Legend has it that a shepherd abandoned his lunch in a cave to follow and woo a pretty woman (yes, very French), and when he returned some months later the cheese had gone mouldy and was delicious. True or not, the first mention of the cheese in literature dates from the year 79 CE, when Pliny the Elder (of Vesuvius fame) remarked on its rich taste.
Over the centuries these cavernous ecosystems have matured along with the cheeses, maybe as Penicelium roquefort mutated and evolved. Traditionally the cheesemakers left bread to rot in the caves and then took the mold and added it to the cheeses, leaving them within the grottoes until ready. There are over 700 variants of the mould, so each cave has its unique ecosystem and flavour of cheese. The caves have been modified by humans over the years, filled with cheese racks and roofed, but they remain natural karstic caves underneath the cheese factory surface.
The French, being a rural country, have a unique and untranslatable concept called terroir (which also means burrow) that relates to a specific area of land in all its aspects. All the factors that make the land are encompassed in it, geography, geology , climate, tradition and human culture. It is a very local concept, and the sum of all these factors are reflected in the local gastronomic specialities. The specific conditions in an area are propitious to particular kinds of foodstuff, which have often been locally made for centuries, sometimes going back to the pre-Roman era (foie gras pate was supposedly introduced to Gaul by the ancient Egyptians). These invariably include a local cheese, and president De Gaule reflected a socio-political reality when he famously said 'how can you expect to govern country with over 400 cheeses.
These products are usually protected (like Parma ham) by a denomination d'appelation controlee, which regulates which geographic area can use the name and outlines acceptable production methods to keep food in line with tradition. In the case of Roquefort, along with maturation in caves, the 3 recognised breeds of ewe must graze on the traditional lands in the nearby plateau of Larzac, a beautiful and still isolated region. The milk must be whole and raw, the mold, of course, come from the caves, and production must take place in the village itself.
In most towns, villages and markets you will find a shop selling food and wine called 'produits du terroir'. Most rural French people recognise themselves first and foremost in their local terroir, long before they see themselves as French, after all many older people in our rural areas don't even speako the lingo well. In our area Occitan, a cousin of Catalan, is the way to go.
So break out the heavy red wine and baguette, and savour the strong pungent taste of geology.
Image credit: F. de La Mure / MAEE
Our new year's piece on the terroir of Champagne: