TRAVEL | DECEMBER 2021
Reign of Terroir
Rich, powerful and eccentric, Roquefort is still the king of cheeses. But for how much longer?
Photographs by Tomas van Houtryve
The roads on the bare plateauof La Causse du Larzac get twisty as they wind down the gorges that cut through this lonely corner of south-central France. We learned to be extra cautious behind the wheel, and not just because of the hairpin turns. You could never tell when a big steel-bodied tanker truck would come barreling around a curve.
Where were these trucks going in such a hurry, and who could need so much oil? There is almost no industry around here, or indeed much of anything at all. Soon enough, however, we discovered that the tankers of Larzac aren’t carrying oil. They are filled with sheep’s milk. And not just any sheep’s milk but that of the Lacaune: the only breed whose milk can be used to produce the local cheese.
The Larzac is a hard, rocky place “where neither grapevine nor grain of wheat grows,” according to an ancient royal decree, but the region possesses a pearl of immense value. Since the 15th century, the town of Roquefort and the pastures on the Larzac hold a monopoly on the fabrication of Roquefort cheese. A Roquefort from anyplace else is not just an abomination, it’s a crime.
From late November to early July, some 770,000 Lacaunes on and around the Larzac plateau get milked twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. The cheese factory then has a maximum of 24 hours to start the process of turning the raw, unpasteurized milk into disks of blue-veined Roquefort. Hence the milk tankers speeding on back roads.
Merely saying the word Roquefort provokes various reactions. A fair number of people will pantomime their opinion by holding their nose and rolling their eyes, or worse. I know such detractors personally, and their minds are unlikely to change.
In fairness, Roquefort really is stinky. That’s the whole point of infecting an otherwise bland mound of sheep’s-milk curds with Penicillium roqueforti, the mold that runs through it in gloriously fetid blue-green veins. Medieval chronicles relate that the Emperor Charlemagne, returning from Spain, was served a piece of Roquefort at an abbey in the South of France. He understandably set about cutting out the blue mold. The bishop politely informed him he was throwing away the best part. Each year thereafter, two cartloads of Roquefort were dispatched to Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle.
The mold gives Roquefort a sharp tang that livens up the high-butterfat creaminess of the sheep’s milk. Slather it on buttered dark bread—yes, butter and cheese together; trust the French on this one—with, if you like, a little pâte de coing, a traditional quince jelly often paired with cheese, to add a note of sweetness, and you get a joyful blast of contrasting flavors. Melt it with some cream and pour it over a grilled steak. Or just smear it on a Ritz cracker. That works too.
Laurent Dubois is a maître fromager, a cheese master, and a meilleur ouvrier de France, an honor bestowed by the government on the country’s elite artisans. One of Dubois’ four cheese stores isn’t far from where I live in Paris, so I walked over one day to get his opinion.
“In my store, Roquefort is essential—a foundational product. Roquefort has the particularity of combining force and elegance,” Dubois told me in his tiny office above the shop in the 15th arrondissement. “The sheep’s milk gives it gentleness, and the mold gives it power and character.” When Dubois first opened his shop, in 1996, he needed a signature product that would set him apart from competing cheese stores. (Paris has no shortage of them.) He hit upon a kind of Roquefort layer cake, with layers of cheese and pâte de coing. It helped put him on the map, and after trying a slice, I could see why.
Roquefort is the roi des fromages, the king of cheeses, Diderot and d’Alembert, heroes of the French Enlightenment, said in the late 18th century. It sits high up in the culinary pantheon of France. At Christmastime, it joins costly delicacies like oysters and foie gras as standard components of a proper holiday feast. Its prestige in this land of food snobs is unassailable.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, said Shakespeare. The king of cheese is in trouble. Over the past dozen years, sales of Roquefort cheese have fallen 15 percent, to 16,000 tons in 2020. The people who love it are growing ever grayer, and French parents are no longer bringing up their young to appreciate a taste that any normal child instinctively finds yucky (god knows, mine does). It takes training and persistence to overcome a natural human instinct to avoid food that, let’s face it, is spoiled, albeit in a tightly controlled and highly refined manner.
