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FRANCE: Going Underground for Roquefort

<i> Lingre is a Chicago free-lance writer</i>

Only one road comes here, and its hairpin bends straighten at the entrance of town. Then the road squeezes between two rows of gray houses and becomes a steep main street.

Right there, the sole business of this French village of 950 hits you square in the nose. The briny, pungent smell of Roquefort cheese is everywhere.

But this is to be expected, considering that 6 million wheels of Roquefort cheese are left to age in the village caves every year.

In fact, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is the only place in the world where true Roquefort cheese may mature. Roqueforts of all other origins are just usurping the name. This status is what brings the traffic here.

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Beside the tourists’ cars, huge refrigerated trucks, marked “Roquefort” in bold, black letters on each flank, muscle their way up and down the main artery, the Rue des Caves.

Close to a Desert

Despite the traffic that reaches the village, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon stands isolated amid the high limestone plateaus of the Causses area, 390 miles south of Paris. Bald of trees and sparsely populated, the region is where France comes closest to a desert.

The climate is rough, either hot or cold, and rain waters seep through the porous rock so fast that the ground is left parched.

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Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is wedged so tightly against the white, rocky cliff of the Combalou Plateau, 2,607 feet high, it is as if the tall and narrow houses were scampering up the rock to catch a better view of the valley below. Down there, sheep are grazing and clanging their neck bells.

The milk from these ewes, plus that from 4,800 herds around Roquefort, ends in the village, most of it in the caves of the main cheese producer and exporter, Societe. The caves are at the top of the village.

Walking there, uphill, sends the heart pumping in fast gear, but on the Rue des Caves there are places to stop and dawdle.

Whiffs of Roquefort cheese drift out from the warehouses of minor producers: the Old Shepherd, the Cloche, Butterfly, all brand names familiar only to local consumers. Men in checkered shirts, a proverbial beret or a cap twisted firmly on their heads, crate boxes of cheese.

If the streets seem sleepy, it’s because activity here is mostly underground. Erosion has made the Combalou Mountain as hollow as a sponge. Inside are 25 acres of natural caves where fresh curd cheese made from unpasteurized, whole ewe’s milk ripens slowly into Roquefort cheese, according to century-old methods.

So states the oldest “Appelation Controllee,” a charter that guarantees the origin and the traditional Roquefort-making process, signed in the 1400s by Charles VI, King of France, and reaffirmed ever since.

Forgetful Shepherd

But Roquefort Cheese and the caves of the Combalou go back much further. The legend says that Roquefort was invented by accident in the early days of the Christian era. A shepherd forgot his curd cheese and bread lunch in a cave of the Combalou. A pretty girl had walked by.

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Months later he happened to find his old lunch grown moldy inside and out. But the shepherd tasted it anyway. What he liked was the first Roquefort cheese.

As to the Combalou Mountain, it is more ancient still. Remains of prehistoric men and stone arrow tips were discovered in the caves and are on display in the village museum of natural history, a few steps away from the entrance to the caves and the Societe buildings.

Before stepping down the labyrinth of stairs that lead into the Combalou Mountain, the guide throws on her shoulders a long cape of dark wool, the traditional garment of shepherds who still guard sheep up on the plateaus. The cape is not for folklore only; the caves are cold and damp.

Seeping waters dug funnel-shaped cavities at a slanting angle through the rock. Cold winds from the top of the Combalou churn down these long bowels of stone and create chilly drafts inside the mountain. In the caves, the temperature is at a constant 46 degrees, humidity at 95%. Moisture is so thick that it oozes on the walls and ceilings.

From the funnels, beams of greenish light fall through the filter of ferns and moss thriving there. Then there are rows and rows of white wheels of Roquefort cheese, all laid on their sides at equal distance from one another, four across each oak shelf. They stuff even the darkest receding corners of the caves.

Even though much time has passed since the discovery of Roquefort cheese, cheese makers in the village still follow the process revealed to them by Mother Nature. It takes ewe’s milk, the Combalou caves and whole-wheat bread to make true Roquefort.

Loaves of bread are left at the mouths of the cavities that pierce the rock. These are not strange offerings to some god of Roquefort. The atmosphere of the caves simply strike the right balance of cold and dampness for a special fungus to grow.

The penicillium roquefort , despite its name, has nothing in common with penicillin. It is a microscopic mushroom that proliferates particularly well on bread. Once taken over by the blue-green mold, the loaves of bread are ground. Cheese makers mix the mold powder in the fresh ewe’s milk, let it curdle into fresh cheese and then prick holes into the rounds so air can penetrate the cheese and trigger the mold to grow again.

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Within three months in the Combalou caves the rounds of cheese are ripe. Women dressed in white like nurses wrap each wheel in thick foil and apply the government’s seal of approval, the mark of genuine Roquefort, red silhouettes of sheep.

One in every 30 wheels of Roquefort goes to the United States, the largest importer of Roquefort cheese. That doesn’t mean, however, that Americans really know how to appreciate it. They mainly detour Roquefort into salad dressing.

In Roquefort-sur-Soulzon at the Grand Hotel, or in Saint-Affrique, a village 10 minutes west of here, Roquefort cheese dresses up souffles, crepes, dumplings, puffs and, best of all, comes at the end of a typical five-course, $13 meal, riding the cheese tray next to a small cup of honey.

Jean-Francois Decuq, chef and owner of the Grand Hotel Moderne in Saint-Affrique, explains: “The best Roquefort is 60% white and 40% blue. If the molds gets too strong, it is best to mix in a droplet of honey to smooth the taste.”

Savor Cheese Slowly

The last tip about Roquefort cheese has to do with table manners. Natives never eat Roquefort in gobs, but savor a bit at a time. To understand why, one has to see the land of Roquefort.

Nature is parsimonious here, and Roquefort is the only luxury she granted, apart from the rugged and arid beauty of the rocky landscape. So like the plateaus, Roquefort can be appreciated, but not squandered.

The most impressive example of nature’s work is 30 minutes northeast. The River Tarn has dug a canyon 30 miles long and 200 to 1,320 feet deep right through a vast plateau, slicing it in two. The Tarn is in appearance peaceful, but it is fed by underground rivers that flow beneath the surrounding plateaus.

When the snow melts and spring rains pour, the Tarn can turn furious and flood the villages on its banks at the bottom of the canyon. Each time, the river digs deeper.

One road follows the river through the gorges. It is notched on the northern rock wall, twists like crazy, slips into tunnels where the cliff advances into the river, or fits underneath a rock overhang. On the other side of the Tarn some hamlets seem stranded, accessible only by boat.

People there are lucky. They can stare anytime they please at the sun on the rock walls, painting many strata every shade between orange and red.

Halfway through the gorges the castle of La Caze stands guard, as it has done for five centuries, ever since it was built by Soubeyrane Alamand, lord of the region. Now it is renovated into a hotel (rooms are $60 to $89 a night), but modern amenities are hidden so the massive stone walls, the vaulted ceilings and huge fireplaces can make-believe a stay in the 15th Century.

It is said that Lord Alamand had eight daughters, all so graceful they were known as the nymphs of the River Tarn. Maybe their reputation reached through time and lured, three centuries later, Casanova himself to attribute special power to the local cheese when drunk with the best Burgundy wine.

“Ah! Chambertin and Roquefort are such meals to rejuvenate love, or else bring young love to quick maturity.” And when it comes to knowledge of the senses, who would dare doubt Casanova?


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