Roquefort cheese has been produced in the Aveyron department and surrounding area for hundreds of years. On a trip sponsored by Zinpro, Hannah Noble met one of the French farmers supplying the dairies.
The Roquefort brand has a protected designation of origin (PDO) which means only cheese made from Lacaune sheep’s milk and produced in Aveyron and surrounding areas can use the name.
Today, 2,000 farmers supply the seven Roquefort dairies with milk from 800,000 Lacaune sheep in the region.
French organic farmer Pierre Cassan is one of them and La Martinerie Farm, near Millau, is home to his 1,000 Lacaune ewes, including the 700-strong milking flock.
The period of production for Roquefort cheese lasts just six months, with demand for milk between December and July, which, in turn, dictates the lambing period and lactation of the region’s sheep flocks.
For Mr Cassan, lambing starts around January 10 and the ewes produce on average one-and-a-half lambs per head. The requirements for Roquefort cheese means lambs must stay on their mothers for a minimum of 20 days after birth.
Mr Cassan’s stay on the ewe for 30 days.
He says: “During this period we milk the ewes alongside suckling the lambs as this increases the milk yield for the rest of the lactation. However the milk produced has to be thrown away.”
Lambs have access to the ewes for two hours per day split into morning and afternoon feeds. Separating the ewes and lambs may seem difficult, however Mr Cassan uses locking head yokes to catch the ewes and the lambs are herded into a separate part of the shed.
Once lambs are weaned, milk is sold from February 15 to September 30 and the average yield is 300kg per ewe. Milking takes place in a 32 a-side swing over Fullwood parlour.
Being organic means Mr Cassan’s milk demands a 30 per cent higher price, which is usually about €1.30 (£1.09) per litre. To comply with his organic status, Mr Cassan’s also uses essential oils to prevent illness.
At 10 days old lambs are given a drench for four days; it is a mixture of 10 per cent oregano, clove and cinnamon oil mixed with olive oil to prevent scouring. He also diffuses pine and eucalyptus oil into the shed to help with breathing problems.
Artificial insemination is not allowed under organic rules, so Mr Cassan uses live rams to serve his ewes. Rams are put to the ewes on August 18 and are take out on November 4.
The ewes are scanned before Christmas and Mr Cassan says he normally expects just 50 empty ewes out of 700, and these are then culled.
The ewes are fed a ration containing straw, lucerne, ryegrass, sainfoin and concentrate. The concentrates are made on the farm from home-grown and locally sourced ingredients including, peas, beans, barley, oats and wheat.
This results in a 17-18 per cent protein concentrate which is fed at a rate of 500g/head/day after lambing.
Some organic soya is grown locally and used sparingly in the ration as it is very expensive at about €900 (£759)/tonne.
Lucerne is grown on-farm and is cut at 50 per cent dry matter. It is harvested loose and laid over mesh on the barn floor to dry. A ventilation system blows air under the mesh and the final product is lucerne hay.
The hay is picked up with a roof-mounted grab on tracks and is placed into a feeder wagon before being fed at a rate of 3kg/ewe/day.
Mr Casson says the expected yield is 5t fresh weight per hectare per year.
IN order to keep up with the traditions of Roquefort cheese production, the cheese is still ripened in the region’s limestone caves. The caves remain between eight and 10degC all year round, with a humidity of 90 per cent.
The caves are punctuated with a series of natural ventilation chambers called florines which are thought to provide the perfect conditions for ripening the Roquefort.
Societe is the largest of the Roquefort brands and they produce three versions of the cheese. Their culture of penicillium roqueforti is grown in sterile environment on rye and whole wheat bread.
This is then harvested and just 4g of the penicillin is used per 5,000 litres of milk.
The exact strain of penicillin is a closely guarded secret and dictates the type of cheese produced, each of the cheese producers in the region use their own unique strain.
Societe produces three million cheeses per year and it takes 12 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese. Each cheese round weighs 3kg, but they shrink to 2.5kg by the end of the process.
Once made, the rounds are ripened on oak shelves in the caves for 14-25 days. They are then moved to fridges for three months to undergo the maturing process.
The flavour of the cheese is tested at the end of the maturing process. Despite the production window only spanning six months, they produce enough cheese to guarantee a year-round supply.
LEGEND has it that a young shepherd rested to eat his bread and ewe’s milk curd in a cave at the bottom of the Combalou mountain in the Aveyron when he saw a beautiful shepherdess.
He left behind his meal and flock to pursue the mysterious woman but failing to find her he returned some days later to find the bread and curds were mouldy due to the conditions in the cave.
He was starving and ate the mouldy cheese which had been transformed into Roquefort, so the story goes.