“Habits change,” says Mélanie Reversat, who speaks for the confederation that represents the entire Roquefort ecosystem, from shepherds to cheese-makers to the affineurs, who monitor the moldy cheese as it ripens in dank caves. “There’s no more cheese plate after the meal. Cheese with a lot of character has lost its place, and we’re having a hard time getting younger consumers. Most of our consumers are over 50 years old, and our big challenge is getting into households with young parents.”
The way the makers of Roquefort are meeting that challenge has stirred up a hornet’s nest, in and around Roquefort and throughout France. Hidden behind a debate about cheese is a debate about values—French cheese and French values, which are not unrelated. “This is not a luminous moment for Roquefort,” says the historian Sylvie Vabre, author of a book that tracks the cheese’s ascendance. “It’s a village where everybody knows each other, but where everybody isn’t going in the same direction. It’s a little like the old Serge Gainsbourg song, “Je t’aime…moi non plus”—literally, “I love you, me neither,” a common French way of expressing a love-hate relationship. “It’s hard to be optimistic right now.”
First-time visitors to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, which in non-Covid times gets a steady stream of cheese pilgrims, may be disappointed. It is perhaps too harsh to say the town is utterly devoid of charm. Let’s just say that when you picture an idyllic French village perched on a cliffside where they produce one of the wonders of the food world, this is not it.
There’s basically one street running through it. Squat, plaster-walled houses line the main drag. The church is newish and unexceptional. Of quaint cafés and homey bistros there are few. We saw almost no one walking about when we rolled up on a cloudy November afternoon. The town felt empty, and that’s because it is. The population, never very large, has dwindled over the years, and only around 600 souls are left living there now.
But the surface was never what Roquefort is about anyway. Roquefort’s reason for being comes from what lies beneath it. A long time ago—somewhere between a few million years and 20,000 years ago, it is hard to be more precise—a section of the great limestone plateau of Les Causses, about a mile and a half wide, broke off and tumbled down. This is the rocky saddle known as the Combalou, in whose shadow Roquefort sits today. Subsequent rumblings and shiftings broke up the limestone structure and created a series of caves that extend deep beneath the town.
More important, these caves are shot through with ducts that channel the warmer air from outside to the cool heart of the cave. These fleurines, as the natural airways are called in French, are the unsung geological heroes of Roquefort. In a sense, they sustain the entire cheesemaking enterprise by maintaining humidity in the caves at 95 to 98 percent and temperature between 46 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit.
“This is the reason Roquefort is the only place you can make this cheese,” says Delphine Carles as she shows me big wheels of Carles Roquefort ripening in the caves underneath an empty house. She points out a little wooden door in the rock that opens onto a fleurine. You regulate the airflow by opening and closing the door. It sounds primitive, but to do it right, you’ve got to feel the temperature and moisture in the air. Mastering it takes years.
Carles’ grandfather François started the business in 1927, but the family has always lived in the village of Saint-Affrique, about six miles away. Who would want to live in Roquefort? she wonders. “The enormous rock of Combalou completely hides the sun, and there isn’t even a butcher shop. Roquefort is for work,” says Carles.
There is a hokey fable to explain how Roquefort cheese came to be, and the fact that no one really takes the story seriously doesn’t keep it from getting told. Once upon a time, a young shepherd on his lunch break brought his chunk of white cheese and jug of wine to the Roquefort caves. But before he sat down to eat, he spied a comely shepherdess and gave chase, forgetting all about the lunch he left behind. Returning several months later (months? really?), he found his old cheese mottled with blue-green veins of Penicillium roqueforti. Of course, he ate it anyway. The whole future of Roquefort depended on it.
Even without the shepherd story, we know that Roquefort cheese is very old, although we don’t really know how old. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History of A.D. 79, praised “cheese from Gaul.” The fact that he doesn’t specifically mention either Roquefort or mold has not stopped certain people from citing Pliny as an early adopter.
