There is a great legend in the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France about a young shepherd who was tucking into a lunch of bread and ewe’s-milk cheese when, upon spotting a beautiful girl in the distance, he tossed his meal into a nearby cave and set off in pursuit of her. When he returned to the cave a few months later, he discovered what is now known as Roquefort, one of the world’s most famous cheeses.
We’ve prepared badly for this impromptu roadtrip. When we set out this morning driving from the Mediterranean-basin town of Montpellier, we simply envisioned an afternoon spent indulging in as many types of Roquefort cheese as possible. But we hadn’t taken into account the fact that the narrow roads that wind through the Midi-Pyrenées, connecting villages scattered across hillsides, are scarcely populated with petrol stations. It’s been an hour since we noticed that the fuel needle was uncomfortably low, and we’ve spotted nary a petrol pump. Given that many of the villages we’ve passed through consist of only one road – the one we’re on – it seems that locals are inclined to fill their vehicles elsewhere. I wonder aloud just how long we’re going to have to walk to find assistance once our purple Citroen splutters to an exhausted halt. At least it’s a beautiful day, and we’re amidst a landscape worthy of an impressionist painting.
Fortunately, around the next bend, stands our saviour. He leans nonchalantly against a single petrol pump, his old button-up shirt stuffed into his pants, only just holding a growing belly at bay. He touches the peak of his flat cap in greeting as we roll up next to the pump on what are surely the last remnants of our petrol tank. “You’re here for the cheese?” he inquires in laconic French, noting the fact that the number plate on our car isn’t local. When we tell him yes, he proceeds to give us detailed directions to the town – even though there’s really only one road to get there. Given that he has rescued us from an exceedingly long walk on what is a rather hot day, we indulge him.
We’re not back on the road long when we spy the terracotta-tiled roofs of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, jutting out from a hillside on the rugged cliffs of the Combalou Plateau. The road winds into an incline, and soon we reach the main stretch of the tiny village (though the name is internationally renowned, its population is a mere 700 or so). The town seems surprisingly sleepy for being one of the world’s most important cheese meccas, but the reason for this quickly becomes evident: the action here all takes place underground. The charming storefronts that line the main street are mere entry points for the network of caves that sit below. Intrigued, we enter one of the small boutiques – whose windows promise Roquefort in all its forms – and tack on to a tour that is about to begin. I excitedly proclaim to my friend that I could eat Roquefort for eternity and still be content.
Despite the sweltering summer’s afternoon outside, we’re advised to put on extra layers of clothing – and again we find ourselves ill prepared. Our group files down a creaky wooden staircase and immediately the temperature plummets and the air feels damp and musty. Though the walls are reinforced with ageing stone bricks, the scent in the air immediately evokes that of a cave, accompanied by the occasional echo of water drops emanating from an unknown location.
Instantly we get the feeling that we are on holy ground – after all, there are less than ten companies who craft the world’s supply of Roquefort, and they all dwell within caves on this very hillside. Our guide holds up a chunk of rye bread and triumphantly tells us that it is here that spores that create Roquefort’s blue-green mould are created. The cheesemakers then inject this fungus, known as penicillium roqueforti, into the milk of one particular variety of sheep, the Lacaunes.
Our tour continues through a series of caves until we arrive at one in particular with elegant vaulted ceilings, where our holy grail lies. On long, hefty wooden shelves sits row upon perfect row of cheese wheels resting on beds of salt amidst their two-week ripening period. By this point, my mouth is well and truly watering, so it’s convenient that we are nearing the end of the tour, save for the best part: the tasting room. As we clamber up another flight of stairs and stumble into a room with daylight spilling through the windows, our eyes adjust to plates filled with chunks of Roquefort at different strengths, which we spread delicately on pieces of gingerbread. The blend of sweet, spice and salty is at once confounding and heavenly, and we start calculating how many wheels of cheese we can fit into our tiny Citroen.
Armed with enough to last us several months (or at least the roadtrip home), we emerge back on to the main street in search of a lunch spot. We take our seats in a verdant courtyard and survey the menu greedily. Much to our delight, every single dish on offer incorporates Roquefort in some form – be it a sauce, a dressing, or delicious chunks – and we indulge a little too heartily. Later, as we trudge back to the car, my earlier proclamation comes back to haunt me. My love affair with the fragrant cheese will certainly always be lifelong, but, for now, I think we need some time apart.