Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Visit to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon Where Sheep's Milk is Transformed into Delicious Blue Cheese

I told you about how I was going to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon to see where Roquefort cheese is produced when I came upon the most beautiful field of red coquelicots (poppies); As you know, I had to stop. A short time later and drive down the road beyond the field of coquelicots, I spotted Combalou Mountain where Roquefort-sur-Soulzon sits and where the cheese caves are located.

When you get to the roundabout with the iron shepherd and flock of sheep in the middle, make the turn and follow the signs to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Only one road goes up there and its hairpin turns straighten at the entrance to the town. Then the road squeezes between two rows of gray houses and becomes a steep main street.

The first time I remember hearing about Roquefort cheese is when we visited Meme and Pepe and the aunts and uncles at La Metairie Neuve, the family farm located about 15 km from Lacaune in Southeast Tarn. The farm is small and in a remote mountainous area. They had 80-100 Lacaune sheep, 12-20 cows, and a work horse. They raised chickens, ducks and pigeons and grew all their vegetables. That's me with Meme's sheep.

You see Meme's Lacaune sheep are a breed that originated near Lacaune and notably the milk of the Lacaune sheep is the only breed of sheep that can be used in the production of Roquefort cheese according to the AOC regulations of 1925. The sheep were milked twice a day, in the morning and again at night, yielding 1 to 4 liters a day. Meme looking to see where her prized sheep have wandered off to.

La Metairie Neuve is located 70 km southwest of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and AOC regulations require that all the milk for Roquefort cheese be produced within 100 km of Roquefort. The Roquefort Société fromagerie, the largest producer in Roquefort, dispatched a truck every day during the lactation period (November to July) to collect the sheep's milk from the farm. I loved to listen to Meme tell stories about when she was a young girl.

Milk from Meme's sheep ended up here at the top of the village at the Roquefort Société fromagerie which was established back in 1863. If the street seems deserted, it's because activity in Roquefort is mostly underground.

Before our group went down into the cave for our tour, our guide reminded us that it is cold and damp in the caves, the temperature is a constant 50 degrees and humidity is 90%. Once we were in the first cave, we see green light streaming out of tunnels called fleurines. Moisture is so thick that it oozes on the walls and ceilings.

Fleurines are natural tunnels in the rock mass and run from the caves to the side of the mountain. The contrast in temperature between the inside and outside of the caves causes drafts of cold, moisture-laden air to blow into the caves both in winter and summer. The hotter it is outside, the stronger the current. The tunnels have been fitted with windows and doors that can be opened or closed to control the temperature and humidity inside the caves.

The cave we visit is 11 stories high and there are fleurines on every level. This is where Société 1863 is produced. We are told that this cave can hold as many as 300,000 loaves of cheese at a time. Société fromagerie has a total of 15 caves. Each cave is unique in terms of size and shape, type of rock, ventilation and with the help of Penicillium Roqueforti, each cave produces its own highly characteristic Roquefort cheese.

Another fleurine. You can see in this fleurine that spotlights have led to growth of different plants such as moss, lichen and bracken by providing the light these plants need for photosynthesis.

Penicillium Roqueforti is added to the sheep's milk at the dairy to make sure there is even distribution of the spores. Three strains of Penicillium Roqueforti are grown on sourdough bread made with a mixture of rye and wheat flour. Once the bread has molded away completely, the penicillium is collected and divided into doses. Société fromagerie is the only company in Roquefort that produces all the penicillium added to its cheese on site.

Roquefort cheese is aged for a minimum of three months in accordance with AOC regulations. Société fromagerie ages the majority of their cheese on these oak shelves for five months. I was there in late June near the end of the sheep's lactation period so the oak shelves were mostly bare.

The cheese is placed vertically along the wooden shelving leaving a small space between each one. Through the joint action of the penicillium and the salt on the surface of the cheese, the cheese is left to ripen. The penicillium grows slowly from the center of the cheese outward. This natural fermentation causes the temperature of the cheese to rise melting the salt covering its surface and causes the salt to penetrate into the heart of the cheese. As the penicillium grows, a series of green-blue veins spread throughout the inside of the cheese.

When the ripening stage is completed, the microbial growth on the surface and penicillium on the inside must be stopped. To do this, the cheese is wrapped by hand in tinfoil by female workers known as cabanières who wrap up to 100 loaves an hour. Once the cheese is wrapped, the cheese is placed in a cold chamber and left to mature. It is during this stage that Roquefort cheese acquires its special flavor.

At the end of our tour, we tasted three different Roquefort cheeses from Société; Société 1863, a well balanced Roquefort with delicate green veining, Cave des Templiers, a strong cheese with dark blue green veins and Caves Baragnaudes, a delicate cheese with a creamy texture and pale green veining. The latter was my favorite.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon sits at 630 meters or 2,066 feet elevation against a rocky cliff below Combalou Mountain.

