Day 7 of the Grand Cheese Tour of France: the Roquefort Caves. Oh yeah, baby.
Visiting the caves where the king of cheese is aged was on the bucket lists of quite a few people on this tour. Driving from our hotel in Montpellier to the tiny village of Roquefort was a journey unto itself. A steep ascent up a series of mountain tunnels, picturesque countryside, 17th Century villages and terraces of grape vines and olive trees brought us to the tiny village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
A series of ancient landslides in this “Combalou” plateau generated the unique site of Roquefort, creating the famous first ripening caves, which of course have been enlarged and enhanced by people in the centuries since.
The Combalou plateau region is home to seven Roquefort producers, but the largest is Roquefort Société, made by the Société des Caves de Roquefort, which owns several caves and opens its facilities to tourists like us. These folks have invested a serious amount of time and money into giving visitors a unique educational experience with several “wow” factors, such as showing us a brief film in French on the sides of the original caves describing the traditional legend of how Roquefort came into being.
Legend has it that the cheese was discovered when a youth, eating his lunch of bread and ewes’ milk cheese, saw a beautiful maiden in the distance. Abandoning his meal in a nearby cave, he ran to meet her. When he returned a few months later, the mold (Penicillium roqueforti) had transformed his plain cheese into Roquefort. Who knows if it’s true or not, but it sure gives a romantic start to one of the world’s most famous cheeses.
Because it’s September, and the region’s Lacaune ewes are not producing milk, the caves were not filled with wheels of Roquefort. We knew this going in and expected it to be a huge disappointment. It was not. As it’s open year round, and the caves are only filled six months of the year, Societe fills the caves with thousands of life-like wheels of cheese to give visitors a sense of how the cave looks when it is full. (You’ll notice I don’t have any photos inside the caves – pictures are not permitted, and we snapped this one just as we were starting our tour, walking through passageways to reach the caves.
In its series of three caves, each with a different natural temperature and natural humidity that can range by up to 10 degrees, (the air in each is naturally renewed by fleurines, or natural faults in the earth), Society produces three types of Roquefort:
Societe L’Excellence: probably the best known Roquefort in America, this cheese is exported to more than 100 countries around the world.
Societe Caves Baragnaudes la Delicatesse: this cheese is often exported to American in time for Christmas shopping. A creamier, milder blue, it boasts a pleasant lingering flavor. Our guide encouraged us to taste it with a bit of gingerbread, which was an excellent pairing.
Cave de Templars: accounting for only 2 percent of the company’s production, this little-known Roquefort is distributed locally, which alone might make it worthwhile to move to the South of France. It is incredibly strong and tangy and lingers in your mouth far longer than its better known sisters. It was amazing to try this cheese after the tour, as most of us never even knew it existed.
Our guide did a superb job in demonstrating how Roquefort is produced and aged. Roquefort starts with unpasteurized, full fat milk from the region’s Lacaune ewes, collected from farms in a 90-mile radius of the village, six months of the year. The milk is taken to neighboring dairies, where it undergoes an 8-day make process. While there are more than 200 strains of Penicillium roqueforti, Societe uses just three different ones to produce its three different Roquefort cheeses.
The cheese is then transported to the caves and pierced once with 40 needles. A work force of 30 people – 15 men and 15 women work in the caves. The men place the wheels by hand on salted wooden shelves, where the cheese sits, untouched and unturned, for a period of 14 to 25 days. During this time, the Penicillium roqueforti rapidly develops inside, while the salt melts and is diffused, lending to the the cheese’s creamy interior.
At some point between the 14th and 25th day, the cellar master determines when each wheel is ready to take the next step. It is then wrapped by one of 15 women, who have been hand-wrapping Roquefort wheels for generations. Each wheel is wrapped in a sheet of tin, which is very malleable, but strong. Each lady wraps 750 wheels a day during the aging months. To give you an idea of how big these caves are, we saw three different levels, and one level alone held 23,000 wheels. Wowza.
After the wheel is wrapped in shiny silver tin, it goes to the man-made cold rooms, kept perfectly at 32 degrees F, where it completes its aging process slowly. It is this deep-cold aging process that allows Roquefort to be distributed throughout the year, with masters taking each wheel out when it reaches perfect maturation. The tin is then removed, the wheels are cleaned, wrapped in foil or cut and placed into special plastic containers, and sent to market. The cheese must be packaged in the village to retain its special Roquefort AOC status.
An amazing process and experience to witness, the Caves of Roquefort do not disappoint. I have the feeling I’ll be smiling every time time I request Roquefort on my salad at a restaurant in the States, remembering the craftmanship that went into the cheese and the beautiful region responsible for its creation.