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- the connoisseur's guide to France
the cheeses of France.....
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
Every region of France has its own
cheeses. Back in the time of General de Gaulle, France had 246 cheeses
- and 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.
main types of French Cheese
of blue cheeses in a French cheese shop
French cheeses can be divided into three main families:
, such as Camembert
to which can be added a number of hybrids or very
Cheese is traditionally made from three types of milk:
- cow's milk
- goat's milk
- sheep's milk (ewe'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 d'origine protégée"
(AOP) label (there
are about 40 of
traditional cheeses without an AOP 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.
families of cheese:
Pressed cheeses. All of these are made from cow's milk
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 "AOP"
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
This delicious French cousin of the swiss "Gruyère" cheese
appellation protégée cheese from the Franche
of eastern France. The production 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
Though produced village by village, in the local village dairy (the
"fruitière"), a lot of Comté is matured for up to
two years in
industrial cellars by large dairy companies such as Jurador.
cheese generally comes without holes in it; but sometimes it may have
small holes. Like Cantal, Comté comes in different
called "fruité" or "salé" (fruity or salty).
Fruité Comté is often more
elastic; salé is usually a little more brittle. The most
Comté is "Comté vieux" (old Comté),
which is generally aged over six
months and possibly over a year. Comté is the traditional
in a cheese "fondue", and also for "raclette" (see below).
Cheese that is produced using
coming from cows grazing according to the "appellation
rules for Comté, can be used to make French Gruyère.
Although Gruyère is the name of a Swiss village, it has
given an IGP label
(= PGI - Protected Geographical Indication) in France.
Gruyère is an AOP
Cheeses similar to comté are Beaufort
made in a similar manner in the French alps
. Beaufort tends
to be stronger tasting than Comté, and the taste is also
the 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 contrôlée cheese, and is thus produced
over a large area of
France, notably in the east. It lacks the finesse of Comté,
generally produced industrially, though industrial producers have their
own label of quality for this cheese. French Emmental benefits from an
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.
This slightly-cooked hard cheese is produced, obviously, in the
it does not benefit from an appellation
label. Pyrenees comes with a distinctive black skin. Generally speaking
it is a fairly bland cheese that will appeal to those who do not like
strong-tasting cheeses. An IGP cheese.
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 French cheeses; each region has
its own specialities. Many of these - notably those with appellation
contrôlée - are manufactured in small units, and
exceptions such as Brie and St. Nectaire) if you want to buy one, you
must buy a whole cheese.
There are two sorts of Brie, Brie de Meaux
and Brie de Melun
both appellation contrôlée (AOC) cheeses named
after two nearby towns
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.
A cheese from Normandy,
Camembert is perhaps the most famous French cheese, and 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.
Supermarkets are full of Camembert
lookalikes, since any similar cheese that is not manufactured in the
appellation contrôlée area in Normandy cannot call
These lookalikes tend to be sold young. To test a Camembert or a
lookalike, open the box (not the protective wrapping paper!) and press
gently. The cheese should be just soft, but not spongy.
A fairly strong "rind-washed" soft cheese from the Burgundy
region. Thicker than a Camembert, Epoisses, like other rind washed
cheeses, is yellowish on the outside, and white on the inside. The
white centre is often almost crumbly, while the cheese under the skin
remains very soft. Epoisses has a distinctive taste, shared with a
similar cheese from a bit further north "Langres
both of these cheeses are appellation contrôlée
cheeses, and are
admirable accompaniments for red wine. Another cheese in the same
family is Maroilles
made in the north of France.
semi-soft cheese from Auvergne, made with cows milk, and flavoured with
pepper and garlic. A small hemispherical cheese weighing about half a
This very distinctive appellation contrôlée cheese
, (known as Vacherin
Switzerland), is manufactured along the French-Swiss border, at
altitudes of at least 800 metres. Like Comté that is made in
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 same wood.
Unfortunately, Mont d'Or is a seasonal cheese and is not manufactured
in the summer months because the milk quality in the regin is different
when the cows have rich summer pastures to graze on. However modern
storage methods now mean that it remains available almost throughout
the year in some outlets.
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 tastes.
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
made in the Franche Comté region, but in a dairy at a lower
Like Mont d'Or, Edel is packaged in spruce wood, to give it the
A fairly strong rind-washed soft cheese from the Vosges
mountains in Eastern France, in the Lorraine region. 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. One does not eat the rind
of a Saint Nectaire.
A cheese very similar to Saint Nectaire - notably to the variety found
in supermarkets - 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
A popular modern variant of Bleu d'Auvergne is Saint Agur
a creamy blue cheese made in the Velay hills of Haute Loire by the
large industrial dairy group Bongrain. There is no village called Saint
Agur - indeed no saint either - but Saint Agur cheese is made according
to traditional methods
- Not an appellation contrôlée
cheese, but a French
dairy's attempt to imitate the success of Danish blue. Soft and almost
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
- A blue from the swiss border, rather hard and not
- a mild blue cheese from the Auvergne, often
with an almost nutty flavour. No-one should find this too strong.
- The most famous French blue cheese, though not necessarily the best.
Roquefort is an 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.
Over 18,000 tons of Roquefort are manufactured each year, and the
cheese is exported worldwide. Made in the "causses" mountains of
southern France, in the department of the Aveyron, and matured in
caves. In the past, a lot of the milk used in the making of Roquefort
is imported into the region; but the cheese's success has led to a
development of sheep rearing in the Aveyron, and all the milk used in
Roquefort is now sourced locally.
de Chavignol, Valençay
etc... There are dozens of different 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.
cheese from the Basque country, similar to other southern European
ewe's milk cheeses such as Pecorino.
Some modern dairy cheeeses
(a soft blue cheese, made in the Auvergne) ,
almost buttery soft cheese... delicious, but watch the cholesterol...),
(a cream cheese with
herbs and garlic).
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 French 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.
For information on wines, check out our
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. Remember the adage: "Even if all the
experts agree, they may still be wrong." It's your taste against his.