“How can you govern a country that has two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese?” – Charles de Gaulle
Along with wine, cheese is one of France’s best gastronomic delights. Whether at home in their local supermarket or when visiting France, people often don’t want to try most French cheeses, preferring to stay with what they know. This is a real shame though, because there are so many gorgeous cheeses that most people are missing out on. To help you out, here’s a brief guide to French cheese
Varieties of French Cheese
As the quote from Charles De Gaulle suggests, there are literally hundreds of different varieties of French cheeses, probably a lot more than 246. French cheese however can be divided into the following broad types:
Pressed cheeses – These are hard cheeses, like the British cheddar, made from cow’s milk.
Soft ripened cheeses – Squidgy cheese like camembert & brie
Washed rind cheese – These often have reddish-orange rinds due to being washed in a liquid such as salted water, beer or wine as it is ripened, to encourage bacteria to grow. These are usually really stinky cheeses, due to the bacterial growth.
Blue cheeses – Cheeses with an – edible – mould in it, usually blue.
Cheeses can be made from cow’s milk, goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. They can also be made with pasteurised or unpasteurised milk. Pasteurised cheese is generally made by large scale producers, whereas small scale producers are more likely to produce unpasteurised cheese. Although most unpasteurised cheese is not recommended for pregnant women, the idea that unpasteurised cheese has a higher health risk that pasteurised cheese is generally not true, or so studies have shown. (Note – bacteria is essential in the cheese making process, pasteurisation kills off the natural good bacteria in milk and introduces artificial bacteria. The natural bacteria in small scale unpasteurised cheese adds to the unique flavour of that producer’s cheese). If you see or hear about mould and bacteria in cheese, remember that it is good for you!
Many French cheeses are protected under a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) regime, so that only cheeses from a certain area can be given that name. A good example of this is the popular blue cheese Roquefort, which can only be so named if it is aged in the natural Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. There are over 50 French cheeses with a protected designation, and the rules also help buyers work out which is the best cheese by requiring sellers to label their cheese as from one of the following categories.
Fermier – This means that it is a farmhouse cheese, made on the same farm that the mile is produced from.
Artisanal – A producer producing cheese in relatively small quantities using milk from their own farm, but may supplement this with milk from other farms.
Cooperative – These are made by a dairly where a number of producers have clubbed together to produce higher quantities of cheese.
Industriel – A factory made cheese where the milk can come from all over France
French Cheeses to Try
There are so many great French cheeses to choose from, here are just a few of the best to try.
Comte – This is the largest AOC regulated cheese produced in France, and is very popular with over 40,000 tonnes produced annually! It has a pale yellow creamy colour but with a dark rind. It has a strong, slightly sweet taste. It’s made with cows milk, and only milk from the Montbeliarde or French Simmental cows can be used.
Brie de Meaux – Brie is a soft ripened, rich and creamy cheese from the town of Meaux in the Brie region of France, which is less than 30 miles from Paris. Brie is now a generic name for similar types of cheese made in many different countries, but Brie de Meaux is the original – and many say the best – Brie cheese. It’s also one of only two that can be officially sold in France (the other is Brie de Melun). The Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century, was so impressed when he tasted Brie de Meaux, that he ordered two cartloads of it to be sent to him in Aachen every year. That’s a lot of cheese!
Camembert de Normandie – This Camembert from the Normandy region of France, and is considered to be the best Camembert. A Normandy farmer called Marie Harel first made Camembert in 1791, after receiving advice from a visiting priest from the town of Brie (you can tell, because the two cheese varieties are quite similar). To be able to be called Camembert de Normandie, a cheese must be made in Normandy using raw milk and with the traditional methods of its inventor. Most Camemberts today however, both in Normandy and elsewhere, use pasteurised milk and many of these are excellent. But what about those wooden boxes that Camembert comes in? These were a slightly more recent creation, invented in 1890 by a French engineer called Ridel, who created the wooden box to make transporting cheese easier and make it last longer, particularly for sending to America where it was becoming very popular.
Epoisses de Bourgourne – This is a washed rind cheese, washed in brandy as it ripens, and is considered one of the world’s smelliest cheeses!
Morbier – A raw milk cheese, produced in Franche Comte region of France. It is a semi-soft cheese, with a thin layer of vegetable ash in the middle. Traditionally, it was made with two different batches of milk. The morning milk production makes the bottom layer, which is covered with a layer of ash to protect it from pests, and then the evening milk on the top. Today however it is generally just made with one lot of milk.
Reblochon – This is a soft washed rind cheese made from raw, unpasteurised cows milk. The name comes from the word ‘reblocher’ which literally translates as “To pinch the cow’s udder again”. This is because landowners would tax farmers for how much milk their cows produced. Farmers would thus hold back some milk, not milking the cow fully, until the milk yield had been measured. The milk that was left was much richer, and so was often made to make cheese. It is a creamy cheese but has a lovely, lingering nutty taste.
If you want to try it the French way, then have a cheese course as part of a meal. The cheese course is served after the main course, but before pudding. Usually the cheeses would be put in the middle of the table, with people helping themselves. There would usually be a knife for soft squidgy cheeses and one for harder cheeses, or even a knife for each cheese sometimes, as using the same knife can muddle up the flavours. The cheese would be served with bread, and sometimes a bit of fruit and jam (i.e. chutney).