A Guide to Roquefort Cheese: The So-Called King of Blue Cheese

french roquefort cheese

A Guide to Roquefort Cheese: The So-Called King of Blue Cheese

Blue cheese (or bleu cheese, however you prefer), with its intense aroma and sharp, tingly taste, has somehow managed to become a staple product, despite its characteristics practically begging to be put on top of the list of foods picky eaters won’t touch. Blue cheese steak sauce, blue cheese dressing, and blue cheese compound butter are all considered delicacies and a fine addition to most dishes.

Here’s a thing, though: blue cheese is not just one specific product. There are different types of blue cheese, and while they may seem similar at first glance (it’s the striking visuals, I’d wager, those blue veins always catch the eye), each is distinct and special in its own right. Gorgonzola isn’t Cabrales, isn’t Stilton, and so on. In fact, cheese connoisseurs have been having heated debates over which one is better for years now.

And while the answer isn’t ubiquitous, it seems that Roquefort cheese is leading as of now. It’s not called “King of Cheese” for nothing.

What is Roquefort Cheese?

Roquefort is a French version of blue cheese. It’s made from fresh and unpasteurized sheep’s milk and gets its blue veins from Penicillium Roqueforti fungus, initially found in the soil of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon caves, where the cheese comes from.

Roquefort has been granted the PDO (protected designation of origin) status by the EU, which means authentic Roquefort can only be produced in France, namely in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, with milk coming from the local Lacaune breed of sheep. 

Texture: Roquefort cheese is a semi-hard cheese with a moist and creamy but crumbly texture. It often has no rind, or, when the rind’s there, it’s thin and soft. Roquefort rind is edible, if slightly saltier than the interior of the cheese. 

Color: Roquefort has a very distinct visual, with dark, ivory-esque white paste stricken through with blue-green mold. Roquefort’s veins are arguably some of the darkest and most striking among different types of blue cheese. The longer the cheese is aged, the more the mold develops, with the paste becoming darker and growing more and more veins. 

Flavor Profile: Roquefort is savory and salty, with a sharp, acidic tang that tends to draw out more complex undertones, especially for those who aren’t used to the flavor. Once the palate gets used to the initial bite and zing, you’ll start noticing the characteristic nutty and earthy notes of a sheep milk cheese, along with very subtle sweetness and a tiny hint of caramel.

Aroma: Roquefort cheese is particularly known for its distinct, pungent smell, strong even amongst other blue cheese. The scent feels like a salty punch to the nose, but once you get over the initial shock, you’ll notice it’s more complex than it might’ve felt at first, with deep earthy, and smoky tones.

Is Blue Cheese and Roquefort the Same?

They are, in a way. Roquefort is blue cheese, but not all blue cheese is Roquefort. Roquefort, specifically, is French cheese. Gorgonzola, for example, is another famous blue cheese variety, but it’s Italian. Stilton is another take on blue cheese from England. 

What most of these (and most other blue) cheeses have in common is that Penicillium Roqueforti is used as a starter culture. They do share certain similarities but are also different from each other in both subtle (minor differences in texture: some drier, some creamier) and definitive (strength of aroma and flavor) ways.

How is Roquefort Cheese Made?

Lacaune sheep milk taken for Roquefort production must be whole, unpasteurized, unfiltered, and not heated over 93°F. The diet of the sheep must consist of local area fodder or grass on at least 75%.

The rennet must be added to the milk in the first 48 hours after the sheep are milked. Once the curds are separated from the whey, they’re placed in the molds coming from natural surroundings, and Penicillium Roqueforti is introduced.  

The cheese is left to age in the Combalou caves for at least five months, where the atmosphere must ensure the growth of the mold at the correct pace. The cheesemakers tend to check up on the cheese during the aging process and use needles to spread the mold if the veins aren’t spread as starkly as they desire.

Once the cheese is properly aged, it’s extracted from the molds and packaged for sale. 

What Does Roquefort Taste Like?

Roquefort cheese has a very distinct, sharp, savory flavor. It’s arguably the most intense among blue cheese varieties, with tang and salt the first flavors you feel when taking a bite. But once you get used to the sharpness, you’ll notice that the flavor profile is rather complex, with the mold’s sharp tang accompanied by earthy and smoky, even a bit caramel-like undertones, giving the cheese a barely-there hint of sweetness.

What to Pair with Roquefort Cheese:

It may seem like the pungent aroma, and robust flavor would make Roquefort a hard cheese to pair, but it can go well with a surprisingly long list of ingredients. The key to correctly pairing Roquefort with other foods is the amount you use. It’s a potent and flavorful ingredient, so use sparingly, whether crumbled or sliced. Less is more when it comes to this cheese. But having a small bite of it adds an intense burst of flavor to most ingredients, accentuating the flavors rather than overpowering them.

