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Visiting the Roquefort caves
Over the course of many years, and many visits to France, cheese has always been part of our travel life. With over 400 varieties (some say over 1,000 if you count all the sub-varieties), there’s never been an issue with trying to find it.
The average French person eats around 26kg of cheese each year, so we figured that it was only fair that we did our part too.
With it’s stinky, pungent smell, Roquefort cheese is Stirling’s favourite, and so every visit we make to France becomes a pilgrimage for the most well-known blue cheese in the country. Until now, we had been left to buy it from fromageries, supermarkets and local markets. The town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon had always been out of our reach, with our itineraries getting close at times, but never close enough.
This time, on our trip through the south-west of France we had the perfect opportunity.
Where is Roquefort-sur-Soulzon?
The Roquefort caves are found in the small village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. It is located in the south of France, 667 km south of Paris and 444 km west of Nice in the French Riviera. The town lies at the base of the Rocher de Combalou, a limestone plateau that is instrumental in the development of the Roquefort cheese.
What is Roquefort Cheese?
To the uninitiated, Roquefort cheese could be bundled with any other “blue cheese”. It’s mouldy appearance and strong smell is certainly a giveaway. But Roquefort isn’t just any French blue cheese. It’s one of the most eaten cheeses in all of France, and that’s saying something given how many they have to choose from. With its ivory coloured body made from sheep’s milk and the dark green vein of mould running through it, it’s not a cheese for everyone. Creamy and moist (according to Stirling), it’s a cheese to savour and eat slowly.
It was also the first cheese in France to be given the AOC, ( Appellation d’origine contrôlée) a label indicating that the cheese had been produced according to certain regulations and produced in a set geographic region. In 1996, it was given the wider European designation of PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
This means no-one else can make a cheese called Roquefort anywhere else other than in this area under regulated conditions. This ensures that wherever you buy Roquefort in the world, you know you are getting the real thing.
The requirements of Roquefort to attain PDO status are:
- Made from only one breed of sheep – the Lacaune variety
- Made from one area of milk production – the “Rayon de Roquefort” where over 1,700 producers of ewes milk supply the producers of Roquefort
- Made from unpasteurised, full-fat raw milk collected from January to July
- The sheep must graze naturally outside when the weather is warm enough to do so
- The maturation of the cheese occurs in the caves near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon
- Cheese must be ripened and matured for 90 days including at least 14 days in natural cellars
In a sign of the cheese’s importance, in 2009, then President George W Bush used it as an attempt to negotiate with the EU over its ban on US beef. The US imposed 100% tariffs on a range of EU goods bound for the US but added 300% to the price of Roquefort.
Take a tour of the Roquefort Société caves
There is so much history and process involved in the making of Roquefort cheese that taking a tour is the perfect way to learn all about it. Even if you don’t like the cheese (like me), it’s still a fantastic opportunity to get underground, where thousands of people earn a living every day. It’s truly fascinating to see how an entire industry functions, underground, whilst the rest of the world carries on above it.
Whilst there are several Roquefort caves, we chose to do the tour at Roquefort Société the largest producer of Roquefort in the country. The tour takes about an hour and includes a short documentary film and a tasting at the end. There is also a mini-museum noting the company’s advertising strategies throughout the years and its history dating back to 1842.
The tours are only conducted in French which is great if you can speak it, or are just happy to listen to the beautiful French language, but harder if this is not a language you understand. For non-French speakers, there are some written scripts that you may take with you on the tour. They are useful and provide you with good information, but it makes the tour less interactive.
The tour is cheap, currently at €6 per adult and €4 per child. During July and August tours run all day, but outside of these times, there is a break for lunch during the day.
Whilst it is not freezing down there it is cool, so it would be a good idea to take a jacket. Wear good walking shoes. It’s not a difficult walk but there are some steps and it can be a little damp in places.
Tip: the signage with regard to where the tours start/tickets can be purchased is quite poor. There is some signage around but following it doesn’t always get you to the right spot, especially if you arrive during their lunch break and everything is shut up. Follow the directions to the car park at the top (near the restaurant) and you will see a stand-alone brick building. During lunch, the roller doors will be down. This is where you buy your tickets and go down to the cellar.
How is it made?
The cheese and this town have its origins linked to the collapse of the Combalou plateau, millions of years ago. As the mountain disintegrated, it created a series of caves and natural fault lines that ran to the outside of the mountain, thus allowing fresh air to infiltrate the rock. These tunnels, which can be as long as one kilometre are known as fleurines and have become the lifeblood of the Roquefort cheese producing industry.
