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January 2007

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon: A Great Place for a Case of the “Blues”

John A. Partridge
Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition

For a variety of sound and silly reasons, our virtual, world cheese tour has turned into a marathon. On our last installment in April of 2005, we visited the Canton of Bern in west-central Switzerland followed by a quick stop on the French-Swiss border to learn about the Swiss-type cheeses, Emmental and Gruyere, respectively. Now, let us continue west and south into France with an eye on eventually reaching Spain. However, before we ascend the mighty Pyrenees Mountains, we need to make a stopover in the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the French Department of Aveyron for a taste of the world-renowned Roquefort cheese.

“Blue-veined” is the general classification of Roquefort cheese. Joining Roquefort in this “Blue” classification are a variety of cheeses made primarily from cows’ milk, including: Bleu d’auvergne, from France; Danablu, from Denmark; Stilton from England; Gorgonzola from Italy; and a variety of Blue cheeses made in the United States and other countries. One of the major distinctions of Roquefort cheese from most other cheese in this classification is the requirement that raw ewe’s milk from the Aveyron area be used as the sole source of milk. Because sheep milk is characteristically low in carotenoids (orange/yellow pigments), the cheese curd is very white. Some of the cow milk versions may add food grade ingredients such as chlorophyll to mask the yellow color of the cows’ milk. The mold, Penicillium roqueforti, is responsible for the characteristic “Blue” veins running through Roquefort and other Blue cheeses.

The addition of rennet forms the curd, generally without the aid of a defined, microbial starter culture. The naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria are responsible for acidification and production of carbon dioxide during the make procedure. After approximately 2 hours, the curd is cut, drained and mixed with spores of the P. roqueforti before being placed in perforated metal molds about 7.5 inches in diameter and 6 inches tall. The cheeses are turned several times over the next 4-5 days as the whey is drained without pressing the cheese. After removal from the molds, the surface is dry salted daily for about 1 week, followed by piercing with long spikes to allow the entry of oxygen, which is necessary for the growth of the P. roqueforti.

The Roquefort cheeses are aged in the natural limestone caves for a period of 3 to 5 months during which time they are regularly cleaned of any surface contaminants. These caves just happen to provide the ideal temperature and humidity conditions for the ripening process. The natural contamination of the caves with the P. roqueforti mold lends credence to the legend of a romantic shepherd forgetting his plain cheese lunch in a cool cavern when distracted by his shepherdess. Upon returning to the cavern months later and finding himself hungry, he remembered his old lunch and found that he now had “Blue” cheese. As with many of our food legends, this one is hard to prove but does seem somewhat probable given the ideal natural conditions available to a romantic Frenchman.

Roquefort cheese is probably the best example of a “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) product from the European Union. Deeds and other legal documents from as early as the 8th century and a letter of patent signed in the 15th century by Charles IV provide early evidence for the importance of this cheese. The first law in France for the protection of Roquefort cheese was published on August 31, 1696, giving the people of Roquefort the exclusive right to ripen their cheese in the caves at the foot of Combalou Mountain. The first legislation protecting the name, Roquefort, was published on July 26, 1925. The current PDO specifies that Roquefort cheese must be made by traditional methods from raw, whole ewe’s milk from a region that comprises most of Aveyron and part of the adjacent départments of Lozère, Gard, Hérault, and Tarn.

The peppery, salty, piquant flavor of Roquefort cheese is distinct due to the sheep milk origin, which makes it a winner in a wide variety of applications where robust flavor is needed to improve a snack or a meal. Many enjoy Roquefort with a piece of good bread and a robust wine while others will find uses in entrees, sauces, and dressings where its smooth, creamy texture provides a wonderful mouthfeel along with the outstanding flavor. Now, if you can tear yourself away from this wonderful cheese and beautiful scenery of Aveyron (view the Web site below for pictures), the time has come to head off to Spain for a date with a Manchego maker.

Kosikowski, F. V. and V. V. Mistry. 1997. Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods. Volume I: Origins and Principles. 3rd Ed. Westport, CT: Kosikowski.
Scott, R, R. K. Robinson, and R. A. Wilbey, R.A. 1998. Cheesemaking Practice. 3rd Ed. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Pub.
Fox, P.F., T.P. Guinee, T. M. Cogan, and P.L.H. McSweeney. Fundamentals of Cheese Science. 2000. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Pub.
Tourist Office of the Land of Roquefort. <http://roquefort.fr/gb/>.





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