It is beyond argument, however, that by the early 15th century, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon was well established as a cheesemaking hub. King Charles VI of France conferred monopoly rights on the townspeople in 1411 (in other Roquefort-related legislation that year, local creditors seeking payment for overdue debts were required to seize the furniture before they could seize the cheese). In 1666, the Parliament of Toulouse fortified Roquefort’s legal standing by making sellers of counterfeit Roquefort cheese liable for punishment.
Roquefort’s modern legal standing dates to 1925, when it became the first cheese to qualify as an appellation d’origine contrôlée, a “controlled designation of origin,” or AOC. There are now more than 40 AOC French cheeses, not to mention other AOC agricultural products strongly tied to the place they come from, including hundreds of wines, such as Bordeaux and Champagne, but also lentils from Puy, chicken from Bresse and butter from Charentes-Poitou.
In spirit, AOC status is a modern extension of Charles VI’s sanctions of 1411. In practice, it is more complicated than that. In exchange for its protected status, an AOC product must conform to a rigid and highly codified set of rules regarding ingredients, including where they come from and how they are used.
Here are a few of the rules for Roquefort cheese: The milk must come only from Lacaune sheep in six French départements, or districts, within roughly a 60-mile radius of Roquefort; the sheep must get three-quarters of their food on the farm where they pasture; the milk cannot be stockpiled for more than 24 hours; the addition of rennet—the enzymes that help milk coagulate into cheese—must take place at a temperature between 82 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit. And on and on, covering every stage in the cheesemaking process. There is no wiggle room.
The village of Réquista on the Larzac plateau lies about an hour’s drive from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. You can tell what goes on here from the bronze statue of a Lacaune ewe nursing a little lamb outside the town hall. At La Poulenque, a farm outside of town, there were 550 adult Lacaunes and 210 lambs when I visited. The milking season had only just begun—the lambs are “under the mother” until mid-October, as they say in French.
The Lacaune is not the adorable, fluffy kind of sheep you count on a sleepless night. It’s a tough, sinewy, mallet-headed breed with very little wool. It is well adapted to the austere conditions on the Larzac plateau (which, thanks to the Lacaunes, enjoys Unesco World Heritage status). The Lacaune doesn’t even produce that much milk compared with other breeds of sheep, and only a fraction of what comes out of a cow. But the milk that the breed does produce is rich in butterfat and protein, and it is expensive. A cow will yield perhaps 10,000 liters of milk a year at a price of around 4 cents per liter. A Lacaune will give you only 300 liters for around $1.40 per liter, or some 35 times the price of cow’s milk. This alone helps explain why Roquefort is luxury cheese.
It was late-afternoon milking time at La Poulenque, and the troop was being herded toward a kind of milking carousel. As each ewe clambered up (they all seemed to know the drill and required no coaxing), a suction hose was attached to each of her teats and around she went, exiting empty when the carousel had made its full circle. The quantity of milk is measured: At the beginning of the season, each ewe yields about three liters a day, but the volume falls to a liter a day as the season wears on.
Jérôme Faramond owns La Poulenque along with four of his relatives, and he’s also head of the Roquefort Confederation. Faramond wasn’t raised on a farm. He comes from Montpellier, a big town in the South of France, but his sister and brother-in-law brought him into the Lacaune operation. “I love being a paysan,” says Faramond. It simply means peasant in French, but Faramond makes it a proud identity. “It’s a hard way to make a living. There are wolves on Larzac, and they’re terrifying—it’s traumatic to come upon a lamb with its throat torn open. I’m not against the wolves, but it’s clear the wolves are against us.”
For Faramond, the payoff is special. “I always knew I wanted to raise sheep, but to do it for Roquefort! That’s what gets me up in the morning and helps me shine. Raising sheep to make yogurt is really not the same thing at all.”
Not long after the afternoon milking finished, a big steel tanker truck pulled in, filled up at the milk pump and sped off to the dairy. In 1930, there were 800 or so dairies around Roquefort—almost every village in the region had its own. Like every other industry, the business of making Roquefort cheese has consolidated. Today there are only eight dairies.
