Penicillium spores keep the town of Roquefort rich and redolent It is the sole owner of one of the oldest protected product names in the world. The Parlement of Toulouse, the high court for southwestern France, decreed in 1666 that anyone presuming to sell a cheese described as Roquefort, which was not made in the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon according to the traditional methods of the trade, would be subject to a fine of a thousand livres. The laws are strict to this day. Any cheese labeled Roquefort must come from one of the 13 producers whose caves are buried in the cliffside near the streets of the town. The Roquefort dressing you get on your salad must contain, if your restaurant is honest, 15 per-cent of genuine cheese from these caves.
There is nothing arbitrary about this. Roquefort is indeed a unique product. Anyone can make a cheese with holes in it and call it Swiss. Anyone can mix mold with curdling milk and produce a cheese that he can call "blue"though blue is a misnomer, the fault, perhaps, of some color-blind medieval monk. The color is actually blue-green. But Roquefort is not to be confused with ordinary blue cheese. For one thing, it is made with ewe's milk, not cow's, and hence has a juicier texture. For another it is made under ideal conditions in a refrigerating and humidifying plant that would cost a fortune to duplicate, but is provided in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon gratis by Mother Nature.
Several million years ago, accompanied by a series of thunderous roars, a huge chunk of the nearby causse, or limestone plateau, collapsed into the valley of the Soulzon, forming a jumble of blocks about a mile and a quarter long, more than 300 yards deep, piled up at all angles to one another like so many broken sugar cubes. There are spaces between these blocks, sometimes cracks as thin as a fingernail, sometimes corridors down which you could climb for a considerable distance, sometimes pits deep enough to drop your worst enemy down with no fear that he would ever come back to haunt you.
These cracks and pits and corridors are known in the local dialect as fleurines (from a verb meaning "to blow") because of the cool airs that blow out of them. The inhabitants of the region have been aware of these winds ever since Neolithic shepherds, four to six thousand years ago, drove their flocks up from the plains of the Mediterranean coast to the upland meadows of the causse country. The land was, and is, rough, desolate, wind-blasted. It will grow grain or grape only with reluctance. But it proved to be good sheep country, and the wandering shepherds eventually settled down there. They probably prospered, at least if one may judge from the quantity of huge menhirs and dolmens they erected near their sheep trails.
The shepherds who came to the valley of the Soulzon discovered the network of caves and fissures on the surface of the rockslide, and could only have been intrigued by the breeze that rose steadily from them each summertime, offering refuge from the sun and the flies, as well as a good place to store their mutton and their bread and the cheese they had apparently learned to make by putting rennet (the stomach lining of unweaned lambs) into pots of ewe's milk.
This cooling air flow, as later investigation would show, was the effect of an intricate wind system arising within the interlocking fleurines in the jumble of limestone blocks. The openings, facing north, are rarely touched by the sun. The winds bring rain that seeps down into a network of underground streams. Some of it, also, is retained by cavities in the porous rock. In winter, cold damp air sinks down. In summer, the rocks exhale their moisture and cold damp air flows upward. What this all adds up to is a self-regulatory system, as precise as any computer could devise, which helps the temperature in the caves to remain constantly between 44 and 48 degrees F. The relative humidity varies only a point or two from 95 percent.
Hardly an inviting environment. The tourist who visits the caves where the cheese is made today and sticks his nose into one of the fleurines may well think that the strong cold blaststrong enough to put out a candlecomes, like the wind in the ballad of Frankie and Johnnie, from the southeast corner of Hell. No animals choose to live here, though rats and sometimes dormice come down, lured by the smell of cheese. The fleurines are not quite lifeless, however. They provide a breeding ground for a tiny mold, Penicillium roqueforti, so called because this was the spot where the mold was first identified and where it flourishes most happily. For this little fungus, which is the secret of the taste of the cheese, by happy coincidence lives best in a moist habitat where the temperature generally hovers around 50 degrees F.
