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Singing the Blues

People in southern France are unfortunately the recipients of one of former President George Bush’s parting gifts as he left office last week: a tripling to 300 percent in import duty on their world-famous Roquefort cheese.

On Jan. 15, U.S. Trade Representatives released a new list of tariffs on products from the European Union. Roquefort, a French blue cheese, is the only product on that list whose tariff will be raised to 300 percent when the changes go into effect in March.
France regulates the use of the name “Roquefort,” which is applied only to cheeses made near Roquefort sur Soulzon, a city in the south of France.
American cheesemakers can not make a Roquefort, as only certain approved producers using certain approved methods in a designated part of France can make true Roquefort.
So why is Roquefort so special? Dani Friedland, author of the blog French Toast, recently interviewed the man considered to be THE national expert on cheese production, who turns out to be none other than Wisconsin’s very own Dr. Mark Johnson, senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. 
Dr. Johnson describes the parts of Roquefort production that make it distinctive: “The cheese is made from raw sheep’s milk mixed with a mold called Penicillium roquefortii, which is also used to make other blue cheeses including Stilton. Cheesemakers poke holes in the cheese to distribute the oxygen needed for mold growth throughout the wheels.  The cheese is then ripened for at least three months in caves. This is the crucial step,” he says.
“The cheese can be made in the surrounding area, but it has to be ripened in those caves,” he says. “These caves are unique in that they have the right humidity and the right temperature that allows the mold to grow.”
I’ve never had the honor of visiting the caves in southern France that age Roquefort, but I can only imagine it to be an amazing place. It gives new meaning to the concept of terroir – in additional to reflecting the milk from the animals in the area, it also pertains to the very specific location and conditions in which the cheese is aged.
So, stock up on Roquefort between now and March, boys and girls. After that, it’s going to probably cost three times as much. Super.
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