For a length of two kilometres, tunnels that are 300 metres deep and 300 metres wide are used as cheese cellars. The constant flow of fresh air allows for the temperature and humidity to be kept at a constant rate, without the need for expensive technology and climate control systems. The contrast of the air inside and outside the caves causes cold moisture-laden air to be blown into the cellars, both during the summer and winter months. The hotter it is outside, the stronger the flow of air into the fleurines.
At the Société Caves, the fleurines have been fitted with windows and doors that the master-ripener can open and close as they wish to control the temperature further.
We visited a cellar that was 11 storeys high! It’s hard to believe really. This cellar could hold up to 300,000 cheeses and 1.4 million in one season. 7,000 square metres are used to ripen cheese just in this cellar.
Where does the mould come from?
Roquefort cheese gets it’s deep green mould from the microorganism Penicillin Roqueforti, which has adapted to living in the natural environment of the caves. The spores of this fungus is added to the ewe’s milk at the dairy. This ensures that there is a more even distribution than if it was added to the curds late in the process.
One gram of penicillin powder contains between 20,000 and 30,000 million spores. To give some perspective, four grams is enough to use in 5,000 litres of milk. This makes around 400 cheeses.
Here at the caves, three strains of the fungus are grown on sourdough bread in an area free from contamination. They are kept isolated and the researchers are able to work out which make the best cheese. In doing so they have created a ‘bank’ which becomes critical to the production of their cheese. Once the bread has gone completely mouldy, the penicillin is collected and divided into doses (one for 5,000 litres).
Roquefort Société is the only company in Roquefort that produces all of the penicillin on site that is required for its cheese.
Ripening the Roquefort cheese
Each Roquefort cheese is placed underneath a board that contains long needles which are only 3mm in diameter. These needles are used to create the holes in the cheese, allowing for it to circulate oxygen and expel the carbon dioxide.
Once this has been done the cheeses are placed vertically on wooden shelves, being careful to leave a small gap to allow for continued aeration. Here the cheese is left to ripen, under the control of the master-ripener. The penicillin lives on the oxygen that it finds in the holes made by the needles. It grows slowly, from the centre of the cheese outwards. As it does so, it also acts to soften the cheese.
This natural fermentation causes the temperature of the cheese to increase. As it does so, it melts the salts on the surface of the cheese, which then finds its way inside to the centre. This is what ultimately gives the cheese a salty flavour. This process can take anywhere from 14 to 25 days.
The salt also acts as a preservative but also provides the cheese with essential moisture.
The master-ripeners are critical to the process and must monitor all parts of the ripening process very carefully. In a similar process to the way in which Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is tested, they too use a special probe to take out samples of the cheese for testing. The way in which the probe enters the cheese gives them an understanding of the texture of it. Once a sample is removed, the master-ripener observes it, looking for the distribution of cavities and the colouration. Sometimes the cheese is touched to check the softness and then it is smelt to check the aroma. The cheese is not tasted at this point and the probe is replaced.
Maturation of Roquefort cheese
Once the master-ripener is happy with the ripening process, the cheese is left to rest, to enable the flavour of the Roquefort to develop.
Packaging of Roquefort cheese
The packaging is an important part of the process as this that ensures the quality of the cheese will remain high. Once wrapped, the cheese is kept in temperature controlled storage. Over 80% of Roquefort is now sold pre-packed and available in supermarkets and fromageries. A small amount, in comparison to what is produced, is also exported to the world market.
Société produces three versions of their Roquefort.
- Société Since 1863″ is the mainstay of their label, with a white cheese (or paste as they like to call it) and delicate green veins.
- Cave des Templiers is a stronger cheese, with a milky white paste and dark blue-green veins. It has a more intense flavour and is tangy.
- Caves Baragnaudes is creamy with pale green veins and is said to be more delicate.
Taste testing the Roquefort cheese
No tour of anything food related is surely complete without a taste test. Stirling was the lucky one here as he got his own plus mine! Apparently, it was as good as all the Roquefort he had previously been eating. No surprises there, given he’s been eating the same brand forever. A tick for quality production perhaps?
There’s also a shop here where you can, of course, buy some cheese but there are other yummy French goodies here as well.
How to get to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon
Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is easiest to reach by car.
The town is also very motorhome friendly. As the town is very small, with narrow roads, it is not really a great place to take motorhomes. Pleasingly, on the outskirts of the town, the local tourism office has plenty of hardstand parking for motorhomes and cars. You can safely and legally leave your vehicles here whilst you go into town or take a tour. They will also allow for overnight parking (24-hour limit) as well.
The tourism office is about 1.2km from the centre of town, an easy bike ride or a walk uphill.