one of his more memorable witticisms, General de Gaulle once quipped
"How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?" What
he meant by that was not quite clear - whether he was commenting on
France or on its cheeses; yet this comment on French cheese has gone
down in history among the general's most memorable quotations.
What he probably meant was that France as a country is as diverse as
its cheeses - or vice-versa. And just as France is physically the most
varied country in Europe, so its cheeses reflect this wide and rich
About-France.com helps you to distinguish your bries from your pyrenees.
If French cheese
for you just means brie,
and the "stuff that looks like cheddar or gouda" in the local
supermarché when you're on holiday, then you don't know what
France had 246
cheeses in de Gaulle's time, it has quite a few more than that now,
given the large number of new products, inventions or copies of
traditional cheeses, that have emerged from France's hundreds of dairy
companies in the past 20 years. This guide is not by any means a
comprehensive listing of all the products that France can offer to deck
a well-garnished cheese-board. It is a look at some of the most common,
and the most tasty.
of cheese - Cheese
main types of French Cheese
French cheeses can be divided into three main families:
which can be added a number of hybrids or very individual cheeses.
different types of milk:
They are made from three types of milk:
- cow's milk
- goat's milk
- sheep's milk.
And they are further divided into cheeses from the farmhouse (fromages
fermiers) , or industrially manufactured cheeses.
A further distinction is also possible: traditional regional cheeses
with an "appellation controlée" label (there are about 40 of
traditional cheeses without an "appelation
contôlée" label, and modern
dairy-designed and produced cheeses.
This brief guide looks at a good selection of French cheeses looking at
each of these categories in turn.
Pressed cheeses. All of these are made from cow's milk.
A selection of the best-known "pressed" (or "hard") cheeses in France.
All of these cheeses come in large units, off which the cheese merchant
will cut slices. There are two types, "cooked" cheeeses, where the whey
is heated during the production process, and "uncooked" cheeses, where
it is not. Cooked cheeses can sometimes keep for a very long time.
A very tasty uncooked pressed cheese from the Auvergne
Cantal is a cheese that many consider to be quite close to an English
farmhouse cheddar or chester. A lot of this "appellation
cheese is made on farms, but obviously local dairies in the region also
produce it in large quantities.
Cantal comes in two varieties: "jeune" (young) and "entre deux"
(between two), meaning cheese that has matured for longer. This
cheese's strength and taste increase with ageing, and generally
speaking cantal cheese is stronger than cheddar.
Two smaller areas within or bordering the Cantal department produce
specific appellations of their own, Salers
These cheeses - made from the milk of cows grazing at high altitude,
tend to be more expensive than generic Cantal, and are generally aged
French cousin of the swiss "Gruyère" cheese is an
from the Franche
region of eastern France. The
area stretches along the Swiss border, and all milk comes from cows
grazing at at least 400 metres altitude. This cooked cheese is
manufactured collectively village by village, and the production method
has changed little over hundreds of years. Any Comté that is
outside the region, or using milk not coming from cows grazing
according to the "appellation contrôlée" rules, is
sold off as Gruyère
Although Gruyère is the name of a Swiss village, it has
given an AOC label in France
Though produced village by village, in the local village dairy (the
"fruitière"), a lot of Comté is matured in
industrial cellars by large
dairy companies such as Jurador
Comté cheese generally comes without holes in it; but
sometimes it may
have small holes. Like Cantal, Comté comes in different
sometimes called "fruité" or "salé" (fruity or
salty). Fruité Comté is
often more elastic; salé is usually a little more brittle.
expensive Comté is "Comté vieux" (old
Comté), which is generally aged
over six months and possibly over a year.
A cheese similar to comté is Beaufort
made in a similar manner in the French alps
. Beaufort tends
to be stronger tasting than Comté, and the taste is also
cheese map, the three large cheeses centre right are -top to bottom-
Comté, Emmental and Beaufort).
