In 1925, Roquefort cheese became the first French foodstuff to enjoy the protection of an appellation, a qualification that indicates the geographical origin and quality of a product. The first wine followed a decade later. A thousand years before that, Roquefort, or something very similar, was offered to Charlemagne by the bishop of Albi. The king thought the cheese had gone off, so he picked out the blue-green veins with his knife, until the bishop explained that these were the tastiest bits. After that, Charlemagne enjoyed it so much, he asked the bishop to send him two crates a year.
Attracted by stories such as these, I paid my first visit to Roquefort in 2020 when I was in the midst of writing a book about the culinary specialities of the south of France. Rather like Charlemagne, I was unable to resist the taste of this creamy, crumbly ewe’s milk cheese, but what made an even stronger impression on me was the village itself.
Commercial success has left its mark on Roquefort, but not in a way you would expect.
Where is Roquefort?
In France, you will find at least a dozen places called Roquefort. The one famed for its cheese tags on the name of a nearby stream and becomes Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in Aveyron. It lies due east of Albi and north-west of Montpellier in a rugged landscape of limestone plateaux and deep valleys. Drove roads, stone-lined watering holes and cavernous stone shelters for shepherds and sheep bear testament to three thousand years of sheep-farming. All this is part of one of UNESCO’s larger World Heritage Sites – The Causses and the Cévennes.
Where does the money go?
Like most visitors to Roquefort, I stopped in the car park by the tourist office on the edge of the village. Above me rose the Combalou, a compact limestone mountain a couple of kilometres long. It provides a stunning backdrop, and its geology plays a central role in the creation of Roquefort’s cheese.
There is one main artery through Roquefort, and I followed it in search of a cup of coffee. After a couple of kilometres, I came out in open countryside on the far side of town. I turned and looked back at the Combalou and the buildings huddled at its feet. Had I missed something?
Each year, the cheesemakers in this village produce 18,000 tonnes of Roquefort with a retail value of around €350 million. My walk had taken me from end-to-end of the tiny zone, around 300 metres wide, where every single one of those cheeses is required to spend at least two weeks of its youth. Its distinctive blue-green mould develops in cellars which are naturally-ventilated by fissures in the unstable rocks of the Combalou.
Why, I wondered, was none of this wealth evident?
A ghost town
Roquefort was more like a ghost town than the home of a thriving industry, and worse still, I had failed to find a cup of coffee. Apart from the factory shops of three cheesemakers, the sole store I had passed was a pharmacy. There was no boulangerie, no tobacconist, no hairdresser, and the three eateries were all closed.
The most striking presence was the logo of one of the cheesemakers – Société Roquefort – which featured in corporate signage on offices, factories, a research centre, a warehouse and a steady stream of trucks, plus a couple of murals four stories high.
Strangest of all was the residential property, seemingly empty or even abandoned. Nearly all the shutters on the windows were closed, and most disturbing of all, there were no letterboxes. I guess no one would write to a ghost.
As a writer, this mystery piqued my interest even more than the history, legends and manufacture of Roquefort’s cheese.
Ask at the mairie
I obtained a few guarded hints of an explanation from a lady who worked behind the counter at one of the smaller cheesemakers. I probed further at the tourist office, working on the assumption that staff in that type of establishment like nothing better than answering questions about their community. In this case I was treated with suspicion, and fobbed off with a cautious, ‘Ask at the mairie.’
I decided to do better than that. A few weeks later, I returned to Roquefort to interview Bernard Sirgue, mayor of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon since 1989, newly-elected in 2020. We enjoyed a long and wide-ranging discussion, much of which is covered in my book, Menu from the Midi. Here, I shall give you a summary.
Because of the cellars!
In the early 1960s, Roquefort was a lively village with shops, cafés, a cinema and a population of 1,500. Since then, the community has shrunk. Most of the remaining residents now live on a modern housing estate built a few kilometres outside town in the 1970s. Commercial establishments in the old village, apart from those involved in cheesemaking, vanished along with most of the residents.