The process has modernized, too. The Vernières Frères dairy in Villefranche-de-Panat looks more like a hospital than a rural cheese mill. Workers in white rubber boots, white coveralls and hairnets transfer the white sheep’s milk to big stainless steel vats. The milk gets tested first to make sure it’s not treated with antibiotics, which are forbidden, and next for staphylococcus, E. coli, salmonella and two other bacteria contaminants.
Milk with even traces of such bacteria cannot be used in Roquefort, which by definition cannot be pasteurized. Instead, such milk is diverted, heated to kill offending bacteria and used to make other cheeses, like Ossau-Iraty. In the United States, most cheese is pasteurized, precisely to kill microbes. The downside is that you can’t kill the bacteria without also killing some of the taste, not to mention the goût du terroir—the distinctive flavors of the local soil for which the French have an almost mystical reverence. Roquefort fairly oozes this goût du terroir. “The raw milk is what carries the identity of the soil,” says Dubois, the cheese master. “You can’t destroy the micro-organisms present in the milk. They’re very important.”
A word about raw-milk cheese in general. Many people worry that raw-milk cheese is a kind of edible petri dish of contagion and disease, a dangerous delicacy not unlike Japanese fugu, the poisonous blowfish, which, if not prepared expertly, can kill you. If that were true, though, half of France would have been wiped off the map long ago. Some of France’s favorite cheeses, such as Brie, Camembert and Reblochon, are made with the raw, untreated milk of sheep, cows or goats.
Yet making cheese from raw milk demands maniacal oversight and care. Without it, bad things can indeed happen. For instance, in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated a multi-state outbreak of listeriosis—an infection caused by the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. The source was traced to raw-milk cheese made by Vulto Creamery in Walton, New York. Eight people were hospitalized, and two of them died, one in Vermont and one in Connecticut. In a lawsuit after the accident, the owner, Johannes Vulto, acknowledged that he didn’t really understand or pay much attention to the strictures of raw-milk cheesemaking. Vulto Creamery was shut down the following year.
It is difficult to imagine anything like this occurring with Roquefort. Everything about the way it is made is engineered to ensure that it can’t. Roquefort cheese is an odd amalgam of finger-in-the-wind artisanal know-how and state-of-the-art industrial microbiology.
The laboratoriesof Roquefort Société, by far the biggest of the seven brands of Roquefort cheese, are housed in what had been an ugly abandoned building. After suiting up in scrubs and hairnets, we were led down through a series of staircases to a warren of clean rooms, deep in the caves, five or six levels below the surface, where we passed rows of cheese scientists hunched over microscopes. It felt like one of those secret weapons labs in the movies, hidden deep underground to avoid detection by enemy planes.
This is where Roquefort Société produces, analyzes and stores its stock of the all-important mold. The scientists we observed carry out 80 separate analyses through each stage of Roquefort’s passage from raw milk to cheese. Along the walls, steel cabinets housed rows of test tubes, each one containing bits of sourdough. Spores of Penicillium roqueforti, a fungus that grows spontaneously on bread and many other things, are added to the test tubes. The spores “eat” the dough for eight to ten weeks.
The resulting mold is taken to the dairy and added directly to 5,000 liters of raw milk soon after it arrives from the farm. The milk curds are then separated, left to drain, and formed into loosely packed loaves. Each loaf is between 3.3 and 4.1 inches thick and weighs between 5.5 and 6.4 pounds. The loaf is then pricked with 40 holes—not 39 and not 41. This gives the penicillium enough air to extend its gorgeous greenish veins throughout the cheese. Along the way, coarse salt is rubbed all over—two times, five days apart—to stop the mold from reaching the surface. This makes Roquefort intensely salty.
Ten days later, the cylindrical, white loaves are moved to the caves, where they finish ripening in the dank air of the Combalou. As the fungus grows, it gives off heat. It is the cellar master’s ineffable art to make sure the air quality remains constant by opening a fleurine door here, closing another there. In Société’s vast cave network, that job falls to Jacky Carles (no relation to Delphine Carles). It’s a big job. “The fleurines are the lungs of Roquefort. If they block, we die!” declares Carles, an imposing character with the commanding voice of someone who knows he has one of Roquefort’s marquee jobs.
