In response to our recent article on cheese etiquette, many readers have wondered just how mold from rye bread found its way into the first Roquefort cheese. Well let’s just say that the French are great lovers who also love their cheese. As one might suspect, therein lies a tale of great romance.
Napoleon and Josephine, de Beauvoir and Sartre, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette…are just a few of France’s famous lovers, real or legendary. But way back, a largely unknown young couple were responsible for one of the country’s most enduring traditions. Their story is decidedly among the most romantic of all.
Ingredients for a Great French Culinary Tradition
All You Need is Love...
Once upon a time – almost two thousand years ago, as legend has it – a young shepherd took shelter from a raging storm in a cave on Mount Combalou near Roquefort. No sooner had he begun his lunch of ewe’s milk curds on rye bread when a beautiful young shepherdess appeared, rain-soaked, at the mouth of the cave. The chivalrous young man offered to share his lunch, but as they became better and better acquainted, so to speak, lunch was soon forgotten.
When the storm abated, each went their own way – with stomachs empty but with hearts full.
While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night…
...a king was born – that is to say the ‘King of Cheese’ as French philosopher Diderot declared “Roquefort.”
A month or so after the young lovers first rendezvous, the shepherd was tending his flock near the same cavern. Fond memories of that romantic interlude surfaced, as did the memory of the abandoned lunch. When he entered the cave, much to his surprise it was still there, but hardly recognisable! Mold blanketed the rye bread and had infiltrated the curds to produced deep blue/green veins.
The shepherd, whose hunger knows no bounds, took a bite of the moldy cheese. One can only imagine his reaction – ‘C’est formidable’!
Yes, there’s more. This tale has a happy ending. The shepherdess returned and shared her lover’s passion for the new-born cheese. Together they quickly mastered the art of producing blue-veined cheese in the damp caves of Mount Combalou. An industry was born – along with several heirs who passed on the Roquefort tradition throughout the generations.
As a postscript, the couple probably lived happily for quite a long time ever after. Recent studies have revealed the anti-inflammatory properties of mouldy, blue-veined cheeses – which could explain why French mortality rates from cardiovascular-related diseases are among the lowest.
Long live the King of French Cheeses!
A Few Facts about Roquefort Cheese
Roquefort cheese is made from the perfumed raw milk from the Lacaunes ewe. Lacaunes sheep produce far less milk than cows, making the cheese rare and precious.
Today the mould from rye bread is injected into the sheep’s milk.
Mount Combalou provided a rock-like fortress – hence the name ‘Roc Fort’. In fact it was the only environment capable of creating the blue/green veins; other caves close by did not have the same effect.
Combalou collapsed a million years ago, leaving narrow cracks as long as half a mile beneath the surface. Cool air blows through them into the caves, providing perfect climatic conditions — 48 degrees year round — for cheese maturation.
Roquefort was Charlemagne’s favorite cheese and, according to Casanova, an aphrodisiac.
France produces over half of the world’s cheese and it exports more than any other country, including of course the much sought-after Roquefort. Let’s see what President Charles de Gaulle had to say:
Only peril can bring the French together.
One can’t impose unity out of the blue on a country
that has 265 different kinds of cheese.
Today, France is the home to over 1000 types of cheese. It’s a wonder how a modern President can hold things together?