Roquefort, the famously potent "king of cheese", has long been a staple for sheep farmers in the department of Aveyron in southern France. But as French tastes change, farmers are looking into reviving lesser-known varieties using practices passed down from their parents and grandparents.
“A lot of people in the 1960s or 70s stopped their own cheese production to only produce milk for the industry,” explains Remi Seguin, a sheep farmer in the village of Blayac in eastern Aveyron, referring to Roquefort.
The Roquefort producers told farmers not to "waste your time with making cheese", he says. "Just make milk, we’ll do the cheese."
And they did. Today, some 3,000 farms produce sheep milk for one of the world’s most famous cheeses.
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The strong, raw-milk, blue-veined Roquefort was the first cheese in France to get an Appelation d’Origine Controllée (AOC) label, in 1925. The designation is a protected status that guarantees quality linked to a terroir, and it comes with specific rules on how products can be made.
Notably, Roquefort can only be made with milk from the Lacaune breed of sheep – wiry, muscular animals that are well adapted to the climate and terrain around the caves where Roquefort is aged.
The region's Larzac Plain and neighbouring plateaus are made of limestone, which does not hold water, making it difficult to grow crops.
The land is best used as pasture, and it has been shaped by sheep for centuries.
The Seguin farm is about 60 kilometres from the caves in the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, within the 100-kilometre radius allowed by the AOC rules.
Agreeing to hand over their milk for Roquefort made sense for many farmers at a time when making cheese was tricky.
“It was a good opportunity for farms to develop and make more milk, to separate the production, because at the time it was difficult to make cheese and sell them all year round. It was a good solution,” said Seguin.
Roquefort put Aveyron on the map, and provided a living for people in an area where not much grows, and there is not much industry.
But things have been changing. Roquefort production dropped 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, whereas other AOC cheeses have been on the rise – mostly smoother-tasting Alpine cow cheeses.
In 2020, the French bought more cheese than ever before, with mozzarella and Gruyere topping the list – perhaps spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic pushing more people to cook at home.
But people are shying away from stronger cheeses that are an acquired taste.
Société, the biggest of the seven Roquefort producers, owned by Lactalis, the world’s largest dairy, has started making Bleu de Brebis, a blue sheep cheese made with pasteurised milk that lacks the kick of Roquefort.
It has caused an outcry among some foodies and activists, who say it will dilute the cheese market and push people even farther away from traditional, raw-milk cheese.
'People want to know the story of their cheese'
Seguin is less concerned. Instead, he says that people might just be exploring the possibilities. Roquefort is just one of many cheeses that can be made with sheep's milk.
“The production of sheep milk increased a lot over the last 20 years,” he says.
Since he and his brother took over the farm from their parents in 2000, they have seen a steady increase in interest in sheep’s milk and the cheese that can be made with it, to the point that they and many farms have started a second cycle of lambs each year, to have milk year-round for products other than Roquefort.
Roquefort producers only take milk from farmers from January to August, which means sheep give birth in November and December to be ready for milking.
Seguin now has a second group of sheep give birth in July and August, so that they can provide milk for other cheeses – his own.
“There’s an interest, that we have seen with the Covid pandemic, in a return to local products,” he says.
“People want to know the story of their cheese,” he continues, explaining that he leads farm visits of 30 to 40 people each week during the summer to spread the word about his work.
“The story makes the difference. I think people want to know.”
Reviving traditional skills
But making cheese is easier said than done. With Roquefort essentially monopolising sheep milk for the last few decades, many farmers have lost the knowledge of how to make cheese.
Seguin feels fortunate that his parents started making and selling their own cheese in the 1980s.
“My mother started to sell cheese at markets in 1986 and 1987, but before that, my grandmother used to make cheese for the family,” he explains. Many farmers would make their own cheese with their milk, but Seguin’s parents were outliers in trying to sell it.
It was difficult to make cheese at the time, while also running a sheep farm. Today, Seguin and his brother take what they learned from their parents and combine it with modern food safety technology and training provided by French and European institutions.
One of the Seguin farm’s three cheeses is a blue, Bleu de Severac, named after the nearby town of Severac le Chateau. It is the first cheese his mother made – the homemade Roquefort that farmers used to make for themselves.
“It's the most interesting cheese of the farm. People know us because of this cheese,” he says. Not many farms here make blue cheese – perhaps not daring to do so in the land of Roquefort.
But his cheese is not intended to compete with the more famous variety.
“When you eat Roquefort, you eat a Roquefort, you recognise it,” he says. “That's why we say that Roquefort is really the king of the cheese. It's unique.”
When Seguin took over the farm in 2000 it was sending 60 percent of its milk to Roquefort, and keeping 40 percent. Today, those numbers have swapped, and 60 percent of the farm’s milk is turned into their own cheese.
Cheese sales – directly at the farm, at local markets and some cheese shops – are on the increase.
“We sell more and more cheese, so we sell less and less milk to the industry,” Seguin says.
"The numbers themselves show we made a good decision to continue to make and sell cheese – our parents made the good decision, and we did too, with my brother."