Roquefort, famous “king of cheese”, has long been a staple for sheep farmers in the Aveyron department in southern France. But as French tastes change, farmers are looking to revive lesser-known varieties using practices passed down from their parents and grandparents.

“A lot of people in the 60s or 70s stopped their own cheese production to produce only milk for the industry,” says Rémi Seguin, a sheep farmer in the village of Blayac, in eastern Aveyron. , in reference to Roquefort.

Roquefort producers have told farmers not to “waste their time making cheese”, he says. “Just make the milk, we’ll make the cheese.”

And they did. Today, some 3,000 farms produce sheep’s milk for one of the world’s most famous cheeses.

Find this story in the Spotlight on France podcast:

Spotlight on France, episode 80 © RFI

The strong, with raw milk, veined with blue Roquefort was the first cheese in France to obtain a Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), in 1925. The appellation is a protected status which guarantees quality linked to landand it comes with specific rules on how products can be made.

Notably, Roquefort can only be made with the milk of Lacaune breed sheep – wiry, muscular animals well suited to the climate and terrain around the cellars where Roquefort is aged.

The Larzac plain and the neighboring plateaus of the region are made up of limestone, which does not retain water, which makes cultivation difficult.

The land is best used as pasture and has been shaped by sheep for centuries.

Mouton Lacaune in the Seguin barn in Blayac, Aveyron, August 2022.
Mouton Lacaune in the Seguin barn in Blayac, Aveyron, August 2022. © Sarah Elzas/RFI

The Seguin farm is located about sixty kilometers from the caves of the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, within the radius of 100 kilometers authorized by the AOC regulations.

Agreeing to put their milk back in Roquefort made sense for many farmers at a time when cheese making was tricky.

“It was a good opportunity for the farms to expand and produce more milk, to separate the production, because at the time it was difficult to make cheese and sell it all year round. It was a good solution,” Seguin said.

Roquefort put Aveyron on the map, and brought people to live in a region with little culture and little industry.

Changing tastes

But things have changed. Elaboration of Roquefort fell 10% from 2010 to 2020, while other AOC cheeses are on the rise, mainly cheeses from alpine cows with a milder taste.

In 2020, the French bought more cheese than ever before, with mozzarella and Gruyere topping the list – perhaps boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic pushing more people to cook at home.

But people avoid stronger cheeses that have an acquired taste.

Company, the largest of the seven producers of Roquefort, owned by Lactalis, the largest dairy in the world, has started producing Sheep Bluea blue cheese made from pasteurized milk that lacks the spiciness of Roquefort.

This has caused an outcry from some foodies and campaigners, who say it will dilute the cheese market and further alienate people from traditional raw milk cheese.

“People want to know the story of their cheese”

Seguin is less worried. Instead, he says people could just explore the possibilities. Roquefort is just one of many cheeses that can be made with sheep’s milk.

“The production of sheep’s milk has increased a lot over the past 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 from it, to the point that they and many farms have started a second cycle of lambs each year, to have milk all year round for products other than Roquefort.

Roquefort producers only take milk from breeders from January to August, which means the ewes lamb in November and December to be ready to be milked.

Seguin now has a second group of ewes who lamb in July and August, so they can provide milk for other cheeses – his own.

“There is an interest, which we saw with the Covid pandemic, for a return to local products,” he said.

“People want to know the story of their cheese,” he continues, explaining that he hosts farm tours of 30 to 40 people every week during the summer to publicize his work.

“History makes the difference. I think people want to know.

Bringing traditional skills back to life

But making cheese is easier said than done. Since Roquefort has mainly monopolized sheep’s milk for a few decades, many farmers have lost the know-how of cheese making.

Seguin feels lucky that his parents started making and selling their own cheese in the 1980s.

“My mother started selling cheese in the markets in 1986 and 1987, but before that my grandmother made cheese for the family,” he explains. Many farmers made their own cheese with their milk, but Seguin’s parents were outliers trying to sell it.

It was hard to make cheese back then, while running a sheep farm. Today, Seguin and his brother are drawing inspiration from what they learned from their parents and combining it with modern food safety technologies and training provided by French and European institutions.

Bleu de Severac from the Seguin farm.  Made with raw sheep's milk, it is not intended to compete with Roquefort.
Bleu de Severac from the Seguin farm. Made with raw sheep’s milk, it is not intended to compete with Roquefort. © Sarah Elzas/RFI

One of the three Seguin farm cheeses is a blue, Severac Blue, named after the neighboring town of Sévérac le Château. It is the first cheese made by his mother – the homemade Roquefort that the farmers made themselves.

“It’s the most interesting cheese on the farm. People know us because of this cheese,” he says. Few farms here make blue cheese, perhaps they don’t dare to do it in Roquefort country.

But his cheese is not meant to compete with the more famous variety.

“When you eat Roquefort, you eat Roquefort, you recognize it,” he says. “That’s why we say that Roquefort is really the king of cheeses. It’s unique.

When Seguin took over the farm in 2000, he sent 60% of his milk to Roquefort and kept 40%. Today, those numbers have changed and 60% of the farm’s milk is made into their own cheese.

Sales of cheese – directly from the farm, in local markets and in some cheese shops – are on the increase.

“We’re selling more and more cheese, so we’re selling less and less milk to the industry,” says Seguin.

“The numbers themselves show that we made the right decision to continue making and selling cheese – our parents made the right decision, and so did we, along with my brother.”

This story was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen now.

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