Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent
quarante-six variétés de fromage?—How can you
govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?
So said an exasperated Charles de Galle, a man who preferred his orders obeyed—and
promptly. He was right both ways. The French
are apparently ungovernable, for which we should all be grateful, and they
do love their cheese. And none of that country’s many cheeses have
a more storied or distinguished linage than Roquefort.
On June 4, 1411 Charles VI—previously known as Charles
the Beloved but by then called Charles
the Mad for his periodic spells of
violent insanity—issued a Royal
edict proclaiming that the people
of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon would
henceforth have a monopoly on aging a particularly tangy form of cheese made from the milk of ewes. It is unclear if the order was issued during a period of sanity or delusion.
It really didn’t matter. For more than 600 years through wars, famines, revolutions, upheaval of every sort, and even the emergence of the European Union they have maintained
their privilege more or less intact.
And woe be it to any
other producer of bleu cheese from
France or anywhere in the world who dares to use the name Roquefort, or even to claim it is in the style of the protected original.
1411 was a long time ago, but the unique cheese had been aged in the Mont Combalou caves in southern France long before that. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder extolled
the virtue of the cheese in 79 AD and there is archeological evidence of cheese
making colanders found in the
caves from pre-historic times.
legend has it that far back in the mists of antiquity a shepherd was diverted from a lunch of
bread and cheese in the cool
of the caves by a comely lass. He supposedly returned weeks later to discover that mold from the bread
had invaded the ewe’s milk cheese
and created a tart cheese marbled with blue-green mold.
Essentially, that is how the cheese
is still made, minus the comely
lass. Bread is left in the caves from
six to eight weeks where it picks up mold spores from the soil. The mold, Penicillium roqueforti,
is then dried to a powder. The powder is introduced to the ewe curd. The cheese is ripened and aged in the cave for five to six months
producing a rindless,
firm but crumbly product with a sharp odor and a flavor derived from Butyric
acid in the mold. It is best consumed within six months
of being packaged for sale.
Penicillium mold is from the same family as the bread mold discovered by
Alexander Fleming to produce the anti-biotic Penicillin. When the mold is stabilized in the
cheese, it does not have the anti-biotic effect, but cheese makers in the
region had long rubbed the bread mold on wounds with excellent
The milk of the Lacaune, Manech and Basco-Béarnaise breeds of sheep are used exclusively in production. About 4.5 liters of milk is
required to make one kilogram of
Roquefort. Today that means that 4,500
people are employed on 2,100 farms.
About 19 tons of cheese is produced annually by seven companies with caves in the mountain.
Roquefort is the second most popular cheese produced
in France and is widely used across southern Europe in meat sauces, tarts and quiches, pies and fillings. Only a few hundred tons are exported annually
to the United States which ends up
mostly in high end salad dressing, wing sauces,
and burger toppings—all of which appall French gourmets. Most Americans call domestically produced blue
cheese, Roquefort, but don’t
let the French catch you. The American imitations are a chemistry lesson and much milder than the real thing.
Speaking of America, Roquefort
became an international political
football in early 2009 when President
George W. Bush slapped a 300% tariff
on the cheese, by far the highest level of any in the package of tariffs placed on
dozens of European luxury goods in
response to a European ban on U.S. hormone-treated beef. The move shocked
and outraged the French who were not only hit economically, but whose treasured
independence from Washington
domination was challenged.
After considerable sturm
und drang the European Union and the U.S. negotiated a trade settlement in the dispute and
the punitive tariff was lifted.
But perhaps de Galle would have understood. After all, he once told Clementine Churchill that nations “…have no friends, only
interests.” On the other hand, he also
said, “No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself
independent.” Maybe it’s a good thing he
is dead and gone or he might have nuked us over cheese.