In Delphine Carles’ first memories of Roquefort cheese, she’s following her father around a drafty limestone cave, one of the many that naturally occur in the rugged, dolomitic rock of France’s Mont Combalou. At 1,970 feet above sea level in the country’s southern Massif Central, this intricate network of caverns has earned global recognition as the only place in the world Roquefort cheese can be aged. The esteemed sheep’s milk blue—a staple on holiday cheese plates and one of France’s most popular cheeses after Brie and Comté—can only be made by seven approved cheesemakers, and Carles is one of them.
“Since I was a tiny girl, around four years old, I followed my father around, and very soon Roquefort had no secrets for me,” says Carles, who now serves as CEO of Roquefort Carles and the modern link in a chain of three generations, beginning with her grandfather in 1927. “I keep the secret recipe of the bread we use in a locked drawer in my house.”
That rye bread defines Roquefort—the penicillium roqueforti mold used to make the cheese is cultivated in the interior of these proprietary loaves, and that mold is responsible for the viridescent blue veins that cut across Roquefort’s pure white paste. It’s even woven into the cheese’s ori- gin story: Legend holds that Roquefort was accidentally invented in the seventh cen- tury by a sheepherder who’d settled down to eat cheese on a piece of brown bread at the mouth of a cave. At one point, he abandoned his lunch to chase after a girl, returning later to find it covered in mold. Being a shepherd and not a billionaire, he had no choice but to test out what had become of it, making him the first person to taste the fudgy cream, salty crunch and snappy tang of a hunk of Roquefort.
Despite some holes in that story, the regal blue is no doubt ancient. Some spec- ulate that Emperor Charlemagne and Pliny the Elder favored it, while its first writ- ten record appears in a 1411 decree from Charles VI—to protect the geographically unique product against imitation and to aid a region not hospitable to other French crops like grapes or grains— he granted the people of the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon vil- lage the exclusive right to make Roquefort. Charles VII further strengthened that decree in 1666, making it sanctionable to produce fakes.
In 1935, it became the first cheese to receive an AOC designation, which defined the seven rules that producers must follow to this day.
“Roquefort is one of the most well- known French cheeses,” says Hervé Bourgeois, export director at France’s Fromageries Papillon. “As the first PDO, Roquefort is clearly an ambassador from the French cheese plateau.”
To be called Roquefort, a cheese must be made with the raw, unfiltered, whole sheep milk from animals pastured on the land around the caves. Their milk must be delivered at least 20 days after lambing and be treated with animal rennet within 48 hours of milking. The aforementioned mold must be used, along with dry salt, and the whole process of maturation, cut- ting, packaging and processing must occur in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon on a strip of land only a mile and a quarter long.
That painstaking process doesn’t just govern Roquefort in France, either. In 1951, eight European countries signed an agreement to regulate the use of cheese names, confirming Roquefort as an Appellation d’Origine on an international level. Later in 1996, the rindless, foil-wrapped wheels also received the official stamp of the Appellation d’Origine Protegée to further protect their name. Even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted a geographic certification mark to the name ‘Roquefort,’ which can now only be used in the U.S. to mark sheep cheese originat- ing from the Combalou caves. The name is so protected that even dips and salad dressings in France must contain genuine Roquefort cheese if they want to use the word in their packaging.
“[Because this is] real raw milk cheese with no heat treatment, only cheesemaker know-how can manage to produce such a qualitative cheese,” says Bourgeois. “Then, the latest machine allows us to cut and wrap and conduct analysis as per the country’s sanitary request (zero E. coli for the U.S., for example).”
A Worldwide Treasure
These rules haven’t kept the decorated wheels from traveling the globe—crumbles of the cheese turn up on top of steaks, poached pears and walnut salads in restaurants the world over. The Carles family exports 15 percent of the 220 tons of cheese they make in a year, while Fromageries Papillion, another one of the seven approved producers, exports 40 percent of their 2,000 tons.
Though blue cheese can polarize even the most devout of the cheese cognoscenti, Roquefort’s perfect balance has a way of warming up to timid palates. In France, even the children don’t mind the briny bite of the mold or the barnyard funk imparted by the sheep’s milk. “I do not know any young child that [does] not love Roquefort,” says Bourgeois, who eats Roquefort on a cheese plate beside Valencay, Comté and raw milk Camembert. Bourgeois also con- ducts tastings in the classrooms of his two young daughters.
How do the seven chosen cheesemak- ers create that festive experience? It starts atop the plateau of Larzac, the summit of Mont Combalou, where Lacaune sheep teeter on rocky pasturage, feeding on wild herbs. Some 80,000 ewes live in the area, and they’re tended to by some 2,200 ovine dairy farms, most of whom lend their milk to Roquefort cheese.
In this remote and somewhat unruly region, the production of Roquefort is the primary economy. Some Roquefort producers, like Lactalis’ Societé and Papillon, have grown into multi-million-dollar industries, while others, like Le Zieux Berger or Carles, work with fewer than 20 employees. Those not shepherding livestock or processing milk can be found in the caves, carefully tending to aging cheese. The Roquefort caverns enjoy near constant hygrometry and temperature (95 percent humidity and 45-60 degrees F), thanks to fault lines, or “fleurines,” that provide nat- ural ventilation. Wheels of Roquefort will spend a minimum of three months in these caves, bathing in the salty, moist air.
