If there’s one thing that almost everyone agrees on when it comes to France, it’s that these people know how to produce good cheese. I’m a big friend of the fermented when it comes to dairy products, so I was thrilled to be in this country where regions share the names of ripened cheeses. Naturally, one of my favorite parts of the study abroad program was learning about the production of one of France’s most famous cheeses. Our journey with this cheese began by taking a long bus ride through winding roads and down into an expansive valley surrounded by towering mountains. The valleys serve as the home and grazing land for many flocks of sheep. Within these flocks are the only ewes in the world that are deemed worthy of producing milk to make Roquefort blue cheeses, because in fact, we had arrived in the Roquefort region.
While we were there, we had the privilege of meeting some sheep farmers and their livestock. We even got to watch a farmer who raises sheep for meat use an especially intelligent dog to herd his flock across a pasture. Next, we visited a museum and school which strives to preserve the history of the region and operates a fully functional ewe milking operation. From there, the milk is sold to the cheese producers.
A few days later, we returned to Roquefort again to see more of the cheese side of the operation. While we didn’t see their processing facility, we were able to take a tour inside the Roquefort caves. We learned that theses caves, which were naturally formed in the sides of the surrounding mountains, are crucial to the ripening process of the cheese. Because of the way that the mountains formed, they have deep veins throughout that constantly circulate air to maintain the perfect temperature and humidity. Before the cheese is placed in the caves, it is inoculated with a specialized strain of penicillium which gives the cheese its distinct flavor as it ripens in the caves.
At the end of the tour, we were greeted with delicious samples of the blue cheese served with pieces of gingerbread, an unexpected but delicious combination! We also found out that they distribute this cheese to many local grocers in the United Stated. Now when I walk into Kroger and find that Societe Roquefort package, I’m recall fond memories of kind farmers, dedicated cheese makers, and a world that has many more stories to tell.