Emmental is your
traditional cheese with holes in it. It is not an appellation
cheese, and is thus produced over a large area of France, notably in
the east. It lacks the finesse of Comté, and is generally
industrially, though industrial producers have their own label of
quality for this cheese.
A round cheese,
made in the area of Lille in the north of France. It's orange colour is
the result of the addition of natural coloring. The cheese was
originally made as a French variation of the Dutch Edam cheese, to
which it is very similar.
slightly-cooked hard cheese is produced, obviously, in the Pyrenees -
though it does not benefit from an appellation
Pyrenees comes with a distinctive black skin. Generally speaking it is
a fairly bland cheese that will appeal to those who do not like
A rich soft pressed cheese made in the Alps; it has
quite a strong flavour, and a creamy texture.
2. Soft cheeses
There are literally hundreds of soft
cheeses in France; each region has its own specialities. Many of these
- notably those with appellation contrôlée - are
manufactured in small
units, and (with notable exceptions such as Brie and St. Nectaire) if
you want to buy one, you must buy a whole cheese.
two sorts of Brie, Brie de Meaux
and Brie de Melun
both appellation contrôlée cheeses named after two
nearby towns in the
the country some fifty miles south east of Paris. Brie comes as a thin
round cheese about 20 inches in diameter, with a soft white crust. This
crust is eaten, not cut off! Brie is a very mild creamy cheese that
should appeal to anyone who does not enjoy strong tasting cheese.
Camembert is known and imitated worldwide. A ripe Camembert should be
just soft on the inside, but not too runny. A young Camembert will tend
to be hard and dry, and rather tasteless; an overripe Camembert, going
yellowish on the outside, will tend to smell quite strongly and is not
to be reccommended other than to those who enjoy strong cheeses. The
crust of a Camembert is usually eaten.
are full of Camembert lookalikes, since any similar cheese that is not
manufactured in the appellation contrôlée area in
Normandy cannot call
itself Camembert. These lookalikes tend to be sold young. To test a
Camembert or a lookalike, open the box and press gently. The
cheese should be just soft, but not
This very distinctive appellation
from Franche Comté,
(known as Vacherin
in Switzerland), is manufactured along the
French-Swiss border, at altitudes of at least 800 metres. Like
that is made in the same region, it is a cheese whose manufacturing
process has changed little over the centuries. This rind washed cheese
matures in a round frame made of a thin strip of local spruce wood. In
the course of maturing, this wood imparts a delicious aroma into the
cheese which is later packaged and sold in round boxes made from the
Unfortunately, Mont d'Or is a seasonal cheese and is not manufactured
in the summer months.
This cheese comes with an undulating beige crust, and under the crust
the cheese itself is soft to runny. Though it is quite a strong cheese,
Mont d'Or is not usually a sharp cheese. It tends to appeal to all
In recent years, local dairies have looked for ways to produce and
market a cheese similar to Mont d'Or year-round. The most successful
imitation is called Edel de
, made in the Franche Comté region, but
in a dairy
at a lower altitude. Like Mont d'Or, Edel is packaged in spruce wood,
to give it the distinctive aroma.
A fairly strong rind-washed soft cheese from the Vosges
mountains in Eastern France. Munster is definitely not a cheese for
those who do not like strong tasting varieties. It comes in two
varieties, normal and "au cumin" (with cumin seed). Darker on the
outside than Langres or Epoisses, Munster generally has a thicker rind
which some eat, others cut off. Even an unripe Munster is tasty; a ripe
one - which may well be quite hard on the inside - will be very strong.
However, like other strong cheeses, Munster should never have an acrid
taste. If it does, it is over-ripe.
A creamy soft cheese, uncooked and unpressed, from the coastal region
south of Deauville; this is one of the oldest cheeses in France, and
has been documented since the 12th century.
