A couple of months ago I was back at our house in Aveyron, one of my favourite parts of France. I won’t bore you with the tourist spiel – but you really should explore this little-known département; it’s breathtakingly beautiful.
We had a houseguest this time, one of my very best friends, and he was keen to see more of the region. I knew instantly where we should go; Roquefort. Famous across the world for its terrific blue cheese, the little village of Roquefort-Sur-Soulzon is a remarkable place.
Ascending up a steep-sided valley, one reaches the village which is perched on cliff edges along a single road. I’ll admit it’s not one of France’s prettiest villages, and it’s often quite damp and cloudy there, but behind the buildings lies Roquefort’s amazing secret weapon: its deep cool caves, filled with cheese.
Visitors can go round many of the factories and learn the amazing story of the origin of this magnificent cheese. We visited the largest of the manufacturers, Société, which produce much of the Roquefort we eat in the UK. They also put on a terrific show, as a guide takes you deep into the mountain to show you every stage of the fascinating process.
The story behind the cheese is this: many centuries ago, the area was a high mountain landscape, when seismic activity caused the middle of the range to sink dramatically, resulting in the spectacular chasm that exists today.
A lone shepherd was tending to his flock in the high pastures when he spied a beautiful woman in the distance. He quickly threw his knapsack into a cave for safety, and set off in pursuit. It is not known if he ever caught up with the woman, but some time later he returned to pick up his stuff, and noticed that the rye bread he’d left in his bag had become mouldy, and this mould had spread to his cheese, covering it with pale blue streaks of what is now known as Penicillium Roquefortii. In desperate hunger he ate the cheese, was amazed at how lovely it was, and bingo! Roquefort cheese was born.
Over the years, production became ever more sophisticated, the cheeses made in factories away from the village and brought up to the caves for aging. Roquefort is a proud owner of an Appellation Contrôlée, meaning that no-one else can make Roquefort but the producers established in the village, and the rules of making the cheese are exceptionally stringent.
The mould is still grown on rye bread – we saw it for ourselves, in special little bottles filled with dough – and the cheese itself is made from the milk of the Lacaune sheep. Lacaunes are hardy animals, sandy-coloured and more like goats or African sheep to look at. They do, however, produce amazing milk, which is mixed with the penicillium and rennet and set into the familiar shape.
The cheeses are pierced and washed with brine, then placed in the caves for a number of months to mature and develop. The caves are filled with rivulets and cracks called fleurines which bestow a unique micro-climate upon each cave and maintain a perfect cool temperature. Truly a miracle of nature.
Société have three distinct caves, each one producing a noticeably different cheese. The main caves produce the Roquefort we buy all over the world – rich and tasty. The Caves Baragnaudes make a very refined and delicate cheese, whilst the Caves des Templiers cheeses are much more concentrated and sold only in certain shops and to restaurants. Naturally I bought one, and brought it back with me.
And so we come to the recipe – an absolute copperbottomed French classic, combining the strong Roquefort with sweet pears (perfect at this time of year) and a handful of crunchy toasted walnuts. All this sits in a wobbly custard in a crisp pastry shell, and we serve the quiche with a nice bitter-leaved salad.
There are few better ways to enjoy this magnificent, unique cheese.
Roquefort, Pear & Walnut Quiche
For the pastry:
175g plain flour
75g chilled butter, diced
A pinch of Maldon salt
For the filling:
110g Roquefort cheese, crumbled
A handful fresh walnuts
2 small, ripe pears (I prefer Rocha or Forelle)
a little extra-virgin olive oil
3 fresh, free-range eggs, lightly beaten
120ml double cream
For the salad:
Bitter salad leaves (endive, radicchio, frisée)
A little lemon juice
a little extra-virgin olive oil
1 9-inch tart case
Baking beans (dried beans, lentils or even old pennies will do)
First, make the pastry. In a processor, whizz the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, then, with the motor still running, add the water drop by drop until the dough just starts to come together.
Remove from the bowl and knead together quickly into a smooth ball of dough. Chill this for about 30 minutes.
Then, carefully roll out the pastry on a floured surface to the thickness of a pound coin, and line a 9” tart case, pushing the pastry to the edges and avoiding any holes. Leave the excess pastry around the top – you’ll cut this off after baking for a neater edge.
Scrunch up a disc of baking parchment a little bigger than the tart, and open it back out – this allows it to get into the corners better – then place into the tart case and fill with baking beans. Chill for about an hour.
Heat the oven to 190ºC / Gas 5. Bake the lined tart for 20 minutes, or until it has set and is a light golden colour. Remove the baking parchment carefully and return the tart case to the oven for a few more minutes to brown the base. Remove from the oven and cool while you make the filling.
Heat a little olive oil in a small frying pan. Peel the pears, and cut into 8 pieces, removing the core and pips.
Fry the pear pieces gently until lightly-coloured and remove from the pan. Grill or bake the walnuts until lightly golden.
Place the pears, crumbled cheese and walnuts in the pastry case.
Whisk the eggs with the cream until smooth, season lightly and pour into the pastry case carefully. I usually do this with the tart case already in the oven.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the egg is just set and wobbly, and the custard has a nice deep golden colour.
Remove from the heat, cool a little and trim away any excess pastry.
Dress the leaves with a little oil and lemon juice and serve alongside the hot quiche.