Bread and cheese Cheese is often associated with bread, either in a sandwich, on a croque monsieur, or during the cheese course at the end of a gastronomic meal. With Roquefort, this connection is made long before the cheese reaches the gourmet’s plate, and the origin of this fortuitous alliance is the subject of another legend.
The legend of the forgetful shepherd Long, long ago, there was a young shepherd who was more interested in running after the ladies than tending his sheep on the limestone mountain behind Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. One hot summer’s day, he took shelter from the midday sun in one of the many grottoes of the Combalou. He was about to enjoy his simple lunch of rye bread and milk curds when he spotted a gorgeous girl in the distance. He dropped his meal and ran after her. Whether or not he caught up with the young woman depends on who is telling the tale, but all versions agree that a few weeks later the lovelorn or satiated shepherd returned to the same grotto. His forgotten lunch was still there, but his cheese was now covered in a blue-green mould. A richer man might have assumed the cheese had gone bad and left it for the rats, but a poor shepherd was not going to waste good food for the sake of a bit of mould. He took a bite, and it was the most delicious cheese he had ever tasted.
Identified in Connecticut
Lovers of Roquefort had to wait many centuries for a scientific explanation of this phenomenon. It was not until 1906 that an American microbiologist called Charles Thorn became the first person to isolate and identify the mould that gives Roquefort its tasty, colourful veins. Although he was working in Connecticut, and similar moulds are used to make other blue cheeses including English stilton and Danish blue, Charles Thorn chose to honour his discovery with the scientific name penicillium roqueforti.
An old shepherd’s remedy Another shepherd-related story from the Grandes Causses says that when a sheep was injured, the shepherd used to put a slice of Roquefort on its wound to prevent gangrene. Modern science tells us that there are over 300 species of penicillium, but only a handful are known to produce the antibiotic we call penicillin, and roqueforti is not one of them.
Each cheesemaker uses a unique strain
Within the penicillium roqueforti species, there are numerous strains, and different ones have evolved in different caves of the Combalou mountain. This means that each cheesemaker uses a unique strain, or more than one strain if the company owns multiple cellars, and each strain produces a cheese with slightly different characteristics. To cultivate these all-important moulds, contemporary manufacturers use the same type of bread that the lustful shepherd abandoned in his grotto all those centuries ago.