Here’s an incomplete list of foods Roquefort can be successfully paired with:

Fruits: Roquefort goes best with sweet fruits like ripe peaches, apricots, figs, and grapes. But it’s also great with crisp and fresh fruit with a bit of a zing like green apples, pears, and citrus (particularly tangerines or mandarin oranges) when incorporated into more complex combinations, like salads or tarts. The fruit can be fresh or dried; both varieties work great.

Nuts: Roquefort can be paired with all kinds of nuts, but the sweeter ones, like almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, and pecans, are considered a classic pairing. But frankly, other nuts like walnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts, and peanuts work as well, especially when you add another sweet ingredient into the mix, like fruit or honey.

Cured Meats: the more robust the cured meats, the better they’ll go with Roquefort cheese. Skip the more delicate prosciutto Cotto and mortadella, and go with sopressata, prosciutto Crudo, Salchichon, or beefy Bresaola.

Fresh Meats: since we’ve mentioned beef, it bears to say that steak and blue cheese are one of the most classic pairings ever! Melt crumbled Roquefort into the blue cheese sauce or mix it with butter to make compound butter, and then add a generous slice on top of your steak. Other intensely flavored meats like pork, veal, and chicken (particularly dark meat like thighs and wings) also work excellently.

Seafood: same as with meat, the more delicate flavors may be overwhelming, but sauce or dressing, or even just straight-up crumbled Roquefort, can work great for more assertive flavors. Crumbling some on tops of fish like salmon and tuna before baking, roasting octopus and shrimp in compound butter, or using the blue cheese sauce for mussels are all fantastic ways to utilize Roquefort in cooking.

Vegetables: almost all vegetables go well with Roquefort cheese, but the more neutrally-flavored ones are perhaps the best to amplify the dish's overall flavor. Potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and mushrooms are great when roasted with crumbled Roquefort. Roasted cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are great when dipped in classic blue cheese sauce. And salads made with leafy greens could always use a robust ingredient or two (it pairs particularly well with peppery arugula and cress).

Other cheese: when assembling a cheese platter or a charcuterie board with Roquefort as the star, stick to more neutral cheese varieties like mozzarella, brie, and white Scamorza to balance its robust flavor and not overwhelm the palate. 

Drinks: Roquefort is typically paired with sweet and fruity wines, both red and white, though the latter is considered more common (Sauternes, for example, is a popular option). It also goes well with well-aged whiskey and bourbon, with their honey and caramel notes complementing Roquefort well.

How Long Does Roquefort Cheese Last?

The shelf stability of Roquefort cheese dramatically depends on its packaging. The more durable the packaging, the longer its shelf life. Roquefort, manufactured by a large commercial creamery and clad in a vacuum-sealed plastic container, will last up to 6 months, as long as the package remains sealed. 

A cheese packaged in a non-vacuum-sealed container will last significantly less. For example, the shelf life of Roquefort cheese wrapped in paper and packaged in a carton box is somewhere between 1 and 3 months, as long as the package remains unopened. 

Once the packaging is unsealed, the shelf life of Roquefort cheese decreases. The more durable and shelf-stable the packaging, the more dramatic the decrease. Once the cheese is unwrapped, it’ll typically remain fit for consumption for the following 3 or 4 weeks

In any case, commercially packaged Roquefort cheese will have a “best by” or “expiration date” printed on the label that you can safely follow unless the package has been damaged in any way. If you notice any damage to the packaging of newly-purchased Roquefort cheese, contact the manufacturer immediately to learn if it could affect the cheese.

If you purchase a cut of Roquefort cheese from a wheel at an artisanal shop, act in the same vein as you would with a newly opened package: the cheese should be consumed within three weeks.

How to Properly Store Roquefort Cheese:

Roquefort cheese needs to be kept at a lower temperature, loosely wrapped, and placed in a large air-tight container so that it can breathe a little.

It requires more careful storing than most other types of cheese for three reasons: 1) if improperly stored, soon enough, the whole refrigerator (and all food you’ve stored there) will start stinking of Roquefort; 2) there’s a risk that spores of mold may contaminate other foods if Roquefort isn’t separated from them; 3) the Roquefort itself will start to decline in quality quickly, as the cheese will dry out, becoming crumbly, more pungent and less flavorful, within a couple of days.

Once the packaging is opened, and you’ve cut away the portion of the cheese you intend to use, wrap the leftovers in parchment paper or wax paper (but not plastic wrap, again - it needs to breathe), and place it either in an air-tight container or a large silicon freezer bag. Kept this way, Roquefort will maintain its texture and flavor qualities until the end.

Can You Freeze Roquefort Cheese?

Yes, you can freeze Roquefort cheese to prolong its shelf life, but while it’ll remain fit for consumption, it will do so at the expense of the texture. When thawed, the texture will likely be drier and crumblier. However, freezing doesn’t affect the flavor quality of Roquefort cheese. Rather than using it raw, whether as an appetizer, in sandwiches or salads, use defrosted Roquefort in recipes that require heat:

  • Make blue cheese sauce or compound butter.
  • Bake or broil it with fish.
  • Add to hot paninis. 

Roquefort cheese can be kept in the freezer for around four months. 

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