A Medieval Land of Stinky Cheese

France is often reputed for its repugnant fromage and today was the day to discover the Roi des Fromages des Rois de France: Le Roquefort. Before heading to the caves where the cheese is produced, we first went to La Couvertoirade, a fortified city from the Middle Ages.

This tiny town is situated northwest of Montpellier and about 750 meters higher. That means that despite being a beautiful day in Montpellier, there were slight flurries up there (something I and most other people did not take into account when dressing for the outing). Though now there are only 27 citizens who reside in the city year round, during the Moyen Âge, there were probably close to 600.

In a small town such as this, there were many communal facilities. For example, in the photo below, the steps (to the left of the blue bins) lead up to a community water reservoir and the building on the right was a community oven. Citizens would pay a small tax to the lord and then have access to these facilities. There is also a communal mill, but we’ll see that later.

Like most medieval cities, the highest point is the church. The steps leading up to the church are on the other side of this hill (that don’t really look like steps, but rather the same jagged rock face), were the only path the villagers could use. Later, the Templar Knights built a fortress with a path that was much easier to climb, however, this path was reserved for them.

Below is a Templar fortress. During the XII century, the Templars used this city as a resting point on their way to the Holy Land. They were also successful in raising sheep for wool, meat, and milk. Despite its size, there were probably no more than five knights inside the fortress at a time. The two stone columns you can see on the face of the building above the door used to be a chute of sorts. In case of an invading army, the knights could throw stones, arrows, hot pitch, or even hot oil. When the city was fortified later during the Hundred Years War with England, they used the same materials to hinder advancing armies. However, due to the high cost of oil, they did not have the means to waste it on an enemy. The Templars on the other hand had money, so why not hot oil?

Along with the Templars, Les hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem were another religious order that established itself in La Couvertoirade during the Crusades. After the infamous arrest of the Templars on Friday the 13th, 1307 and subsequent abolition of the order in 1312, les hospitaliers were deemed to be still necessary to the city. Today, this order still carries out humanitarian efforts; however they no longer have a presence in the City.

Like most European cities, their Christian heritage is extremely evident. As seen with the Templars and Hospitaliers, La Couvertoirade is no different. In the same Christian tradition, La Couvertoirade has a patron saint : St. Christophe. He is also the saint of travelers. That is why he is pictured above the main gate as you exit the city. However, as with many western societies, they are losing this tradition. The church in this city no longer holds mass. Sometimes it is used for weddings or baptisms, but the people need to invite a priest from elsewhere to perform the city. In general, the church has become a tourist attraction under the responsibility of the Office of Tourism there who open and close it each day.

This is the Occitan Cross, also known as the Cross of Toulouse. In different regions, religious symbols are often changed depending on the region (think about how many different crosses there are: Celtic, Coptic, etc.). Nobody really knows what the twelve  points represent; some suggestions are: Twelve Apostles, twelve months, twelve hours in a day.

Enclosed by 420 meters of ramparts 10 meters high and towers 20 meters high, during the 100 years war with England, this city became a fortress for its citizens. There are only three ways in or out of the city. Two are large gates with large wooden doors that could have been reinforced in time of conflict. The last, is this small portal in the back of the city which served as an emergency exit if the citizens needed to flee into the country side.

This would be the countryside to which they would flee.

That’s the communal mill in the distance.

Despite their time, the people of the city had a pretty sophisticated system for collecting water.  When it rained, all the water would be funneled through a system of gutters on the streets and on roofs…

…into a basin for public use. This is the biggest one today. It was made out of a natural depression in the earth and lined with stones. The only problem is, it leaks. Hundreds of years ago, there was a larger reservoir in the city center. This was a life line for the city until people started contracting Typhoid Fever from the water.

The Cardabelle acts a natural sign to predict the weather. In times of fair weather, it remains open. However, before it storms, the flower closes. These flowers are all over the city.

Viaduc du Millau

The Viaduc du Millau is the highest bridge in France. It stands at 245 m above ground in places. The city nestled in the valley is Millau. In modern times, the city is most known for its anti-globalization activist José Bové who destroyed a McDonalds in 1999 then received a presidential pardon from Jacques Chirac. However, it also has a history dating back to the Romans and becoming significant during the Middle Ages.

Roquefort

Often when Americans think of French cheese, the two that give France the worst image are Camembert from the North and Roquefort from the South. Both of these are very strong cheeses in both taste and smell. Since we are in the South of France, close to the Roquefort caves, we had to see how this infamous cheese is made.

Roquefort starts from sheep’s milk, but not just any sheep’s milk. The milk has to come from this region because under the EUs protected designation of origin law, if it doesn’t, it’s not Roquefort. Next the Penicillium roqueforti and rennet are added to the milk. Again, if it’s not that type of mold (and yes, that is mold), it’s not Roquefort. The rennet helps the milk curdle. As it curdles, it is molded into large rounds. Once they are hard, they are hand placed onto salted wood shelves to begin the aging process. Here they are left in the dark up to a month. The only person allowed to enter is the Maître affineur du Roquefort. At Societe, his name is Maurice Astruc. The only thing he has the right to do is open or close the flarina in the caves that allow air to go in and out and control moisture. Once a sufficient amount of mold has grown on, in, and around the cheese, they are wrapped in tin foil (and by tin foil I don’t mean aluminum foil). Like this they are aged another three to four months. After the end of the process, a Roi de Fromage is born.

Pictures were not allowed, so this will have to suffice. Those are the caves with the Cheese and le Maître affineur is on the right.

Like most people, you may be wondering, who in their right mind would eat a cheese with mold growing on it? It’s a good question, most people wouldn’t see mold and think, “mmm.” The origin of Roquefort centers around a young, hopelessly romantic, shepherd. One day as he was tending to his sheep in the hills or Roquefort, he saw an astonishingly beautiful young woman in the distance. Instantly he fell in love and set out to find her. In his coup de foudre, he left everything, including his lunch of bread and sheep’s milk, and chased after her. He looked for days to no avail. Sad and depressed, he returned to his sheep and his lunch.

In the days he had been away searching for his love, his milk had curdled and grown mold within the caves of Roquefort. At first, he wouldn’t eat it but due to his heavy heart and empty stomach, he tried a bite of his moldy milk. To his surprise, it was delicious! Thus, thanks to a beautiful young woman, a hopeless romantic shepherd, and penicillium, Roquefort was born.

Roquefort’s association with romance carried on past its origins. It is said that the great seducer, Cassanova, used Roquefort and a good wine to set the mood. I don’t know if I buy that. Although I do find Roquefort very tasty, the smell of one’s breath after eating it is anything but seductive. My bet would be that it was more the man and the wine than the cheese that made women fall for Cassanova.

Typically, Roquefort should be paired with a sweet white wine, such as Muscat (from Languedoc-Roussillon). However, our guide also recommended a Vin de Bourgogne. It’s true, this is a bit of an acquired taste, but I like it. For those who don’t like strong cheeses, you can soften the taste by eating it one part Roquefort, one part butter.


I bought some for my host family. Claude and Caroline said they both love it, but none of their American students have been able to tolerate it. The next day after dinner, we all enjoyed the Roi des Fromage des Rois de France.

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