Food History: Roquefort and the World of Blue Cheese

roquefort cheese

Where do our favorite dishes come from? In our ongoing series ‘Food History’ we take a look at classic dishes and their roots, this time with a focus on the world of blue cheese. 

Someone once told me a joke about the French and cheese:

“Put a plate of smelly cheese in the middle of the table and everyone will pull back, scrunching up their noses and saying, ‘eww.’ Except for the Frenchmen. He will lean in and say ‘ah….'”

Appreciating blue cheeses takes time, and it certainly isn’t everyone’s favorite. But some of us just can’t get enough of the mold. How did this obsession start?

Let’s start by breaking down the term: “blue cheese.”

Blue cheese is in fact a general classification of cheeses–from cow, sheep or goat milk–that have cultures of the mold Penicillium in them. Yup, the same stuff that’s in the antibiotic Penicillin. Because it’s a general term for a variety of individual cheeses, we can’t talk about the specific history of blue cheese, but one of the most well known blue cheeses is Roquefort, and because of its story, it is an excellent place to start.

Roquefort is actually one of the oldest known cheeses, being praised as far back as 79 A.D. It is said that it was the favorite cheese of Charlemagne, and that he himself called it le fromage des rois et des papes – the cheese of kings and popes.

But how did people start eating this pungent cheese decorated with green mold?

Legend has it that a young sheepherder eating a lunch of ewe’s milk curds and bread left his lunch in a cave while he left for more interesting pursuits; in this case pursuing a lovely maiden. When he returned to the cave months later, he found his cheese moldy, yet delicious.

Whether that’s true or not, we can only imagine the first person that looked at a molding cheese and thought the themselves, “sure, I’ll try that.” But good thing they did.

Roquefort is, not surprisingly, one of France’s most popular cheeses, and it has eve been said to help guard against heart disease. Yet another reason to get on the Parisian diet.

It is still produced in caves, and in France you can even visit those caves. To highlight it’s importance to French cheese culture, Roquefort was the first cheese to receive a Appellation d’Origine Controlée, a French certification that protects various regional products and their production. Champagne for example is regulated under the Appellation d’Origine Controlée as well, any sparkling wine that isn’t from the Champagne region isn’t champagne, and on the off chance that you’re ever eating a cheese labeled Roquefort that isn’t from the region of Aveyron it’s not actually real Roquefort.

But not everyone is a Roquefort fan. For other blue cheese lovers there’s Gorgonzola, Cambazola, Bleu d’Auvergne, Stilton, and several others. In the U.S., however, many of us have grown accustomed the the generic, industrialized form of blue cheese, but if you’re a real cheese connoisseur you’ll know that it’s important to choose the good stuff.

A good blue cheese variety should be creamy and moist, the more pungent the better. Crumblier varieties will be stronger – hello Roquefort – with that distinctive “bite.” If you’re a novice to the blue cheese family, this might not be the place to start. Kick things off with Gorgonzola or a Danish Blue instead to get yourself initiated.

Find a plate, serve up a few varieties and have a tasting to find your favorite.

And don’t let the mold scare you.

Check out more of our Food History series.

Image: milstan

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.