travel & outdoors: In a deeper vein

There's Roquefort in them thar hills. Ray Kershaw gets stuck in
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The Independent Travel
The steep round hills gleam with fresh rain. The sun has just shone through and the air is fragrant with the scent of wet grass. Kiri Te Kanawa sets the mood with Songs of the Auvergne on the cassette. We approach like pilgrims. Just over the brow, round a few more twists in the road, is the shrine of the world's patriarchal blue cheese.

With Canteloube still playing, Roquefort is revealed as a single street of workaday buildings clinging like a ledge between the Soulzon river and the 500 feet high cliffs of the Combalou escarpment. Despite its stunning situation we see at a glance it would fail at the first heat of any contest to decide the prettiest village in France.

Around 1,000 people work here, but apart from a trickle of refrigerated lorries, incongruous in a place so remote, the street is deserted; its forlorn and tiny grocery without a single customer. There is nowhere to get coffee, the one hotel closed for its annual break.

The people, in fact, are all underground: the buildings down the street are like the tips of icebergs - entrances to labyrinths where Roquefort's secret treasure lures. But first we want to take the track on to the aeons- battered face of the escarpment: a chaos of boulders and bizarre rock formations, tangled gorse and brambles which create a sense of wilderness where few people ever come. There is a scurrying of wildlife, cuckoos somewhere in the trees, but what we have come up here to find are the crevices and fissures known as fleurines which provide the caves below with the natural ventilation that has made the Roquefort process possible for thousands of years.

From here the village is invisible and the view must be the same as it was when Julius Caesar came with his army conquering Gaul and whose fondness for Roquefort had by the first Christmas made it fashionable in Rome. But the cheese was ancient even then. Far back in mists of time, by one of these caves a young shepherd was opening his packed lunch of bread and cheese when, catching sight of a shepherdess he thought of better things to do. Rediscovering his cheese a few months later he found it veined with blue. After tentatively tasting it he realised that fate was offering him an opportunity. In the strange wild landscape, alone by some cave, the legend does not seem implausible. And two or three millennia on the business is going strong.

We are told that no one has ever measured the length of the passages that run below the Combalou. They are divided between the 12 autonomous producers - from tiny family affairs to the corporate Societe which sells its cheeses round the globe and whose subterranean estates stretch the farthest and the deepest.

An elaborate troglodytic son et lumiere later, Jean-Francois Mollere, its English speaking guide, leads us through a maze of passages where the damp air is laden with penicillium roquefortii - the native spore of the caves that puts the magic in the rock - to the enormous vaulted caverns where thousands of cheeses are evolving in the darkness from anaemic callow orbs into blue-veined Roquefort. Occasionally we glimpse some shadowy figure working - perhaps a maitre affineur, a master maturer - one of the human big cheeses who in Roquefort have a status only little less than deities. Afterwards there is tasting - an opportunity to buy of course: for Roquefort lover me, the first such I remember being unable to resist.

But Roquefort, like all cheese, begins with the milk, and the syndicat suggested we visit the farm of Madame Alice Ricard high on the uplands of the Causse de Nissac. We arrive a bit early for the six o'clock milking and, strolling up the pasture, she tells about her family's centuries- long roots here, the hard work and isolation, the importance of the grass - chemical free - for the quality of the milk. They own a flock of 400 of the local Lacaune ewes, milking twice a day from early December to 20 July, the date when Roquefort cheese-making legally must end. The milking parlour is modern but the way of life is old.

When it rains it rains a lot, but the rock is limestone and porous. Until not so long ago the only water for the animals was that collected in lavognes, dewponds lined with clay where many of the ewes today still prefer to drink.

It is the hour before dusk and the light is at its softest, the grass its richest green, and we wait by the dewpond in that deep rural stillness that endures in France but is only a memory in most parts of Europe - a stillness almost physical, heightened by bird song, the whispering of the wind. Then from somewhere far away Madame Ricard's daughter begins to call home the sheep - as haunting as any Canteloube air, an ethereal cooing tremolo like a highland curlew's cry. Then, silent except for the rustling of hooves, the ewes begin to come, at first in twos and threes and then a flood of auburn fleece.

With a lump in my throat - perhaps the result of some atavistic memory - I begin to understand the meaning of bucolic. It is one of those rare moments you feel being printed on your soul.

With Roquefort at its centre, the region of the cheese corresponds more or less to the ancient land of the Rouergue - the empty heart of the southern Massif Central - beautiful but rugged, green meandering valleys, high rounded hills hollow with caves, a thousand places to explore where few tourists ever go.

For a flavour of it all take any of the narrow roads to La Couvertoirade on the Causse de Larzac - a turreted and walled Knights Templar village like a Disneyland but so small that you could walk round its walls in 10 minutes or less. It looks like a scene from a book of fairy tales, its Sleeping Beauty aura of time standing still partly the result of its having been for many years depopulated. It has now been given the kiss of life by the proliferating craftsmen busy moving in.

Its car park is getting bigger. One day it may be as insufferable as Carcassonne, but today as we approach across the undulating plateau, see its turrets emerging from a veil of morning mist, it is hard not to stop and rub our eyes twice, as if Merlin had just conjured it from some Arthurian dream. Outside the walls is the communal lavogne reminding us that here too we are still within the rayon, the legal compass of Roquefort.

With so sparse a population, restaurants and hotels are thin on the ground. The best bet is St Affrique, a little valley town eight miles or so from Roquefort. At the Hotel Moderne, Jean-Francois Decuq reels off from his menu a prodigious list of dishes in which he utilises Roquefort. From starter to desert you can fit in four.

But then comes the finale - the platter of 12 Roqueforts - one from every maker, each wonderful but different, fresh from up the road. Where else in the world would such a thing be possible? Already full to bursting point, you sigh and let your belt out, order more wine.