In all, it takes about three months to make a loaf of Roquefort cheese, start to finish. That’s a lucky thing for Americans. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that any imported raw-milk cheese must be more than 60 days old. So Roquefort gets to enter the United States, while younger raw-milk cheeses like Brie or Camembert do not. (The rogue versions of those cheese varieties sold in the States are made from pasteurized milk, and are, according to French statute, not only shameful but illegal.)
The world is full of different kinds of blue cheese, from Stilton in England to Gorgonzola in Italy to Cabrales in Spain to Danish Blue in Denmark. The makers of such cheeses all do more or less the same thing—inject living mold into bland cheese to enhance the flavor. A preference for one or the other is purely a matter of taste. But Laurent Dubois argues that the French are distinct.
“Technologically, France is way out front when it comes to raw-milk cheese,” says Dubois. “Other countries are more hesitant: They’re frightened of it, they have problems, they have accidents. We have the savoir faire, and we’ve had it for a long time now.”
The development of this savoir faire is what made France a nation of cheese eaters in the first place. Throughout most of French history, cheese was mostly consumed melted in cooked food. It had an iffy reputation. Doctors warned against eating it. Women were advised to stay away from it. The church looked askance at it, despite a tradition of monastic cheesemaking. It was putrefaction on a plate, corrupting both body and soul. “Cheese was transgressive,” says the historian Sylvie Vabre.
The church’s disapproval was catnip for the anti-clerical luminaries of the Enlightenment, who took up the cause of cheese along with liberty and sexual freedom. And what was true for cheese in general went double for Roquefort. Roquefort was sexy. When Casanova needed a pick-me-up, he favored a glass of Chambertin and a bite of Roquefort. “An excellent restorative for love,” he wrote.
Its history is as much about the march of capitalism as it is about the making of cheese. In 1842, 15 Roquefort producers joined forces to form the Société des Caves et des Producteurs Réunis de Roquefort, or the Société des Caves for short. At a time when most cheeses were known and eaten only in the regions where they were made, Société took Roquefort first to all of France, then out into the world. (Americans have been eating Société Roquefort since the 1860s.) Société advertised nationally. It built railroads. It listed on the stock exchange. It made the name Roquefort synonymous with French cheese in faraway places where few people had even tasted it.
Since 1992, Société des Caves has belonged to Lactalis, a multinational owned by France’s Besnier family—the world’s largest dairy products group. You can’t miss Société’s somber headquarters in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, topped with the green and white logo familiar to nearly everyone in France. Société alone produces 70 percent of all Roquefort cheese.
Two years ago, France’s second-largest dairy group, Savencia Fromage & Dairy, bought Roquefort’s second-largest producer, Fromageries Papillon. Of Roquefort’s seven producers, four are now big industrial concerns. Among them, they hold most of the market. The three remaining “artisanal” producers, including Carles, account for only around 5 percent of Roquefort sales.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even a connoisseur like Laurent Dubois believes that a product as technically demanding as Roquefort needs the scientific brain trust of “big cheese” behind it. It has always been thus. “Industrial capitalists have been at the wheel in Roquefort since the 19th century,” says Vabre. For her part, Delphine Carles says she can live happily with her 1.28 percent market share. Moreover, everybody, big and small, is compelled to follow the same strict rules—the cahier des charges—that make sure no corners get cut during production.
What is really bothering some people is the way Lactalis and Savencia have responded to the steady erosion of Roquefort’s popularity. The leading blue cheese in France today is called Saint Agur. Savencia makes it with pasteurized cow’s milk. Saint Agur was created to give people what they like best about Roquefort—the high-butterfat creaminess—while downplaying what they like least, the sharp tang and the heavy salt content. It is a wolf in a Lacaune sheep’s clothing, and it has taken a big bite out of Roquefort, says Faramond. “They came from nowhere to 10,000 tons!” he says, sounding a little stunned.