You can see little colonies of Penicillium glistening against the dark rock on any fleurine or any man-made wall inside the rockslide. Give it something to feed on, say a piece of bread, and it reproduces itself at a fantastic rate. Under a microscope you can see its little fingers putting out reproductive sporesa strong microscope because these spores are so tiny that it takes hundreds of millions of them to fill a soup spoon.
The discovery of Penicillium roqueforti (which is only a distant relative of the mold that produces the antibiotic) may have been made in Neolithic days. One story favored by the local authorities is that a shepherd boy was one day loafing in a cool dark cave, about to eat a rustic lunch of bread and cheese, when he saw a shepherdess go by with her flock. Dropping his lunch, he raced out after her. What with one thing and another, it was several days before he returned. To his amazement he found that the bread was a mass of green mold and his cheese was all streaked and mottled. Wisely he left the bread alone but ate the cheese.
Finding it delicious he called in his friends, and soon every cave along the hillside had a cheese and a loaf of bread in it.
Albert Alric, who produces about six percent of the cheese in Roquefort, says this pretty tale is romantic nonsense, and he has a more down-to-earth explanation. Despite his aristocratic namewhich, by his perhaps lax genealogical standards, indicates that he is a lineal descendant of Alaric, the fifth-century king of the Visigoths and conqueror of RomeAlbert Alric is of peasant stock. He was brought up in a countryside where daily life had not changed much since Neolithic times. His grandmother used to go out to pasture with the sheep every day carrying a long leather whip to chase off wolves.
In Neolithic times, according to Alric, as in the days of his youth, all hands were needed in the field in summer, and bread could not be baked more than once every six weeks or so. If it is kept in cool hillside caves, bread tends to get moldy after six weeks. But in a peasant community, it is sacrilege to throw away bread, so the peasants went on doggedly eating it anyway until someone noticed that the stale slices tasted better with cheese on them. And a day came when one of those unknown geniuses who open up new pathways for mankind reasoned that instead of taking the cheese to the mold he could take the mold to the cheese. He mixed some moldy bread into the milk as it was coagulating. The result was something that not only tasted better but lasted longer than ordinary cheese.
The news of this discovery spread over the trade routes of old Europe. When the Romans built the great highway, the Via Domitia, that linked the Pyrenees with Italy, it passed not far from Roquefort, and it became relatively easy to send the cheeses to the seacoast and then by coastal shipping to Rome. The Romans, it seems, fell in love with Roquefort. Like all the Mediterranean peoples down to our own time they were used to cheeses, most of which tended to be dry and hard. Roquefort, by contrast, was smooth and soft and tasty, and the Roman aristocrats were willing to pay high prices to have it on their tables. So, no doubt, were the Visigoths who succeeded them, and then the Franks. The Emperor Charlemagne, it is said, used to have a packtrain of mules bring Roquefort to his court at Aix-la-Chapelle every Christmas. Rich landed proprietors like the Knights Templars, who were once in charge of the area near Roquefort, received payments in cheese from local peasants.
As demand increased, the natural caves that opened into the rockslide were gradually widened and deepened. Others were dug. In front of them grew up the town of Roquefort, a single narrow street hugging the side of the cliff. Early on, there was a swarm of small producers. But in 1842 most of them got together to form the Societe Anonyme des Caves et des Producteurs Réunis de Roquefort, known to everyone in the region simply as La Société. It is now a private and very powerful company that controls about 80 percent of the cheese production, as well as the only hotel and just about everything else of value in town.
The Society's main cave is a six-story underground cathedral carved out of the naked rock. A visit through its dark, dank halls (be sure to take a blanket), thronged with the ghostly shapes of thousands of maturing cheeses, is a major tourist attraction.
Robert Aussibal, a great voluble bear of a man who directs this cave, likes to emphasize the continuity of tradition at Roquefort. "We have electricity and sanitation and hygrometers and all that," he says, "but the process of manufacturing the cheese is basically the same as it was in the days of the prehistoric shepherds."
Indeed, as he loves to point out, life in the whole region is full of reminders of the distant past. Hunters who go out among the meg aliths to hunt thrushes still make a deadfall out of a flat stone leaning on two sticks. The unsuspecting bird reaches in with its beak to get some juniper berries, disturbs the sticks, and down comes the stone.
