Roquefort cheese takes its name from the place where it is manufactured, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Until last Thursday, what I knew about the manufacture of Roquefort would have gone on the back of one postage stamp. After our Thursday outing, I could now cover at least two.
At 0745, 33 bleary-eyed passengers staggered onto the coach, having muttered a polite ‘bonjour’ to the driver, and settled into their seats for the 2½-hour journey to the Causse de Larzac. Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is in the Aveyron, our neighbouring département, but the Aveyron is so big that parts of it seem like another country.
Off we trundled, past Cordes-sur-Ciel, Albi, down an improbable escarpement to Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, up the other side and then still further. Croissants were distributed, Saint-Affrique negotiated, a pipi stop arranged and then we were there.
Le mystère du Roquefort
Roquefort itself is austere and forbidding, surrounded as it is by austere and forbidding hills. It must be an inhospitable place in the winter; on a misty October morning, it was not greatly welcoming. But we weren’t there to see the town. We were going to find out about le mystère du Roquefort – the mystery of Roquefort cheese – at Papillon, one of the larger manufacturers.
The local topography provides the unique conditions in the caves in which Roquefort cheese is matured. Following volcanic eruptions, successive landslides created shafts through the hillside (fleurines), allowing a two-way current of air. This maintains a stable temperature throughout the year in the caves below (c. 10°C) and a high level of humidity (c. 85%), both essential to the ripening of the cheese.
This is how it’s made:
- Milk from ewes of the Lacaune race is heated to 30C (i.e. not pasteurised) and the curds are separated from the whey;
- The curds are sliced into cubes and packed into moulds;
- The cheese is then sprinkled with Penicillium roquefortii, made by baking rye bread, allowing it to go mouldy and then pulverising the dried crumb. A six-kilo loaf yields about 600g of mould powder. This mould gives the cheese its distinctive blue/green veins and flavour;
- The cheeses are unmoulded and salt added. They are placed in the caves, or cellars, whose temperature and humidity favour the growth of the mould. They are then wrapped in tin foil and continue to mature at a temperature of around 3C. This process takes at least 3 months.
In 1411, Charles VI granted the inhabitants of Roquefort the monopoly of making Roquefort cheese. Only cheese which is manufactured within a ‘zone d’affinage’ – manufacturing zone – has the right to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, which is regulated strictly. The zone is about 3 km long by 300 metres wide. Currently, seven independent manufacturers produce the cheese. Between them, they produce around 19,000 tonnes of cheese per year (2008 figures).
Roquefort and bacon salad
Serves 4 as a light main course
- 200g good quality smoked lardons (cubes of bacon)
- 100g Roquefort cheese, crumbled
- Several good handfuls each of rocket and red feuille de chêne lettuce
- Bread croûtons, made with sourdough or ciabatta bread fried in olive oil
- Large handful shelled walnuts
- Salad dressing made with walnut oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard and seasoned to taste
A salad with a taste of autumn. Dry fry the lardons (they already contain plenty of fat) until crisp and drain them on kitchen paper to remove the fat. Combine the two salads in a large bowl, scatter the lardons and then the walnuts on top, followed by the croûtons. Then crumble the cheese over the top. Dress with the salad and toss very gently to avoid the ingredients sinking to the bottom. Serve with crusty bread and a robust red wine – a Cahors would be good.
You can use smoked duck breast instead of bacon, if you prefer.
Saint-Paul d’Alcas: fortified village
Following the inevitable dégustation and buying of cheese, we visited the nearby village of Saint-Paul d’Alcas. This is a fortified village, which are common in the region.
The houses are built within the walls of the fort, although the village has expanded beyond the walls. The Bishop of Rodez originally granted the village and the surrounding lands (from which it takes its name: ‘alcas’ is a Celtic word meaning territory) to the Cistercian Abbess of Nonenque in the 15th century.
No outing is complete without lunch, which we ate at a restaurant inside the fort. The meal was unmemorable, but the service was distinguished by its surliness. If there were an award for surliest French waiter of the year, he would certainly be in the running. In my experience, this is unusual in country areas.
Saint-Paul-des-Fonts: home of a celebrated botanist
After a guided tour of the village and the Abbess’s restored apartments, we boarded the coach again: destination Saint-Paul-des-Fonts. This neighbouring village was the home of the Abbé Hippolyte Coste, a botanist who catalogued the flora of France, Corsica and neighbouring countries between 1901 and 1906. He travelled everywhere by railway. Where did he find the time to carry out his priestly duties? The presbytery is now a museum housing an exhibition about his work.
The exhibition itself was not a lot to write home about. More interesting was the ordeal the coach driver had to endure to get us there. Saint-Paul-des-Fonts is a picturesque village with narrow streets, certainly not built for modern charabancs. The further the coach proceeded, the narrower the streets got, until the foliage from neighbouring gardens was scraping the sides. A drop into a fast-flowing stream was only inches away on one side. We got to the small presbytery car park where the driver had to turn round while we looked at the exhibition. Having managed this, he then had to inch back the way we had come. As the final alleyway widened out into a normal street, the coach erupted into applause and a chorus of bravos.
On the way home, we were held up for 25 minutes in the rush-hour traffic jam at Saint-Affrique. Ironically, much of this was spent outside a shop selling prostheses, surgical appliances and wheelchairs. Since the average age on the coach was quite high (I bring it down a fair bit, I hasted to add), this gave rise to some mirth amongst the passengers. Good thing they can laugh about it.
We have promised ourselves another excursion over there sometime. There’s too much to see in a day trip.
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