Say cheese! The blue cheese caverns of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon
When your husband asks you what you want for your birthday and you say, “A trip to Roquefort,” you’re either a Francophile, fromatgophile (I just made that word up) or weird. I might be a bit of all three, but when it comes to our incredible stay in Millau and our tours of the cheese caves or Roquefort, I have no apologies or regrets.
Those who know of Roquefort-sur-soulzon most likely associate the area with cheese: it is, after all, the bleu cheese capital of France. After a stay in Aveyron, it’s come to symbolize so much more: the land is replete with agricultural beauty, breathtaking natural landscapes, and (because hey, it’s France!) delicious regional foods. And bleu cheese is indeed the Big Cheese of this region.
There are many small production cheesemakers in the region, but we decided to tour Société des Caves de Roquefort, one of the seven Roquefort producers in the region and the establishment responsible for over 60% of all Roquefort production.
The highlight was of course the cheese tasting, but we learned quite a lot about cheese production during the hour long tour. Some fast cheese facts, for those of you who, like me, were very excited at the arrival of a cheese emoji:
- The veins of color in blue cheese come from a mold (penicillin). Before its discovery (thanks, Fleming!) farmers would rub the cheese on wounds to prevent infection.
- For a cheese to be called Roquefort, it must meet strict standards. Sheep must be out to pasture, be fed a diet of grain and fodder (3/4 of which must come from the area), only Penicillium roqueforti bacteria may be used, and all maturation, packaging, and processing must be done in the region.
- It’s not just a blue color: there are also green veins in the cheese, depending on the type of cheese you’re eating.
- After Comte, Roquefort is France’s most consumed cheese.
- Naturally occurring ducts within the cheese cave act as ventilation, keeping the air at the optimal temperature and level of humidity.
- Walking in the dark caves is super, super, fun. (See photo below.)
- It’s OK to spell it ‘bleu’ if you’re A) speaking French, B) pronouncing it as the French do, or C) referring to France’s bleu cheeses. But in general, in English it’s best to spell it “blue.” You’ll notice that I’ve used the French spelling when referring to Roquefort in this post; for general statements in blue cheese, I’ve used the English spelling. (I’m not the only nerd who cares about this: check out Serious Eats’ “Open Letter to Restaurants: It’s ‘Blue’ Cheese, not ‘Bleu'” by Michelle Humer who must, I’m convinced, be my grammar and cheese loving soul sister.) Grammar/spelling lesson over: back to the fromage!
The biggest takeaway from the tour and our time in Millau? Not all blue cheese is made equal. It’s easy for us to overlook the characteristics of blue cheese: for starters, you rarely find a cheese plate with more than one blue cheese, so it’s difficult to compare the flavor profiles of different veined cheeses since we rarely taste them side-by-side. But tasted alongside one other, it’s easy to see that some blue cheeses are milder and more creamy while others are saltier and more pungent.
Although delicious by itself, blue cheese is delicious in salads, adds a kick to dressings, and is of course delicious on burgers. Our post-Roquefort dinners and dinner parties included some of these little gems:
- Pear and Blue Cheese Salad
- Grilled Endive with Blue Cheese and Apples
- Classic Wedge Salad with Blue Cheese
- Roasted Beets with Blue Cheese and Toasted Walnuts
- Grilled Cheese with Blue Cheese and Apple
- Butternut Squash with Pecans and Blue Cheese
- Grilled Flat Iron Steak with Blue Cheese and Roasted Grapes
- Maple/Mustard Glazed Balsamic Steaks with Blue Cheese
As with all trips, the best part was the unexpected. After our tour of the Societe caves, we took a walk around the mountain on which the cave rests. (This path beckoned!)
We came to a moss covered stone wall with an ornate gate that was, to our surprise, open. In the stillness of the scene, with freshly fallen leaves under our feet and bellies full of delicious Roquefort quiche and wine, we entered . . . and found the most eerie scene. The stone walls enclosed a large, treeless area on the slope of a hill overlooking Aveyron. At the top of the enclosure were three mausoleums, as if the area had been cleared for a graveyard that, in the end, only admitted three families.
From my posts on Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery, London’s Highgate Cemetery, or Barcelona’s Poble Sec Cemetery, readers might know from that I’m a bit obsessed with graveyards. So this was indeed an exciting find. The chain to the gate of the middle mausoleum was unlocked, and on Ryan’s dare (because I’m 33 and still can’t turn down dares, apparently), I walked the steps and peered in. The coffins were long gone, but a somewhat fresh bouquet of flowers was hanging just above the broken glass and dust that so often accompany these beautiful and creepy mausoleums.
The banner on the wreath read “Regret.”
And I ran for my life.
Thanks for the memories, Millau. You charming, beautiful, and creepy place with tasty, tasty cheese.