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Roquefort: The 600-year-old mouldy French cheese that heals wounds

As the makers of France's famously potent Roquefort cheese go to battle over food labels, Mike Stuchbery takes a look at the history of this treasured dairy product.

Roquefort has been produced in caves in south west Francz for 600 years.
Roquefort has been produced in these caves for centuries. Photo: AFP

Makers of Roquefort cheese are involved in a battle with food-labellers who have given their fatty, salt-laden but delicious product the same rating as ultra-processed foods and fizzy drinks.

The cheese comes from the small Occitan village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, south of Millau, which recently celebrated the anniversary of the charter granting them sole rights to make and sell their famous cheese.

While King Charles VI granted the village their monopoly on June 3rd 1411, the good people of Roquefort have been making their famously sharp, tangy dairy product for much, much longer.


The village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France is the only place Roquefort cheese can be made.
The cool, dark caves of the Combalou hills provide the perfect environment for the mould to grow. Photo: AFP 

Their secret? Well, legend tells of a shepherd who once saw, in the distance, a pretty young thing tending her own flock. Ditching his meal of sheep’s cheese and bread in a cave, he went looking for her.

Unfortunately for him, but luckily for us, he was unsuccessful in wooing her, and when he returned, some time later, his cheese was riddled with a greenish mould. With nothing else to eat, he reluctantly took a bite of the cheese, only to discover a taste sensation.

The reality is probably far less romantic, but no less interesting. Turns out the cool, climatically-stable Combalou caves that the locals have used for centuries to mature their sheep’s milk cheese are home to the Penicillium roqueforti mould, a fungus that loves nothing more than the nutrients found in maturing cheese. Riddling the wheels, it gives the distinct flavour that many have come to love.

(Also, if you’re wondering about the name, an old folk remedy for open wounds in the region called for the cheese to be smeared over the injury. Turns out there was something to that!)

The village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France is the only place Roquefort cheese can be made.
The village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France is the only place Roquefort cheese can be made. Photo AFP

Over time, cheese makers have learned to work with the fungus, cultivating it on different mediums such as rye bread, before introducing it to the cheese. This has allowed further refining of the taste, to what we expect today.

Today, Roquefort’s claim to the cheese is still fiercely protected.

Nationally, it is subject to appellation d’origine contrôlée certification.

Across Europe, naming rights are rigidly strict. Both the French certification, and EU legislation state that for a cheese to be considered ‘Roquefort’, it must be matured in the Combalou caves near the village, along with incredibly strict guidelines over ingredients and maturing times.

If you’re a cheese addict, or just interested in a real French speciality, the caves in which the cheeses are matured can be visited on a guided tour, and yes, there is most certainly a tasting at the end of it, along with the opportunity to take a few wheels home.

In times such as these, take heart, dear reader – perhaps all that is needed is a cracker smeared with the king of cheeses!

Find out more about the Roquefort Caves, which offer guided tours at Roquefort Société Caves or at 2 Avenue François Galtier, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, 12250

Journalist and historian Mike Stuchbery is a regular commentator on French and European affairs. He can be found at @MikeStuchbery

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!