Roquefort, France: Where the blue blood of blue cheeses lives

Special to the Los Angeles Times

A cool water droplet hit my forehead as I descended narrow stairs into the caves. An overwhelming smell — ammonia meets dirty feet — assaulted my nostrils. Chilly, stinky, damp. It was heaven. I had entered the caves of Roquefort (rohk-FOR), a village in the south of France and home to the world’s most famous blue cheese.

My love affair with Roquefort possibly began in the womb. My mother loved all things French, especially pungent cheeses. So I panicked last year when I saw a newspaper headline declaring: “U.S. Punishes France With Roquefort Tariff.” A small wedge would skyrocket from $20 a pound to $60 or even higher in a matter of weeks. Quelle horreur! Who would bother to sell? Bigfoot might soon be easier to find. My lifelong desire to visit became a mission to secure my stash at the source.

I arrived in Marseille, France, then hopped a train for the five-hour journey northwest. For one week, I would eat Roquefort on baguettes. In salads. On le chicken and le duck. Straight out of the package with a fork. Roquefort-flavored chocolate and potato chips? Oui. I would eat it until I could feel my pants becoming uncomfortably tight.

My tour finished in the caves of Papillon, the village’s second-largest manufacturer. A stocky young boy jumped up and down, shouting, “Papillon! Papillon!” No wonder. His parents were buying a block of cheese bigger than his head. I remained in the tasting area discreetly nibbling samples.

The other visitors, mostly French, headed for the cashier or the door. Two scruffy young men who had bicycled here from Paris hovered with me around plates of Roquefort, olive oil, baguette slices and a mild ewe’s cheese.

Magnifique,” I whispered to them, not wanting to attract attention or be shooed away. They nodded. We savored the crumbly iconic cheese. White with chalky green cavities, so rich and creamy, slightly salty, with a tangy punch. Add a crispy baguette, a handful of juicy grapes, a glass of Sauternes ... perfection.

“Is it worthy of its title ‘king of cheeses’?” I asked.

“Well, I am from Normandy, and we have good cheeses there too,” said the bearded one. “Eez best? Eez difficult to say. France has hundreds of cheeses.” Fine, rub it in. But their gobbling spoke volumes. I suppose they earned it, pedaling more than 300 miles south from Paris to get here.

Meanwhile, I took the slacker’s route. After I changed trains in Béziers, the locomotive now snaked along the Orb River through a lush, hilly landscape of stone villages surrounded by neat rows of cypresses and vines, the pale blue peaks of the Massif Central rising behind it all. An Edith Piaf tune played in my head, entirely beyond my control. Why hadn’t I heard more about this Aveyron region? Does the powerful cheese foul the air?

It began drizzling as we clanked toward Millau, Aveyron’s administrative hub and my base for a week. Along the way, we passed Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (its full name) in the distance — an oblong, gray, gloomy-looking village at the base of a fog-shrouded mountain.

“That’s it?” I thought.

I dozed off and 20 minutes later awoke to a fantastic sight whose sleek, white form resembled a series of dragonflies strung together. We had reached Millau, home of the Viaduct, completed in 2004 and one of the world’s tallest bridges. It towers high above the Tarn Valley. It’s as graceful a vision as the paragliders who float above the two steep limestone plateaus it connects — the Causse Noir and Causse du Larzac.

But I was becoming distracted from my mission: finding Charlemagne’s favorite cheese, craved in ancient Rome and — according to Casanova — an aphrodisiac.

As legend has it, a young shepherd resting in a cave spied a beautiful maiden and tossed aside his lunch of rye bread and cheese to chase after her. Upon his return days later, the sandwich had become moldy. Undeterred, he ate it anyway. Et voilà —- it was ... délicieux! Thus was Roquefort born (and possibly the French word for “yuck”).

After picking up my rental car in medieval Millau and driving for 20 minutes through a handful of stone villages, a green billboard pointed uphill to the cheese caves. Nearby, I spotted the unsung, fuzzy heroine of our story, the Lacaune ewe (from the neighboring Monts de Lacaune). I stopped my ewe-sized Renault to admire this sturdy breed whose fatty milk is essential to Roquefort production.

Bonjour!” I yelled. They looked up, jaws chomping grass, then moved away. It felt like a reproach — had they too heard about the tariff?

Behind them rose a limestone plateau called Combalou, on which Roquefort sits. Combalou collapsed on itself 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.

Above ground, the village consists of a small strip of pastel-colored buildings. And hiking trails for those eager to work off all those calories (110 an ounce, 75% from fat — but who’s counting?). Trucks bearing the logo of the village’s largest cheese manufacturer, Société, rumbled down the narrow road and confirmed that I was in the right place. But why were the sidewalks so deserted?

I wandered along the main drag, Avenue de Lauras, when suddenly a door flew open and I reeled from the smell. I had reached Papillon’s caves — and other humans. We descended to tour the deep, dark, damp underworld where production occurs.

“Whoaa,” said a bespectacled boy as we approached rye bread loaves covered with greenish-blue mold — penicillium Roqueforti — which occurs naturally in the caves. I steadied myself while the others moved in closer (perhaps the French are different). When added to the ewes’ raw milk, spores of this mold will give the cheese its unmistakable flavor, color and odor. Nowadays, the spores grow mostly in a lab.

After leaving the dairy, the curds travel to the caves, where workers pour them into cheesecake-sized molds. Later, they’ll salt and perforate the wheels (called “loaves” here) with steel rods. Then they’ll place them uncovered on long wooden shelves that allow the mold to spread.

Drooling began as we reached the neat rows of white wheels lying behind a glass partition. Hundreds of thousands mature in Roquefort’s caves at any given time, vastly outnumbering the village’s 700 inhabitants.

Master “ripeners” periodically sniff, poke and taste the product to assess la qualité. One master, immortalized in Société’s ads, sported a long mustache and beret and looked as if he might break out an accordion at any moment.

After ripening for several weeks, the wheels are “put to bed” — hand-wrapped in tinfoil and placed in a cool chamber to halt the mold’s growth. Although some varieties mature for up to 12 months, Roquefort’s strict rules dictate a minimum of three.

But it took only seconds to savor. I also visited Société and Gabriel Coulet, whose cheeses tantalized the tongue. But it was Carles’ extra-creamy, mildly tangy product that made me swoon. Back in Millau, the fromagèr handed me a chunk, kissed her fingertips and glanced skyward.

I recalled our guides’ advice to let the cheese sit an hour before eating. The clock’s hand labored.

On my final morning, I couldn’t find my car on Millau’s cobblestoned streets. A comforting thought quickly followed: I could stay longer. Then, finally, I spotted the car. Roquefort had gone to my head. But a tearful parting from my beloved was soon tempered with good news. Upon arriving home, I learned that the tariff had been canceled — at least for a few years.

C’est un miracle!