Today, Bernard Sirgue administers a commune that has more salaried employees than residents, even though the number of employers has shrunk dramatically.
For many centuries, Roquefort was home to countless small cheesemakers. During recent decades, consolidation has reduced their number to a select group of seven. At one end of this narrow spectrum are three giant enterprises that are ranked at numbers one, fourteen and seventeen in the global dairy products industry. The largest is a group called Lactalis. With a turnover of €20 billion, and it owns Société Roquefort which makes 75% of Roquefort cheese. It also owns 80% of the village, and most of the other buildings belong to the other cheesemakers.
When the mayor had finished telling me all this, I asked him why Lactalis has bought so many buildings.
‘Because of the cellars.’
Under the rules of Roquefort’s appellation, there is no shortage of land to farm Lacaune sheep in the designated zone, or to build dairies and temperature-controlled storage facilities. But there is a severe geographic restriction when it comes to cellar space for the obligatory 14-day ripening period. Between them, the seven cheesemakers have purchased almost every building blessed with a naturally-ventilated cellar. No cellar, no Roquefort. The market is closed to new competitors.
The demise of a community
Bernard gave a rather longer answer to my next question: why do so many of these buildings appear to be abandoned?
‘I remember 50 years ago when many employees were living in old apartments above the cheese cellars where they worked. Nowadays, people expect private bathrooms, not communal facilities on a shared landing. Plus, Roquefort is on the north side of the mountain so they would want double glazing and heating in winter. Most of the properties would be impossible to rent out in their current state. And the cheesemakers aren’t interested in spending money on renovation. All they want are the cellars.’
A side-effect of Roquefort’s declining population has been a drop in visitor numbers. ‘Tourists are astonished when they discover how badly-equipped we are to welcome them,’ Bernard told me. ‘No café, no hotel, no shops. We have a world-famous cheese, but no infrastructure to match its reputation.’
After a long struggle, Bernard Sirgue believes he is making progress on a project which will breathe new life into his town. Called Roquefort Demain, or Roquefort Tomorrow, the project has secured the support of Lactalis and the other cheesemakers, neighbouring communes and the department of the Aveyron.
In December 2021, the region of Occitanie confirmed a contribution of €4.5 million. And to concentrate minds, 2025 will be the centenary of Roquefort receiving its appellation. If you want to have the same eerie experience as I did, visit Roquefort before then. Otherwise, you may find yourself arriving in a large new car park on flat land below the village and taking a lift to a new square around the church where there will be a tourist office, a museum, a cultural research centre and the cellars of the cheesemakers. There are even plans for a cable car to take you to the top of the Combalou.
6,000 years of cheesemaking
In 2020, I climbed the Combalou the hard way on a path that led me across burning fields of scree and around boulders as big as houses. From the top, I looked northwards at a succession of rocky outcrops. The third one is around six kilometres away and it is called the Butte de Sargel. In one of its caves, archaeologists unearthed fragments of clay cheese strainers, proof that people were making cheese here 6,000 years ago. Exactly when someone discovered how to make that cheese develop its distinctive blue-green veins is unknown.
In some ways, Roquefort reminds me of a mining town. Its prime purpose is to produce a commercially valuable product, and what lies below ground is immeasurably more valuable than what rises above it. But unlike a mine which can be exhausted, the cellars of Roquefort are constantly refilled with new treasure. As long as consumers want to eat its cheese, Roquefort will have a future, with or without Roquefort Demain.
About the author
Colin Taylor has lived in the south of France for 20 years, and through his books he shares his passion for the region’s culture, gastronomy, history and language. The story of Roquefort is recounted in much greater detail, along with the stories of many other regional specialities, in his book, ‘Menu from the Midi: A gastronomic journey through the South of France.’
Find out more at www.colinduncantaylor.com