Roquefort, the King of Cheese

Strong in flavor and strange in appearance, this blue from Aveyron has withstood time with tradition

More appetizing dishes exist, that’s true. With its pungent smell and fuzzy streaks of blue or green through ivory cream, Roquefort could have legitimately repelled even the intrepid gourmet who first discovered it.

And yet Denis Diderot, philosopher and author of l'Encyclopédie, named Roquefort the roi des fromages, or “king of cheese.” And, as this spécialité française has acquired a reputation across borders, Roquefort’s regal title is far from being usurped. Even the tiny mushroom responsible for the veined cheese has earned the name Penicillium roqueforti.

According to legend, a romantic shepherd was one day distracted by a lovely shepherdess, forgetting his bread and sheep's cheese in a cave located on the limestone plateau of Combalou in the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon region. Returning later to his forgotten lunch, he dared taste the moldy menu, which turned out to be delicious! And thus Roquefort cheese was born.

The historical version of this cheese’s past is no less zesty. Julius Caesar and then Charlemagne apparently savored the marbled cheese of the region, though the first written mention of Roquefort dates back only to the 11th century.

Four centuries later, King Charles VI declared the Roquefort caves protected grounds. His son, Charles VII, later accorded the inhabitants of Roquefort, “a land where no vine, no grain of wheat dare grow,” a privileged status in the cheese’s production process.

From then on, Roquefort continued to build international renowned, eventually, along with champagne, rising to the status of an eblem of French gastronomy. Finally, in 1925, the village of Aveyron was consecrated, and Roquefort became the first cheese to earn an AOC, or label of controlled origin.

Despite a phenomenal success for the cheese, little has disturbed the 700 souls who populate Aveyron, located in the heart of the Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses, who have proudly managed to maintain their taste for tradition. Here, Roquefort is also a symbol of resistance—the resistance of old-school cheese producers against the pasturization of raw milk.

Today, the cheese is aged in the Roquefort caves as it has always been, in the natural fissures of cliffs whose microclimate is favorable for the growth of mold and bacteria. The cheese, stored on wooden slats, must stay in the cave for at least 90 days before being carefully wrapped to avoid drying.

It is then ready to be enjoyed, as-is or as a dash of flavor in dishes like salads, sauces and savory pastries.

If even after this mouthwatering presentation the idea of Roquefort leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, know that it also boasts another use: as medicine! For centuries, shepherds treated their wounds by covering them with Roquefort, a habit seen as quackery by doctors until penicillin and the cheese’s antibiotic properties were discovered.