The main street of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon with the Mairie in the distance.

The memorial to the children of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon who died in wars for France.

The Roquefort-sur-Soulzon church with its modern clock and bell tower.

There are currently seven producers of Roquefort cheese. The largest is Société, Roquefort Papillon is also well known. The five other producers are Carles, Gabriel Coulet, Fromageries Occitanes, Vernieres and Le Vieux Berger. Collectively, there are around three million cheeses produced annually making it after Comté, France's second most popular cheese.

I was happy to finally make it to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and visit Société. I will go earlier in the season next time and try to see where the milk is turned into curds and poured into molds before they start the aging process. I got to try some new Roquefort cheeses and I really liked the Caves Baragnaudes Roquefort cheese.

Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt. Have a great day, chat soon!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Château de Mélac and Field of Beautiful Coquelicots

We, cousin Jean Marc and his son Matthias and I were driving to La Métairie Neuve, the small family farm near Viane in the Tarn to say bonjour to the aunts and uncles and meet the insurance experts coming to report their findings about Tonton René's burnt out house.

It was a pretty day and our road took us within sight of the Millau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world. As Matthias sped down D999 toward Saint-Rome-de-Cernon where we turn and go toward Roquefort-sur-Soulzon where blue cheese is created in local caves, I spotted a large field of coquelicots off to the right.

Now the family was waiting for us to eat lunch at La Métairie Neuve so we couldn't stop. However, I was hoping that during my sojourn in the South of France, I would see purple lavender fields, sunflowers in bloom and if possible, it was late June, coquelicots (red poppies), Shirley's favorite.

We arrived and after la bise with the aunts and uncles, we sat down for a family lunch. As the day passed, I kept thinking that every time we go to La Métairie Neuve, the family is waiting for us and we are either in a hurry to get there or we are in a hurry to get home to Sablet so we have never visited Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

I figured that even though we were going back to Clapiers that evening, I was at least 90 minutes closer to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon from Clapiers than I would be if we made a special trip from our house in Sablet. So I decided I would head back up the next day to Roquefort and visit a cheese maker.

While I was on the way, I would try to get close to that field of coquelicots I had seen in the morning near Saint-Rome-de-Cernon. The next morning as I got close, I slowed the car and soon spotted a sign on the side of the road pointing the way to Mélac and a Château de Mélac and that big field of red coquelicots.

I turned and drove down the narrow road into Mélac, a small hameau (hamlet) with a church, a handful of stone houses, several sheep farms, a fountain and the aforementioned Château de Mélac.

Château de Mélac was built by the Gozon family between the 14th and 16th century. At the time it was built, there were four towers which connected four buildings with an interior courtyard. The Château is now privately owned but is open to the public for tours during July and August.

Another view of Mélac with the Butte de Sargels in the background.

The field of coquelicots in the distance; I still had not figured out how to get closer.

More coquelicots. These coquelicots are so thick you might think they had been planted as a crop. But the only poppy grown as a field crop is the opium poppy. Coquelicots are annuals that form a long-lived soil seed bank that can germinate when the soil is disturbed.

The coquelicot flower is large and showy with four petals that are vivid red with a black spot at the center. Coquelicots inspired impressionist painters including Claude Monet who painted "Les Coquelicots" or "Poppies Blooming" in 1873 and remain a favorite subject of painters today.

I finally asked a sheep farmer how to get close to that field of coquelicots which looked like a red carpet close up. Due to the extent of ground disturbance during World War I, coquelicots bloomed between the trench lines and no man's land on the Western front.

"In Flanders Fields," a poem written during World War I by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, he referenced the poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulting in poppies becoming one of the world's most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

After admiring and taking pictures of the field of coquelicots, I headed back to my car and saw this pretty view of Château de Mélac through the trees.

It was just pure luck that we drove past that field of coquelicots that day. Without question, that was the prettiest field of coquelicots that I have ever seen up close, not in a painting or photograph. Who knows if the coquelicots will bloom there next summer, but if you are headed to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon by way of Saint-Rome-de-Cernon, keep an eye out for Mélac and maybe you will be lucky too.

Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt. Have a great day, chat soon!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Sunday in Bandol, a Picturesque Village Along the Sea

I have wanted to visit Bandol, a picturesque seaside village in Provence since the first time I read about Domaine Tempier, the famous Bandol winery owned by the Peyraud family, in books authored by Richard Olney, Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch.

For those who don't know, Alice Waters is executive chef, author of cookbooks, and the proprietor of Chez Panisse, a gastronomic temple in Berkeley California for more than 40 year and arguably the most famous restaurant in the United States; she is a long time friend of the Peyraud family.

