Only cheeses aged in the natural Combalou caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon may bear the name Roquefort. Legend has it that the cheese was discovered when a young shepherd, eating his lunch of bread and ewes' milk cheese, saw a beautiful girl in the distance. Abandoning his meal in a nearby cave, he ran to meet her. When he returned a few months later, the mould (Penicillium Roquefort) had transformed his plain cheese into Roquefort.
Roquefort, or similar style cheese, is mentioned in literature as far back as AD 79, when Pliny the Elder remarked upon its rich flavour. When the Romans built the great highway, the Via Domitia, that linked the Pyrenees with Italy, it passed not far from Roquefort, and it became relatively easy to send the cheeses to the sea coast and then by coastal shipping to Rome. The Romans, it seems, fell in love with Roquefort. Like all the Mediterranean peoples down to our own time they were used to cheeses, most of which tended to be dry and hard. Roquefort, by contrast, was smooth and soft and tasty, and the Roman aristocrats were willing to pay high prices to have it on their tables. The Emperor Charlemagne, it is said, used to have a pack train of mules bring Roquefort to his court at Aix-la-Chapelle every Christmas. Rich landed proprietors like the Knights Templars, who were once in charge of the area near Roquefort, received payments in cheese from local peasants.
Traditionally the cheese makers extracted it by leaving bread in the caves for six to eight weeks until it was consumed by the mould. The interior of the bread was then dried to produce a powder. Roquefort is made exclusively from the milk of the red Lacaune ewes that graze on the huge plateau of Rouergue, Causses in the Aveyron. A genuine Roquefort has a red sheep on the label!
Sauternes are often paired with desserts, crystallised fruits and chocolate but Château Sainte Hélène (£15.16) can accompany fish such as monk fish, prawns, scallops and sea bass as well as Roquefort cheese. Sainte Hélène is an exceptional wine. It is the second wine of the Second Growth (2ème Cru) Château de Malle, owned by the Comtes de Bournazel. Sainte Hélène has the creamy sweet taste of honeysuckle, orange peel, apricots, cinnamon and honey. It is made by the same team as the first wine and the cultivation of the vineyard is carried out with the same measure of rigorous attention and meticulous care. The wine is made following the same classical tradition as for great Sauternes and is the result of a draconian selection process. Try it with the Roquefort and see how good it is for yourself!
Pear and Roquefort Tart
2 cups flour
1 cup butter
pinch of salt
½ cup water
2 cups Roquefort
Mix the flour, butter and salt together in a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add the water to make the pastry. Roll out to fit a flan dish and slice the pears, arranging them in circles. Crumble the Roquefort over the pears and bake for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with almonds.