Le roi des fromages
Until Millau acquired its motorway bridge in 2004, the town was best known for gloves and sheep’s cheese from the nearby village of Roquefort sur Soulzon, where limestone caves were formed by the partial collapse of the Causse du Larzac. According to the legend, a shepherd who was picnicking in a cave saw a pretty shepherdess and gave chase. Returning three days later, he found his bowl of crusts in milk had become a bowl of cheese.
Roi des fromages, fromage des rois. It’s a good line, but is it true? Apparently so. 2011 marked the sexcentenary of Charles VI’s confirmation of the rights of the villagers of Roquefort to ripen their creamy blue cheese, traditionally fermented by mouldy pain de campagne in caves beneath the plateau de Combalou, and famous since the time of Pliny the Elder. These rights were confirmed by Charles VII, Louis XI and just about every monarch up to and including Louis XIV, and Roquefort’s appellation controlée, the first among cheeses, was confirmed in 1925.
This is not quite the same thing as saying Roquefort was their Majesties’ favourite cheese, but it does explain the closed shop. If the right Lacaune ewe hasn’t grazed the correct field, and the curd hasn’t been fertilised by the appropriate strain of penicilium roquefortii and sat for the required amount of time (3 weeks) in the designated cave followed by several months of slower maturation wrapped in silver paper in the fridge …. Roquefort, it ain’t. Bleu des Causses is a cows’ milk cheese made using the same process.
Millau’s gloving industry grew up as a by-product of cheese manufacture, which required lambs to be removed from their mothers at an extra tender age and thus gave an abundant supply of extra soft leather.
Roquefort production is controlled by seven companies, of which the largest is Société (64% of the market, 5 euros for a cave tour). Papillon is the other big brand (free cave tour). The five others are Carles, Gabriel Coulet (cave tour also free), Fromageries Occitanes, Vernières and Le Vieux Berger. You won’t find people selling ‘Roquefort fermier’ beside the road.
The draught keeps the air at a steady humidity and temperature (10C) all the year round, variations of bacteria between different faults in the rock (fleurines) accounting for slight differences between the cheeses, cave by cave. Société has three: 1863 or Cave des Abeilles is the usual (or ‘classic’) Roquefort, Cave des Templiers the strongest, Baragnaudes the creamiest and most complex.
Unfortunately for us cyclists, the 25km ride from Millau to Roquefort is mostly uphill. Galaxy and I found a cheese specialist to bring some Roqueforts down to Millau for us to taste there. He confirmed that the best thing to drink with Roquefort is a good Sauternes, or even a Banyuls, but all we had was red Gaillac so we drank that, and it was fine.
Roquefort and Gaillac – a marriage made in Millau
On a worrying note, Roquefort, unlike Millau, may be going out of fashion. “Young people today want a softer, milder, easier cheese,” said the cheese expert. Société is working on it. How depressing.