Monday, March 5, 2012

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, A Cheesy Village

If I were to pick only one reason why I love living in France, it would have to be the day trips. There are cool things in every direction; some close enough to do in a day and others perfect for a long weekend away. Before we moved here I would look at the map of our region and imagine the day when I would come to know the roads and villages by heart.
We did this in Ireland too--seeing every corner of the small island, kids packed in the car and a map on my lap.

Over the two week school winter break, we went on a couple of these. One of which was to see where they make Roquefort cheese.

{view of the mountains from the village}
The village where all the Roquefort cheese in the world is made is only an hours drive from our door. It's called Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and is nestled in the Averyon region of the Midi-Pyrénées. A shift in the mountains formed the Combalou caves here, creating natural air ducts called fleurines that make it possible to ripen and age this special cheese. There are only seven brands of Roquefort cheese and every one of them is made here. The distinction of the name Roquefort is protected by European law and the area is a special 'protected designation of origin'.

{village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon}

You can tour the big ones like Société and Papillion as well as five smaller lesser known brands. We toured Société this time around but it was so much fun that we plan to go back and see some of the others.
{Société welcomes you}
Société produces three different types of Roquefort and that's all.
One is the main one that is marketed all over France and abroad; the one you can buy at the grocery store. But there are two others that are sold at the cave and perhaps at specialty shops.

You can only visit the Société caves by guided tour. They've created a dynamic tour that our kids loved and that, to my mind, is the essence of France and their attention to detail and the protection of their artisanal crafts like wine and cheese.

{the BIG visit, how could we resist?}
The tour began with a large diorama of prehistoric Roquefort-sur-Soulzon; before the caves were formed, before the village and the cheese existed. As we watched, the lights dimmed, thunder and lightning sounded and cracked and the dioramic earth shifted. The result was darkness. And then the overlay of today's Roquefort-sur-Soulzon with its pretty fields, grazing sheep, green valleys and famous caves descended from the sky and rested gently onto the shifted ground. Cue the sunrise, birdsong, and gasps from les enfants. A miracle happened, and from that; the cheese.
This is the way they present it and the way it is kept alive, protected and guarded as a special piece of regional and national culture. I was swept away.

 Next, we shuffled through a doorway and down, down further into the caves themselves.

A fleurine, as mentioned before, is a natural air vent or a crack in the rock formed as the shifting settled to become the caves. We passed one as we entered the deeper portions of the cave and could feel the breeze and see the moss and small greenery growing from the damp cracks. They have devised a way to adjust the flow of natural air into the portions of the cave where the cheese is ripened. They can adjust the temperature of the air by using fleurines that breathe air from different directions.

We walked further, up stairs and around and watched a film on the process of making the cheese; from the special breed of Laucane sheep grazing on grasses nearby, to the milking process and blending of the magic ingredient, Penicillium roqueforti at the caves. The transport of this special sheep milk via truck bumping along the village roads up into the mountains and caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon was shot with cutaways to a master fromager testing the ripening cheese by sniffing loudly, breathing in the aroma of a white round and then plunging a cylindrical tester deep to test the inner veining.

{view of the valley}
My favorite part of all, aside from the tasting at the end of the tour, was a romantic film projected onto the stone cave walls, depicting the cheese and the caves as a love story nurtured and guarded through the ages. We stood in the dark, thirty heads following the sweep of light across natural stone walls, swept away by the magic of this cheese. Where else but in France could such a thing occur? Bleu cheese as romance, passion and ecstasy.

When I see things like this here I am always shocked at how my dreams for my childrens' future jobs turn toward the romantic. How lovely to be a master fromager, an esteemed sommelier, perhaps an artisanal boulangere. P-Daddy thinks I'm a hopeless dreamer and steps in with sound ideas of finance and medicine but really, wouldn't you wish your children a job full of such passion and singular perfection?
{kids outside in the remaining piles of snow}

We filed through shallow passageways into an open space cordoned off by plexiglass walls full of table after table, row after row, of stacked white cheese rounds. The smell was overwhelming, but not in a bad way. It smelled earthy and damp and cheesy, of course. The Littlest exclaimed, 'Whoa!' when he saw all the cheese, causing a ripple of laughter to break out in the group. He was not impressed and ducked under P-Daddy's legs, embarrassed.

We saw some of the workers in their white laboratory coats, shower caps and soft shoes walking around looking at the cheese. When we waved, excited to see a real Roquefort cheese maker in the flesh, they just shrugged. More tourists. Bof!

We bought a sampler selection of the three varieties to take home. Apparently, you are supposed to remove only the portion you think you will eat, tucking the foil packaging gently back around the remaining cheese and store it in the bottom of the refrigerator along with the vegetables. You should remove Roquefort, and all cheese for that matter, from the fridge for at least an hour before enjoying it.
That night for dinner we had our special cheeses, some dried sausages and baguette.
With a glass or two of red wine, of course.

{Société truck, vraiment!}
And on the way home I was delighted to see a real Société milk truck on the road in front of us. I snapped a photo for you and we debated whether or not the truck was full or empty. The answer came when he veered off the roundabout toward the village of Laucane, home of the singularly chosen sheep.


  1. I've never thought about taking a cheese tour, but what an incredible process to see! I think if we had the opportunity to raise children here I would have the same romantic dreams for their future as you. I see our fromager at the market with his eldest son and think, THAT's the life!

  2. LOVE Roquefort! And the kids do too, which just shows they are honorary little Frenchies! I'm jealous that it's all so close to you!

  3. Sounds a fantastic visit. My boys are not keen on cheese, in fact my youngest hates the stuff and would refuse to go on the visit because of the smell. :(

    Love the blue sky too!

  4. Of all the fromageries one can visit in France, you picked Roquefort, a favorite cheese of mine! I enjoyed visiting "les caves" with you this morning, Aidan. When I was younger, I learned how to eat Roquefort the way my grandfather did: Take it out of the fridge early so it becomes softer. Cut a slice of Roquefort, a slice of butter. Mix them together. Spread on baguette. Enjoy. Miam... I can still taste it. I think I spotted some at a local grocery store last week (brand was "Societe" I believe.) Will get some and eat it while re-reading your post this week. Bonne semaine! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  5. What a wonderful day! I also love the fact that there are so many places to go and see here. It makes the weekends so much fun and all my American friends jealous! I love that part :) I've never been on a cheese tour and it sounds exciting to learn all about the town and how the cheese is made and the history of it all! No classroom can do that for you :)
    Ashley (backyardprovence)

  6. I often think to myself "what a cheesy post" when reading some blogs, but this time I can leave it in the comments!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your pictures and experience about your visit to Roquefort and your tour of Societe. We have been by many times but have never stopped on our way to my grandparents farm where they and then my uncle raised sheep and sent milk daily to Societe for their cheese. I keep saying we should stop but now I really want to do so.

  8. An ingredient in my favourite salad - watercress, pear, Roquefort and walnuts. Perfect!


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