the modern-day village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon were formed by earthquakes that caused the mountain ranges around Mont Combalou in southern France to collapse. The disintegrating limestone within these caves created small faults within the rocks that let in outside air. This steady airflow keeps the caves’ internal temperature around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity close to 100 percent. The consistently chilly, damp conditions create the perfect habitat for the molds necessary for Roquefort cheese to flourish.
Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is located in the Aveyron department in Southern France’s Occitanie region. Map from Adobe Stock/JeromeCronenberger
As with many foods made through the help of microorganisms, it’s believed that the first authentic Roquefort cheese was created by accident. According to legend, a lonely shepherd became so distracted by the sight of a beautiful woman that he abandoned his lunch of rye bread and cheese, which was made from the milk of his flock, within one of the Combalou caves surrounding Roquefort-sur-Soulzon to chase after her. A few days later he returned to the cave, only to find that his meal was still there, but it was covered in blue-green mold. Hungry enough to take a risk, he bravely tasted the cheese and made a serendipitous discovery.
Despite its enduring popularity, this origin story might be more myth than fact; it’s difficult to date precisely when Roquefort cheese first landed in French markets. But regardless of its questionable beginnings, Roquefort cheese and its regional-specific production process set a precedent for other communities to embrace legal ownership of their distinctive foods.
Blue Cheese by Any Other Name … Is Not True Roquefort
While the Roquefort caves are unsurpassed in the natural world for their blue cheese-aging conditions, the bacterium responsible for Roquefort cheese’s distinctive streaks is far more common. As Roquefort’s reputation grew, copycat cheesemakers in neighboring villages started to make and sell similar versions. The villagers of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon were soon struggling to maintain a monopoly on their blue-veined cheese, so they appealed to King Charles VI in 1411 for exclusive rights to use the term “Roquefort” for their cheese. Their request was granted, and the village attained a monopoly of Roquefort cheese by restricting access to the Roquefort caves.
In 1925, Roquefort became the first cheese to receive Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This French certificate is a protected designation of origin legally mandating that all genuine Roquefort cheese must come from a specific region, and listing a set of regulations the cheese-making process must follow for the cheese to qualify as authentic.
Photo from Delphine Atche
Today, the cheese also has a protected designation of origin (PDO) that ensures that all genuine French Roquefort cheese is made with milk from Lacaune sheep and is aged within the Roquefort cave system. While other cheese producers might sell a similar looking cheese made with Penicillium roqueforti, it doesn’t qualify as true Roquefort unless it comes from those famous French caves. You can verify the authenticity of your cheese by looking for the Roquefort Association Inc. seal with its red sheep symbol on the packaging.
Roquefort’s history shows that this potent cheese has been prized and protected since its first discovery. So how’s it made? Though the Roquefort cheese production process has increased in scale, the overall process has changed little since its early days.
Roquefort is made by adding Penicillium roqueforti mold spores to cheese curds before they’ve aged. Though this mold is related to the famous antibiotic of the same name, you can’t use it to treat your infections. In centuries past, cheesemakers harvested the Penicillium roqueforti spores by leaving loaves of rye bread in the caves around Roquefort for up to two months, until they became covered in mold. They then dried out the interior of the loaves to produce a fine powder that was used to inoculate the cheese curds. Today, this same mold is grown in laboratory conditions to create a more consistent final product with regular veining throughout the cheese.
Traditional Roquefort is unpasteurized and made without artificial flavors and preservatives. To qualify as authentic, the cheese must be made with milk from Lacaune sheep that spend their days grazing on pastures surrounding the caves. This raw, unfiltered, whole milk must be transformed into cheese with animal rennet within 48 hours of milking, and the Penicillium roqueforti spores must be added soon after.
Photo from Getty Images/victoriya89
Once the milk is transformed into cheese curds, the curds are pressed into molds and surrounded with a salt brine meant to preserve the cheese and hamper mold growth along the edge. As it sets, the cheese is pierced with steel needles to create air pockets. This helps the blue mold spores to breathe and to colonize the entire wheel, rather than just the surface. This step is critical for the cheese to develop its trademark blue veins throughout. The piercing process also lets some of the salt into the holes to enhance the flavor.
After the wheels are formed and pierced, authentic Roquefort cheese ages, untouched, for 20 days before being wrapped in foil to slow down the blue mold’s growth. The wheels are then left to ripen for another three months before the foil is removed and the cheese is ready to be served around the world. The entire process takes place within the Roquefort cave system, a strip of land 1 1/4 miles long that contains the AOC-approved caves. These caves go down several stories, ensuring that there’s plenty of room for cheesemakers to pack in their product. Today, up to 40,000 “pains,” or cheese wheels, are maturing in the caves at any given moment. Just seven cheese-making companies own access to these caves, and the largest, Société, supplies up to 70 percent of the world’s Roquefort each year.
Photo from Getty Images/Tashka
How to Live in a Blue World
Thankfully, you don’t have to live in France to enjoy this blue cheese today; Roquefort is shipped and sold across the world. This salty cheese is an acquired taste for some, but many people find that it complements other intense flavors, such as wine and roasted meats. For a popular flavor pairing, consider eating thin slices of room-temperature Roquefort drizzled with honey and served with fresh apples for a balanced blend of sweet, sour, and salty tastes.
But if you get the chance, try some Roquefort in the French village where it originated. The lasting legacy of this speckled blue cheese is a testament to human innovation and a willingness to protect the sacredness of a product that stands out from the rest.
Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer and hobby farmer on a 33-acre property in southwest Michigan. You can find her online at First Roots Farm.