The ewe that provides the rich milk for Roquefort cheese comes of a race originally bred in Neolithic times. It is a remarkably silly-looking sheep with a little flat head, narrow shoulders, a shabby coat of wool. But it has huge udders that can produce 35 gallons of milk a season, up to 110 in prize specimens, and it is quite robust, resistant to the harsh climate. Officials say that it takes something like 800,000 ewes to keep the Roquefort industry going, most of them from the local coutnryside though these days large quantities of milk from properly pedigreed ewes are imported from distant lands like Corsica..Local shepherds will tell you that the shallowness of the causse soilyou can strike solid limestone about four inches down- adds a special richness to the taste of the milk, by limiting the animals' diet to delicate grass.
The penicillium which makes the cheese possible is grown the way it was in prehistoric times, by putting bread in a fleurine. Albert Alric, a traditionalist who says he follows the ancient ritual to the letter, will be glad to show you row on row of his bread slowly molding away on shelves in his cave. The shelves, like everything else in the caves not stainless steel or solid rock, are made of oak, one of the few woods that can resist the pervasive dampness. Even oak rots in the end. The Society has to change its shelves every 50 years. Alric likes to claim, however, that his shelves, made of oak cut in the full of the moon with a north wind blowing, are still solid after 140 years of service.
The stacked loaves are big, weighing close to 20 pounds, and are baked at very high temperatures over wood fires, of pure flour of rye,or rye and wheat. As a result, they have a thick, burnt crust that keeps the inside moist. Loaves are rotated 45 degrees every week, and after ten weeks you can pick off the crust of the bread and find inside a powdery green mass of penicillium spores. This will eventually yield one pound of purified spores. The slightest stir of air will send a thin green cloud dancing around the room.
These spores are collected, dried, pounded, strained through a mesh of stainless fibers so tightly woven that you cannot see the sun through them, and then they are ready for the cheese. About a quarter to a half pound of spores will service two tons of milk. The servicing is done at dairies scattered throughout the sheep-growing region, where milk is delivered from the farms every day. The milk is strained through cotton mesh to keep out impurities, and gently heated to a temperature of 86 degrees F. Then rennet is added, and the milk curdles in about two hours.
Drained of excess liquid, it is poured into molds which form it into flattened cylinders about four inches by eight across. As it is poured, a minute quantity of Penicillium is mixed in "by hand," Albert Alric insists, darkly hinting that some of his competitors use vacuum cleaners for this delicate work.
From the dairies the cheeses, now called pains (breads), are brought by truck to Roquefort, to start the process known as affinage. They spend a week being salted on all sides. Then they are brushed clean.
Then they go through a machine that pierces them from end to end with 30-odd fine needles. The holes thus created let damp air flow into the cheese, and let carbon dioxide released by the fermenting process escape. Thus stimulated, the penicillium spores go to work with a will. The pains are placed vertically on oaken shelves, with enough space between them to let air circulate, and soon greenish veins begin to travel through the white mass. The natural air-conditioning system of the fleurines here shows its worth. If the temperature were lower, there would be no changes in the body of the cheese, and its taste would not develop. If the temperature were higher, changes would come too rapidly, harmful bacteria would breed and the taste would be ruined. If there were less humidity, the cheese would turn dry and flaky. If there were more, it would be unpleasantly soft and mushy. In this perfect equilibrium, the veins push on.
They must not be allowed to push too far, however, or they will spoil the cheese. To slow down the molding process, after about four weeks on the shelves each cheese is taken down and wrapped in leaves of pure tin, carefully fitted by deft hands to every tiny crack or ridge in its surface. Thus little air is directly in contact with the cheese when it goes off to cold-storage rooms at about 35 degrees F to rest in the dark while the spores in the veins languidly work their intricate way into the cheese, giving it the mottled look so prized by its admirers. This process goes on for a minimum of 90 days, until the cheese master decides a particular pain is ripe. He has a thin, hollow probe with which he can scoop out minute quantities from the interior and see how it is doing.
