Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is located in the Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses in Aveyron.

Combalou in Roquefort
Combalou in Roquefort

The small village developed on the side of a huge cliff locally known as Rocher du Combalou.

However, Roquefort is more than an attractive village with breathtaking views.

It’s above all the site of production of one of the most celebrated cheeses in the world.

It has also been listed “Site Remarquable du Goût”.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is indeed entirely dedicated to the production of the famous ewes’ milk cheese.

The visit of the many caves is fascinating.

Guided tours take you underground, or more exactly inside the mountain, where you discover the various steps of fabrication of the Roquefort Cheese.

The icing on the cake is that the tours always end with a tasting!

Legend of Roquefort

Such a marvelous cheese needed its own legend!

A long time ago, a young shepherd tended his sheep at the foot of the Combalou.

Roquefort - Lacaune ewes
Lacaune ewes reading to leave the barn for the high pastures

He took shelter in a cave in order to eat his meal of rye bread and sheep’s milk curd, when he saw a beautiful young girl walking through the morning mists.

He decided of course to follow this apparition, however, in his haste left his lunch in the cave.

He searched in vain for the mysterious girl for several days and eventually returned to the cave.

To his great surprise, both his bread and cheese were covered with a blue-green mould.

Despite the strong smell, he nevertheless decided to finish his forgotten meal… and discovered a new flavour that seduced him.

Roquefort and the Rocher du Combalou

Roquefort is a magical name that evokes one of the most celebrated cheeses in the world, and one of the most expensive!

However, Roquefort is also an old tradition and a beautiful legend that dates back to ancient times.

Roquefort cave
Roquefort cave

The story begins two million years ago at the beginning of the Quaternary Period.

The Combalou Mountain entirely collapsed with the exception of a massive cliff today known as Rocher du Combalou.

Millennia of erosion and underground rivers had already dug a network of cracks in the limestone.

These blowholes or fleurines connect the heart of the mountain to the outside and produce a natural ventilation.

Indeed, the variations of temperature occurring throughout the day between the outside and the inside trigger a movement of air in the fleurines.

This natural ventilation is optimum because the Combalou faces north.

It therefore maintains a constant humidity of 95% and an average temperature of 8º to 10º Celsius throughout the year.

The origins of the Roquefort cheese

This legend could be true!

Indeed, two thousands years ago Pliny the Elder commented on the incomparable flavour of the cheese.

Roquefort cave
Roquefort cave

However, we know that the shepherds of Aveyron produced cheese from ewes’ milk long before the Romans conquered the region!

That said, we don’t know what they called their cheese!

The name Roquefort indeed only appeared after the Barbaric invasions of the 4th century AD.

This is when the shepherds leaving at the foot of the Combalou fortified their village, which then simply called Roca Forta – the strong fortress’!

The cheese from Roquefort won prestigious supporters over the centuries.

Indeed, the story goes that, in the 9th century, Emperor Charlemagne had Roquefort delivered twice a year to his residence of Aix-la-Chapelle!

In 1411 King Charles VI issued a decree ruling that the ewes’ milk cheese the inhabitants of Roquefort produced was entitled to a brand name.

In 1666 the Parliament of Toulouse endorsed the decree.

AOC Roquefort

Roquefort obtained its AOC in 1925 and PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) from the EEC in 1996.

AOC Roquefort is regulated by a series of strict rules.

Roquefort cave
Roquefort cave

First of all, it must be produced exclusively with milk from Lacaune ewes.

The Lacaune are well known for their high milk production and ability to adapt to the poor land of the Causses.

Secondly, the milk must come from one of the farms located on the approved Roquefort area.

This includes the departments of Aveyron, Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère and Tarn.

During the period of lactation, which lasts from December to July, each Lacaune ewe produces between 2 and 3 liters of milk per day.

Manufacturing stages

Once collected, the milk is poured into large vats and then heated to a temperature of 32º Celsius.

It is then inoculated with spores of Penicillium Roqueforti (green-blue mould) and rennet (an enzyme of animal origin).

The curd is then cut into portions and put in drip moulds.

The cheese begins to take shape.

Roquefort cheese
Roquefort cheese

Once drained, the cheese loaves are placed in the Combalou caves.

They undergo a slow and precise work of maturing and ripening under the direction of a master cheese maker or maître-affineur.

The natural caves were enlarged and converted in the 17th century.

Each cave has its own micro-climate that ensures optimum conditions for each stage of the maturation.

Penicillium Roqueforti develops from the interior to the exterior of the cheese.

The loaves are therefore pricked in order to facilitate the aeration of their inner sections.

They are then placed to age on wooden shelves previously dusted with coarse salt.

This protect them from external bacterial contamination.

The spacing and positioning of the loaves is worked out in order to obtain optimum ventilation from the fleurines.

The maîtres-affineurs therefore continuously adjust the fleurines’ opening accordingly to the outside temperatures.

This preserves adequate humidity and temperature in the caves.

The Cabanières

Once they reach a certain maturity, the cheese loaves are wrapped in a special tinfoil in order to slow and control the development of Penicillium Roqueforti.

Women are exclusively in charge of this stage of production and pack manually an average of 100 cheeses per hour!

They are traditionally known as Cabanières as long ago they worked in cabanes (huts) built by the entrance of the caves.

After at least 3 months of ripening, the Roquefort cheeses are finally wrapped in their final packaging.

They’re ready for your table!

Aveyron department
Coordinates:Lat 43.974566 – Long 2.992022

Photos via Wikimedia Commons: CaveCaveCheeses in tin foil

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