Saint Agur’s success was not lost on Lactalis. In 2019, Société des Caves introduced a cheese called Bleu de Brebis made from pasteurized sheep’s milk. It too went heavy on the creaminess and lighter on the bite and salt. And, mischievously, the Bleu de Brebis’ packaging carries the same oval Société logo you see on a package of Roquefort, except without the word Roquefort. At best, it’s confusing. At worst, say its many critics, it diverts Roquefort buyers toward a cheaper cheese that goes down easier.
“To make Bleu de Brebis in the Roquefort region—that’s pushing it,” says Dubois. “I would imagine it’s a bit tough for the local milk producers to swallow.” Not altogether, says Faramond. “It’s no secret we sell less and less Roquefort every year. We sheep farmers feel that with Brebis, at least we can sell our milk for something.”
Anne Julia Goutte runs the group that oversees the 27 Lactalis cheeses that adhere to the strict regulations set forth by the AOP, which is the European Union equivalent of the French AOC. The AOP group is based out of Société’s headquarters, and Goutte has lived in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon for 15 years. For Goutte, the market tells you what it wants, and the market’s message here is unambiguous. “We’re facing a structural decline. Around 60 percent of the people who buy our Roquefort are over 50 years old. Bleu de Brebis is not positioned against Roquefort, it’s positioned against Saint Agur,” she argues. “Roquefort remains our priority and we’re absolutely not giving up on it. No one can reproach us for that!”
I tried both of the new kinder, gentler cheeses. Both are inoffensive, but neither leaves much of an impression either. The verdict in our strongly pro-Roquefort household: très meh. “It’s a general dumbing down,” says Véronique Richez-Lerouge, who heads a cheese advocacy group called the Fromages de Terroirs Association. “You impoverish taste with an industrial product, and people get used to it and ultimately end up thinking it’s good. For me, a cheese that you can’t remember ten minutes after eating it is a bad cheese. I remember some cheeses I ate 30 years ago!”
Bleu de Brebis made a lot of people mad. In France, they don’t take this sort of thing lying down. Protests were organized. Lawsuits were filed. José Bové got involved. Bové is known throughout France as a kind of peasant Pancho Villa, complete with a bushy bandito mustache. For years he has been attacking big agri-business and agitating for the integrity of the terroir against all manner of modern accommodations.
In 1999, the EU barred imports of U.S. beef injected with growth hormones. The United States retaliated by levying punitive import duties on Roquefort cheese (because everybody knows its name and where it comes from, Roquefort often ends up taking it on the chin during trade disputes). On August 12, 1999, some 300 angry shepherds, organized by Bové, dismantled a McDonald’s under construction in the town of Millau, near Roquefort. Supporters passed around Roquefort sandwiches. This made Bové’s reputation as a firebrand, and later helped him win election to the European Parliament.
“The big industrialists only bought into AOP cheeses so they could break the cahier des charges, by offering industrial products that resemble them,” says Bové. “Bleu de Brebis is following the same strategy.” Bové told me he’s making headway getting a ruling that would force Bleu de Brebis to change its packaging, so at least it wouldn’t mislead consumers into thinking they were buying the company’s Roquefort. But he concedes that new packaging won’t do much to stop people from turning away from Roquefort’s strong taste. Bové’s solution is unsurprising, given his generally pugnacious approach. “I think we’ve got to take another look at the cahier des charges—to make them even tougher,” says Bové.
To an American, all this fuss might look overblown and even a little silly. The market is doing exactly what it was meant to do. Everybody ends up with the kind of cheese they want, at least for today. The future will have to take care of itself. What’s wrong with that?
That’s not how many people in France see the matter. Markets are one thing, but something precious, something whose value comes from far back and extends well beyond its popularity, something like Roquefort cheese, that’s quite another thing. If the two clash—well, sometimes you have to pick a side.
Joshua Levine | READ MORE
Joshua Levine is a Paris-based freelance journalist. He has written for Forbes and the Financial Times, and is the author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys.
Tomas van Houtryve | READ MORE
Tomas van Houtryve is an award-winning photographer based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Time and the New York Times Magazine.