Roquefort is a small town in southern France, famous for sheep and caves. Today everybody knows the name, and it has become a synonym for a type of cheese created with the help of a blue fungus. There is a legend how the Penicilium roqueforti and its use for the production of cheese was discovered.
A young shepherd eating his lunch of rye bread and sheep cheese was distracted by a beautiful girl. He forgot his meal in the cave of Combalou where he was resting, and set off in pursuit of the young girl. When he returned a few months later he discovered his meal covered with a blue-green mould. The rye bread had turned blue which had then turned the cheese blue. But he was hungry, tasted the cheese and feasted.
This is the legend about the discovery of the fungus, but there is obviously a grain of truth. The escarpment of the Plateau du Combalou was formed by a rockslide. There are numerous karst caves and cracks in the limestone, and the resulting slope is not suitable for farming, so it was used for herding sheep.
Long time ago a shepherd left his food in one of the caves while he was herding his sheep, for whatever reason. The food was a piece of cheese and a loaf of bread packed in a cloth. It is not clear what happened exactly, but it seems he forgot his food in the cave, which was generally not a big problem, as the cool cave air and the high carbon dioxide in the air preserved the food like a refrigerator. But he came back after a rather long time, and the food was covered by a green blue fungus, the famous Penicilium roqueforti. He thought about throwing it away, but food was expensive, and he was poor, so he tried to eat it. He was very astonished as he learned that the cheese, a fresh sheep cheese, which before tasted quite boringly, was now much better with a special taste. The bread was not very good with the fungus, but someone had the idea to seed the next load of cheese with crumbs of the moldy bread to make it tasty. And that's the obvious story how the creation of Roquefort was discovered, more than a thousand years ago.
There are two more important details to the story. First, the fungus existed in the cave together with other fungi, it was coincidence that this fungus and not a different kind actually infected the food. After maturing cheese in the caves year after year, it is sufficient to store the cheese for some time in the caves which are now full of the spores. The same effect is known from wine cellars and cider cellars, the required yeast impregnates the cellar and the process starts without artificial "seeding". And there is a second important fact, the fungus is unlike most other fungi not poisonous, it is suitable for consumption. Most of them actually produce toxins, some are only dangerous if one consumes too much, other accumulate in the body and after some time cause various illnesses. This is not the case with Penicilium roqueforti. But it is the reason why it is important to use the right fungus for the cheese.
According to archaeological evidence cheese-making started 4,000 BP in this area. However, the blue cheese is much younger. Jean Astruc suggested in 1737 that Pliny the Elder, who praised the cheeses of Lozère and Gévaudan and reported their popularity in ancient Rome in 79, was referring to Roquefort. There is no reason or argument for this, it was just Astruc's imagination, nevertheless the theory was widely taken up. It was later promoted by the Société des Caves as a marketing stunt. Until today there is no clear consensus on the meaning of Pliny's description. It is more likely, though, that the cheese was discovered in the Middle Ages and as a result the town grew on top of the caves. Roquefort cheese was actually mentioned for the first time in Carolingian texts in 1070.
It seems the cheese became quite popular and soon was sold and even produced in a continually growing area. King Charles VI. decided on 04-JUN-1411, for the first time in France, to grant its production exclusively to the inhabitants of Roquefort. That's what the French today call Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), a Protected Designation of Origin. In 1925 the according law was created and Roquefort became the first cheese recognized as an Appellation d'Origine. They did the same with wine and champagne, a tradition which is even respected by the modern days EU. Today there are still other blue cheeses, like the blue cheese made from cow milk around Aveyron, which is sold as Bleu des Causses. But cheese which is not sheep cheese produced at Roquefort cannot be sold under the name Roquefort. But in common speech Roquefort has become a deonym, the designation for blue cheese which has arisen by derivation from the proper name of the Roquefort cheese.
The area is a karst area consisting of fossil rich limestone. The Grotte de Combalou (Combalou cave) is located above the village and has a total length of 2 km. Only a part of the cheese maturing caves are actually natural. Many were dug or at least extended artificially. The cave is named after the mountain behind the town, the Plateau du Combalou, which is part of the Causse du Larzac. It is part of the Causses, a series of karstified limestone plateaus. The higher and steeper areas generally have little soil and vegetation, there are karren fields and stone forests.