a town built on cheese

roquefortRoquefort – both cheese and town – owes its success to a natural disaster. A series of landslides in the plateau some million or so years ago left behind a chaotic heap of rocks riddled with fissures and natural caves, which were ingeniously adapted into cellars for the purpose of making cheese. These cellars lie at the tip of fleurines, or long faults that channel the air flow, creating a constant temperature and humidity year round. (At Societe des Caves – the oldest and largest producer of Roquefort in town – the cellars go eleven stories deep, with fleurines on every level.) To make this King of cheeses, fresh ewes milk is mixed with penicillium roqueforti spores at the dairy and the resulting curds are shaped into large rounds. Before heading to the cellar, each round is needled to create small cavities, allowing for aeration. Deep underground, the cheese is dusted with salt and left to ripen in the bare caves. And here’s where the fleurines works their magic, fostering the growth of microorganisms like the penicillium roqueforti as well as other naturally occurring flora, which slowly ferment the cheese from the inside out, raising its temperature and causing the salt to melt and penetrate down into the cheese. Once ripened, the rounds are wrapped in tin foil by cabanieres, aka “the ladies who wrap the cheese,” and left to mature. Between affinage and maturity, the entire process can take up to twelve months, and the result, if you’ve ever tried real Roquefort, is a uniquely complex and creamy cheese. Little wonder then that Charles VI granted the inhabitants of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon the monopoly on cheese ripening and turned the cellars into a protected landmark. There’s gold in them there fleurines. And it’s blue.

la jolla laissez faire

La Jolla is a small coastal village with left-leaning sensitivities just up the road from San Diego. It’s craggy coastline alternates caves, bluffs, and small stretches of sandy beach which are favored by the local populations of both seals and people. It’s one of the prettiest parts of southern California, with an off-the-beaten-track veneer and laid-back attitude to match. You get the sense that people once came to La Jolla and, smitten, never left. (Today, however, they’d have to be able to afford its premium oceanfront prices.) Speaking of premium prices, Mitt Romney has a house here – John McCain, too – so the town’s about to descend into notoriety to some degree. But don’t let their potential presence fool you: La Jolla is a true blue as it’s endless Pacific views.

the great stalactite

What is it about boys and caves?  Maybe it’s the promise of adventure, of burrowing down and finding some secret place.  Whatever it is, the lure of an underground hole is well nigh irresistible.  Once I saw the small road sign for Doolin Cave – promising a great stalactite, no less – I insisted we follow and find it.  This being Ireland it was, of course, further afield than the signs promised.

Doolin Cave is located on the western edge of The Burren, an extensive karst area in County Clare. Karst, in case you don’t know, is a landscape that’s shaped by the dissolution of multiple layers of soluble bedrock.  Hence The Burren happens to be Ireland’s most important cave area. This mystical, lunar-limestone region is punctuated by a large number of active stream caves, yet only one river runs over ground through its terrain to reach the sea. Over 35 miles of cave passages have been surveyed in the region, with the Doolin Cave considered the most significant of all.

The cave was discovered by English pot-holers exploring the honeycomb of caves tunneled by rivers that ran  through the soft limestone. Discovered in 1952, the Great Stalactite measures 7.3 metres in length – about 24 feet – and is recognised as being the longest stalactite in the Northern hemisphere.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to do at Doolin Cave.  After descending 120 steps and being ceremoniously plunged into darkness, the great stalactite gets its great reveal before you turn around and march 120 steps back up and out.  Still, it’s a big cave – and were I 10 years old again I’d be telling you it’s pretty awesome, dude.

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