Some claim that this is the greatest of French cheeses - and possibly
this could be true for an exceptionally good cheese; but Saint Nectaire
- an appellation contrôlée cheese from the
mountains of the Auvergne
- is, alas, a cheese that varies considerably in quality and taste. To
start with there are two distinct types, the farm variety and the dairy
variety. The farm variety is generally better and more expensive, the
dairy variety, usually found in supermarkets, is frequently sold too
young. When this cheese is young, it is quite dry and hard; a properly
matured Saint Nectaire should be soft and elastic, with a slight
tendency to flow if left at room temperature.
A cheese very similar to Saint Nectaire is Savaron
a non-appellation cheese that is also produced in the Auvergne but
generally by industrial dairies.
- An appellation contrôlée
cheese whose quality
and taste can vary considerably , going from the bland to the sharp.
Even in a supermarket, you can ask to taste before you buy. Specific
varieties of Bleu d'Auvergne include the ancient Bleu de Laqueille
Bleu de Bresse - Not an appellation contrôlée
cheese, but a French
industrial dairy's attempt to imitate the success of Danish blue. Soft
and almost spreadable cheese.
- An appellation
contrôlée cheese which is
generally delicious and strong tasting, without being sharp. A
cows-milk cheese, sometimes quite crumbly, manufactured in the same
area as Roquefort and quite similar tasting.
- A blue from the Swiss border, rather hard and
not very strong.
- a mild blue cheese from the Auvergne, often
with an almost nutty flavour. No-one should find this too strong.
- The most famous of France's blue cheeses, though not necessarily the
best. Roquefort is Appellation contrôlée cheese,
made from the milk of
one single breed of sheep, the "Lacaune" breed. The cheese has been
made since the Middle Ages, and has been famous for many centuries;
more recently it has been the object of intense and successful
marketing, and its production is now a major industry in the Aveyron
department, producing over 18,000
tons of Roquefort each year, much of it for export.
, etc... There are dozens of
goats' cheeses, and many local producers market their cheese under
their own local village or regional name. Goats' cheeses can be sold
either very young (frais), when they are soft and spreadable, medium
matured, when they are still soft, but not spreadable, or fully
matured, when they are hard.
pressed cheese from the Basque country, similar to
other southern European ewe's milk cheeses such as Pecorino.
Some modern dairy
(a soft blue cheese, made in the Haute Loire department of Auvergne) , Brillat-Savarin
almost buttery soft cheese... delicious, but watch the cholesterol...),
Albray, Port Salut, Boursin
(a cream cheese with herbs and
Raclette is a mass-produced industrial cheese designed for a
"raclette", i.e. a meal in which thin slices of cheese are heated and
melted then poured over baked potatoes and eaten with gherkins,
mountain ham and other accompaniments. Raclette is an easy and
convivial meal, where everyone serves themselves from the raclette
grill which is placed in the middle of the table. (Traditionally, the
cheese was melted in front of a hot wood fire). However, "raclette"
cheese is not the best cheese for a raclette. Prefer Comté
or even Cantal.
The words "tomme" and "fourme" are generic words that can describe
several different types of cheese. Etymologically, the French word for
cheese, "fromage" is a diminutive of the word "fourme".
Cancoillotte -this very distinctive comes from Franche
Comté; it is a
runny cheese strongly flavoured with garlic, and is very much an
acquired taste. It can be eaten cold or hot.
Cheeses and wine.
You'll read a lot of pompous advice about how such and such a cheese
goes well with such and such a wine. When this is not merely a
marketing gambit by regional tourist boards and local farmers
associations, anxious to sell as much local produce as possible, it is
often just sophisticated brain-washing. The truth of the matter is that
cheese and wine go together, and as long as you follow a few basic
guidelines, you can match a wide range of wines with any cheese.
There is one exception; sweet
white wines do
go well with cheese - unless the cheese is being used
in a sweet/sour combination.
Red wines go best with most cheeses, though with some very strong
cheeses it is better to choose a light-bodied red wine. Dry white wines
also go well with cheese, especially with tasty but mild cheeses. But
in the end, it has to be a matter of individual choice. Your idea of
what goes well together is just as good as the next man's - even if the
next man claims to be an expert. It's your taste against his.