Before they reach the caves, the lives of these wheels begin with calf rennet infusing raw ewe’s milk, then heated to a temperature of 82-93 degrees F. The resulting curds are stirred, cut and drained, thentransferred to cheese molds, where they drain further as they are flipped three to five times a day and dry-salted at a cold 50 degrees F. After about a week, they’re off to the caves, where they age, uncovered. During this time, affineurs wipe moisture from the exterior as the blue mold breaks down casein in the cheese’s cellular structure, making it creamier every day.
For every consistent variable, there are close-guarded family flourishes that set each Roquefort maker apart. For starters, there are 700 varieties of penicillium roqueforti in existence. Traditionally, cheesemakers created the mold for their cheese by leaving bread in the caves for six to eight weeks, then drying it to produce a powder; this is a method Carles and Papillon still adhere to.
The mold can also be created in a lab in whatever form is most convenient— liquid, powder or even aerosol. Societé, the largest of the seven makers, responsible for 60 percent of all Roquefort production, streamlines their process by adding a liquid penicillium at the curd stage. Others sprinkle blue-green powder in the curd. Some use a combination of these methods, and all result in varying degrees of those famous streaks of greenish-blue.
Beyond the mold, variations also occur in how much salt is used (this has been reduced over the years in response to demand), what type of containers are used for draining (earthenware, metal, plastic), or what shelves the young wheels age on (the Carles family uses oak). At Papillon, wheels are aged slightly longer to reduce crumble and achieve lower salt levels; Gabriel Coulet ages for nine months.
For Ihsan Gurdal, owner of the Formaggio Kitchen line of cheese shops in the northeastern U.S., these little tweaks make a world of difference. “Our favorite has always been the Vieux Berger, imme- diately followed by the Carles,” he says. “I have always liked the texture and the finesse of the Vieux and the prolonged mid- dle flavors of it. On the other hand, Carles Roquefort to me is more robust and [has] more forward pronounced flavors right at the beginning.”
Red Flag Regulations
Paul Alric created the Papillon Roquefort brand in 1906, and the line now includes four varieties. These include Taste Noir, characterized initially by its white paste and the generous streaks of intense blue in its broad and numerous cavities; Organic Agriculture, characterized by its color between white and ivory, its velvety aspect and smooth texture; Révélation, distinguished by subtle, elegant and com- plex flavors where the taste of sheep’s milk is not crushed by the powerful penicil- lium, with a light buttery taste; and Rouge, which has a delicious fondant accompanied by a typical balanced and long-lasting taste.
Papillon is still the unique Roquefort cheese using Penicillium Roquefortii issued from rye bread produced by Papillon’s baker into Papillon bakery,” says Bourgeois. “This mix from tradition and modernism is clearly Papillon Qualitative signature.”
Gurdal has personally imported Vieux Berger, Carles and Gabriel Coulet, and brought in Societé from distributors to fill in between imports—though he is not currently able to bring in his favorite, the Vieux, due to FDA regulations.
“There was a red flag by FDA a cou- ple of years ago, and we all struggled for almost eight months,” says Gurdal. “Vieux is still red flagged, but somehow we are allowed to import Carles.”
That FDA flag occurred in August 2014, when many raw milk cheeses were placed on Import Alert because of bacte- rial counts that exceeded the FDA’s newly stringent tolerance level. Cheeses on Import Alert can’t be sold in the U.S. until the producer documents corrective action and passes five subsequent tests, so many shops went without Roquefort during the busy holiday season. Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City put their existing Roquefort on sale, using #rescueroquefort on social media to encourage people to try the endangered cheese.
According to FDA press officer Lauren Sucher, most of the cheeses put on Import Alert in 2014 have since been removed, save for a few that still contain trace amounts of Listeria or non-toxignogenic E. coli. As of October 2017, the Yves Combes La Vieux Berger is the only Roquefort still on the list.
The FDA isn’t the only branch of the U.S. government with this ancient blue in its crosshairs. In 1999, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) imposed a 100 percent tariff on all Roquefort enter- ing the country. To keep it affordable for Americans, makers continued to sell to the U.S. for less than half of market price, greatly limiting their profits. “Volume in the U.S. is not yet important for us,” says Bourgeois at Papillon. “The 100 percent tariff has impacted us negatively.”
The American market got even riskier for Roquefort producers in 2008, when the outgoing George W. Bush admin- istration tripled punitive duties to 300 percent, in retaliation against a French ban on U.S. beef treated with growth hor- mones. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, Roquefort producers lobbied him hard, even sending samples of their cheese, and were able to reach a compromise just before the new tariff was to take effect.
“Roquefort has been used as a political tool,” says Carlos Yescas, program direc- tor of the Oldways Cheese Coalition, which works to preserve raw and tradi- tional cheeses. “[It] is the quintessential French cheese. This is among the reasons it has been drawn into ongoing trade bat- tles.” When the 100 percent tariff expired in 2012, French Customs Authorities reported a 31 percent increase in Roquefort exports to the U.S.
To pressure the EU into keeping their end of the 2009 deal, the U.S. beef indus- try again recommended punitive tariffs on Roquefort in 2017, urging the Trump admin- istration to reinstate them. In response, the Confédération Générale de Roquefort, a trade association of cheesemakers, testi- fied before a USTR panel to request that it impose duties on beef-related products instead, rather than singling out a specialty product that, by law, is made with sheep’s milk in a single village by a community of less than 700 people. It remains to be seen how the most recent tariff situation will impact Roquefort.
Despite this tension, Roquefort producers aren’t likely to stop shipping to the U.S. any time soon—but the cheese may become more of a luxury than an everyday staple if costly tariffs drive the prices up. DB