Allyson Gofton in France: Roquefort and prunes
The Pyrenees mountains, which form a natural border to Spain, run for almost 500km from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean — and, technically speaking, there are no foothills. Many villages along here either hug mountainous slopes, or are hidden in south facing gullies. Over centuries, they have made the most of their often-inhospitable locations and, as a result, today you can celebrate numerous traditions and unique foods.
A few hours from my village, Caixon — but still in the region of Occitanie — is the ancient village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, home of the famous Roquefort AOP cheese. This village (pictured below) seems to cling precariously from the side of a mountain, called the rock of Combalou. I visit on an ugly weather day and it does no justice to the village, giving me a bleak view into the history of what must have been a truly remote and lonely existence.
However, it’s a blue cheese aficionado’s paradise, and I’ve come to discover and eat. Plunging underground, I explore the labyrinth of caves formed after the collapse of the Combalou mountain, now used to cellar the famous cheese. While sheep’s milk blue cheese could be made all over the Pyrenees, to wear the AOP, it must be aged in this unique environment.
Traditionally the large discs of fresh cheese were left in the caves, exposed to the penicillium roquefort, which was found naturally in the soil. Cheesemakers harnessed this natural mould by baking bread and leaving the loaves in the caves until they were consumed with unique mould spores (as seen below).
Today, with production at 20,000 tonnes — it’s France’s second most consumed cheese — Roquefort’s production is very much industrialised and the cheese is inoculated during production, either at curd stage or via aerosol though holes poked into the discs of cheese.
The best time to savour Roquefort is between April and October and here, where tradition dictates, Roquefort stars on local menus. Given its high price, most often Roquefort will be savoured simply on the cheese course on the day’s menu, or it will be crumbled and scattered on to coarsely sliced endives, dressed with oil and lemon juice and served as an entree.
However, in the area of its production, Roquefort appears in tarts, quiches, pies, pasta sauces and more, usually accompanied by eggs and cream. The sharp, creamy Roquefort matches well with plums (prunes, in French - pictured above). If any of summer’s bounty still lingers on your shelves, try them with Roquefort. At my weekly market, dried prunes (pruneaux) are not one type suits all. They come very dried, dried or moelleux — soft, meaty prunes.
I’ve paired the plumpest prunes with Roquefort in the fabulous tart. A touch of ginger adds a special note. This tart is best enjoyed cool, not cold. If Roquefort is unavailable try a locally produced cow’s milk blue cheese.
This sensational pie is best made with a short crispy pastry base and flaky top. Use either half a 400g block of each or two sheets each of the pre-rolled pastry varieties. The short pastry can be cut to fit the base and sides of the pie, while the puff pastry is best if both sheets are placed one on top of the other and rolled to the size required. Get the recipe