How many a day? I asked one of the cheese masters in a cave of the Sociétée. "Oh, about seven thousand," he replied. "Don't be alarmed," he added hastily, "I don't taste them all. My liver would have burst years ago. I only actually taste them when there is a special order for some special occasion, like a state dinner where the President of the Republic is receiving the Queen of the Netherlands."
After 25 years in the business, he said, his eyes and nose can tell him all he needs to know. Has the proper ivory tone been achieved? Is the persillage (the mold) properly green? Has it spread properly through the cheese? Is the texture right? "Usually I don't need to taste it," he said, "to know when the taste is rightsharp but not aggressive."
Some cheeses will always be sent back to the cold to await their turn so that there will be an adequate supply, even in months when there is no milk because the ewes are breeding or feeding their lambs. When ready, cheeses are brought back to workrooms at normal cave temperature. The tinfoil is removed and recycled. Workers with knives exactly as long as the cheese is tall scrape away any crust that may have formed through the presence of illicit air under the tin. The cheeses, now weighing about six pounds, are wrapped in foil and stamped with the official seal of the Red Sheep, which is a guarantee that they are an authentic product, made in Roquefort. And thus they go out into the world, five and a half million of them every year. That is 16,000 tons of Roquefort, much of it eaten in France. Only about 700 tons a year are shipped to the United States.
Roquefort people are proud of their cheese and proud of their way of life, even of their damp cold underground workplace. Yes, it is so damp that telephones have to be kept in glass boxes with electric lights burning to keep the wires dry. But the workers have found that, with wooden shoes and plenty of woolen clothing, they suffer less from rheumatism and such ailments than their cousins on the farm. They are all experts on how to eat Roquefort. The only proper way, they say, is to spread it on a thick slice of country bread and wash it down with a full-bodied red wine. If you have to use it in cooking, do so only in simple dishes like an omelet. "If you keep Roquefort a long time on the stove," says plainspoken Yves Emile Combes, who runs the smallest cave in town, "it starts to stink."
Roquefort will always cost more than other cheeses, if only because it is more expensive to milk 30 ewes than one cow in order to get an equivalent amount of milk. But Roquefort folk insist their cheese is really an economical buy. Unlike Camembert, or Pont 1'Eveque, say, there is little waste, and no crust. Besides, the cheese itself is so rich and satisfyingewe's milk being twice as rich in butterfat as cow'sthat you don't need to eat so much of it.
The cheese should be stored in the lower, moister part of the refrigerator and taken out only a couple of hours before eating. It should then be in a state of tart, nutty creaminess.
The taste should be a sufficient recommendation for eating Roquefort, but some people have found that it can stimulate them to poetry and to passion. The famous French gastronome who called himself Curnonsky said, "The genius of Roquefort is the son of the mountain and of the wind." Albert Alric himself has written a 60-line Hymne au Papillon (Papillon, or butterfly, is the name of his cheese) in Alexandrine verse celebrating the "divine sublime, prestigious nectar" he produces. Casanova, the wicked Casanova, assures us on the basis of a particularly sensuous dinner that a mixture of Roquefort cheese and Chambertin wine is "an excellent thing to restore an old love and to ripen a young one."
Don't count on Casanova, though. The Roquefort eaten today is not necessarily the same as it was in his day. For all its devotion to tradition, in some ways Roquefort likes to keep up with the times, and the universal spread of refrigerators has made it possible to send out cheeses that are softer and more unctuous than anyone would have dared to put on the market in the past. Jean Rouquet, technical director of the Société, remembers that in his youth, in the country nearby, the cheese was so dry and strong that they used to keep it in a drawer in the kitchen table for weeks at a time. If you did that with today's product, he says, the Roquefort would run away. The taste, he is sure, has improved; whatever its effect on lovemaking, anyone sitting down to a plate of Roquefort today with that bottle of Chambertin can be confident he is eating better than Charlemagne ever did.
©1980 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine February 1982