By Ronnie Smith
One of the great things about living in France is cheese. And one of the great things about cheese is that it is legal. You can eat as much cheese as you like without the police getting involved and without being banned from anywhere. You can even eat cheese on the beach.
Recently my wife and I decided to visit Albi for a change of air, to see the famous cathedral and to enjoy the Henri Toulouse Lautrec museum. We noticed that to get to Albi by car from Pezenas, where we live, one must pass very close to the village of Roquefort. Think about that word, ‘Roquefort’. Does it ring any bells? Well it certainly rings bells for me because the village is home to one of the world’s most famous cheeses, a particularly irresistible and entirely harmless favourite of mine.
Of course we were not simply going to pass Roquefort by. We were going to stop there to see how the cheese is made, to smell it, to take the guided tour of the factory, to taste the product, to completely immerse ourselves in the Roquefort experience and then take a generous portion home.
The village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon stretches along a fold in the landscape west of the A75. It has been built in a series of winding terraces that attach its streets and buildings to the all-important hillside where the caves are the most important element in the production of the cheese. Without the unique environment provided inside the caves there would be no Roquefort cheese. Just think about that, scary isn’t it?
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon in January. The weather was cold and showery but not unpleasant. The damp, breezy streets were utterly deserted. The dank, forbidding atmosphere reminded me of the movie ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ but Kirk Douglas was nowhere to be seen. There were, however, many cheese producers in the village offering tours and tastings and so we had to decide on which one to visit.
We chose the ‘Roquefort Societe’ because it sounded the most official, the most authentic, the most grandiose and by far the most influential. We found a door in the Societe’s complex complex of stone buildings and entered the source of Roquefort cheese. Oh my God the smell… But we had opened the wrong door and had entered the shop which we were not supposed to find until the end of the tour. We were redirected to another part of the complex complex all the while pining for our return to the shop and it’s overpowering aroma.
So we embarked on the tour which included a charmingly clunky mechanical representation of how the landscape was formed over millions of years. I’m convinced that machinery operating the the rumbling, squeaky hills and valleys was also a million years old. Then it was time for a video introduction to all of the people who combine to make the cheese and the sheep whose milk provides the central ingredient, I love them all. This was followed by a walk through the caves that run deep into the hillside and the vaults where the freshly made pure cheese rests for a few weeks, allowing nature to take its wonderful course in producing the unique penicillium inside. Without this process Roquefort would just be another cheese.
Finally, after an excruciating period of time, were were let loose back at the shop…Did I mention the smell?
I was hugely impressed by the Societe’s marketing campaign and we passed many posters on the walls of the ‘factory’ during our tour. One of them showed a Matterhorn made of Roquefort with the slogan, ‘The pinnacle of Pleasure’. Indeed.