She was introduced to the Peyraud family by Richard Olney, a neighbor and friend of the Peyrauds. Richard Olney wrote many wonderful cookbooks including "Simple French Food", "Provence, the Beautiful Cookbook: Authentic Recipes from the Regions of Provence" and "Lulu's Provençal Table: The Exuberant Food and Wine from Domaine Tempier Vineyard" to name a few.

Wines from Bandol including those of Domaine Tempier and Domaine de Terrebrune have been on the wine list at Bistro Des Copains, the French country bistro I co-own with friend Cluney in Occidental, California. We get these wines from wine importer Kermit Lynch who makes his home in Bandol half the year. In the category of small world, Kermit used to rent a house just a few steps from ours in Sablet when he first started going to the South of France to search for wines.

We have left Sablet with intentions to go visit Bandol several times but never quite made it all the way there. You see, the road to Bandol takes you close to Cassis, our favorite seaside village, and we always succumb to the charm of the pretty village and lure of the wines that come from the hills above and take the road down to Cassis rather than continuing on to Bandol.

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I decided I was going to finally visit Bandol. Bandol is about two hours from Sablet and 30 minutes down the road beyond Cassis. Recalling how difficult it is to find parking in Cassis almost anytime of the year, I figured I had better get to Bandol early. I arrived about 10 in the morning and to my surprise found parking easily near the center of town near the harbor.

It was a sunny warm day and there were lots of people enjoying the sand at "Plage Centrale," the central beach.

There was a small market set up along the Quai Charles de Gaulle. The regular market takes place on Tuesdays.


Fruits of all varieties.

Beautifully displayed vegetables.

A pretty pavilion near the beach.

There are a wide variety of bars, restaurants and shops along the Quai Charles de Gaulle.

Apartments and shops along the Quai Charles de Gaulle which runs parallel to the port.

The flowers are in full bloom. Bandol has been designated as a Village Fleuris - a village known for their plants and flowers.

I also discovered that Bandol was hosting the 1er Festival de Musique Mécanique that weekend and there were quite a few street organs throughout the center of town.

A fancy street organ.

More modern street organs music is from perforated cardboard book music. The title of the music is written on the side of books.

A more traditional street organ with the organ grinder and his lady singing. Unfortunately neither she or any of the other singers I heard that morning could sing on key. It was horrible.

A particularly animated group of performers with the street grinder "playing" his street organ.

More street grinders with their street organs. I didn't see any live monkeys in Bandol.

A large street organ.

Another large street organ.

Along with the street organs, their was a small stage and seating set up on Place de l'Eglise with promises of a variety of wonderful performances.

A young dancer performing.

A comedy group.

I liked this man sitting on his balcony near Place de l'Eglise writing away and totally ignoring everything going on below.

A narrow street with pretty houses that runs parallel to the Quai Charles de Gaulle.

A pretty house.

A carousel near the port.

As I wandered around Bandol I kept checking out menus around the center of town. I decided on Le Clocher which was on a side street at the foot of the church bell tower with seating on a terrace in front of the restaurant.

For my starter, I chose Pissaladière de mon enfance, roquette paysanne - caramelized onion pizza from my childhood with country arugula. The dough was not really a pizza dough but rather puff pastry. The owner, the chef's wife, stopped by to ask me if I liked it. I told her it was delicious which it was. She smiled and whispered "c'est la recette de ma grand mère" - it's my grandmother's recipe.

For my main course, I chose Lotte rôtie, riz noir, vénéré comme un risotto, sauce au vin rouge - roast monkfish with black rice cooked like risotto with a red wine sauce. The black rice came from the Camargue which was new to me. Really tasty.

And for dessert, I chose the Palette de glaces, a plate of house made ice creams including coconut, mango, and strawberry.

To accompany lunch, I had a glass, maybe two, of rosé wine from Domaine Bunan. This was a really tasty, refreshing blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Ugni Blanc. After lunch, I chatted with the owner's wife about the restaurant. Le Clocher is owned by Chef Philippe and Florence Kopecky and they have been in business 14 years. They also own the restaurant next door.

She said Philippe wanted me to come back to the kitchen. He and an assistant work out of a tiny space. He told me his dream would be to move to San Francisco and open a restaurant there. He doesn't think he can get the papers they need to do that so they were thinking of moving to Paris so they could be in a larger town now that their children were older.

Afterwards, I headed off to try and find the wineries that she suggested I visit including Domaine Bunan. I found it and several others but they didn't open until 16 00 heure (4:00 PM) on Sundays and I didn't want to wait around that long. So we will have to return to Bandol and devote the day to tasting wine.

I definitely recommend Le Clocher to you if you happen to be in Bandol and looking for a good place to eat.

Le Clocher
1 rue Paroisse
83150 Bandol
Tel: 04 94 32 47 65