Legend has it that there was a shepherd boy who once lived in Southern France who was having a delightful snack consisting of creamy sheep’s milk cheese and bread. He was eating it in a cave because maybe it was raining outside or perhaps he had anxiety issues. Either way, the cave is key to the story. So, one day, he saw a beautiful girl and so smitten was he that he left his meal right there in the cave. He came back to the cave a few months later after a few dates where he realized he and the girl had nothing in common. (He wanted a doting wife to pop out babies, and she wanted to go to college and become a lawyer and would have nothing of that arrangement unless it was a relationship based on mutual respect where family planning happened on a timeline that she felt was best for her and her spouse.)
He found his forgotten cheese and, lo’ and behold, the cheese was now riddled with some strange blue-green mold. Still, stricken with heartbreak he decided to end it all by eating this seemingly now poisonous cheese (why else would you initially eat moldy, months-old cheese?). Rather than the sweet embrace of death he discovered that the cheese was not only not-poisonous, but something delicious and very much worth living for.
So was born Roquefort cheese.
The likelihood of this exact story being true is unlikely, but like all stories there is some truth in it. The mold used for Roquefort cheese, Penicillium roqueforti, grows naturally in the soil of local caves found in Southern France. Ancient cheesemakers would place loaves of bread on the ground and allow the mold to consume them. The bread would then be partially dried and ground into a powder. This powder was then added to the cheese curd before being aged in these same caves.
These days the mold is grown in a laboratory and added to the curd or added via an aerosol method once the cheese has been pierced to allow air flow.
This modern method may be less rural, but it ensures a consistency in the production of Roquefort and consistency is key. Roquefort is an Appellation d'origine contrôlée cheese, meaning the cheese can only be called Roquefort when it is made in a specific region under very exact standards and rules. Any blue that does not come from the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon commune of France can’t be Roquefort.
In addition, Roquefort must be made from the milk used from a sheep within 20 days of a lambing. Lacaune, Manech, or Basco-Bearnaise breeds of sheep are the only ones allowed. The milk must be unpasteurized, and the mold must be sourced from the caves in Roquefort.
If a Roquefort cheese does not meet these standards or others, then it’s just a blue cheese from Roquefort that probably suffers from poor self-esteem.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t some variety from one Roquefort to the next. Some cheesemakers allow their sheep to only eat organic grains during the winter. Papillion brand Roquefort is one example as their sheep munch on only beans and hay and only when there isn't fresh pasture available for grazing. The result is a cheese with a far more buttery flavor and smoother consistency due to higher butterfat.
Roquefort is a cheese that pairs epically well with sweeter dessert wines or fresh walnuts. A classic dessert is to simply serve Roquefort with sticks of celery. Guests can take a knife and mash it into the celery’s nook and nosh happily.
Roquefort is like Satine from Moulin Rouge: seductive, sassy, and possessing plenty of kick. (No tuberculosis, though. No worries.) Being such a salty-mouthed girl Roquefort is happy being stuffed into mushrooms, added to risotto, or even crafted into a Roquefort broth used to cook mussels. Roquefort ice cream and cheesecakes are also worth investigating as the cheese adds an inviting tang.
Nifty Note: Before penicillin was discovered, many people in France simply rubbed Penicillium roqueforti on their wounds to prevent bacterial infection.