There could be as many as 1,000 different cheeses produced throughout France and, like wine, the top echelon of producers are governed by a set of rules that specify both regions and production methods. This is done to protect the reputations and high production values of some of the most famous cheeses in the world, like Comté, Brie and Roquefort. These cheeses are labelled within France as French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and now through the European Union as Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP).
Artisanal cheesemaking techniques are one of the bedrocks of French cuisine. Different variations of the same cheese (not AOP classified) can be sold in the village markets, or farmgates. These variations highlight differences between the landscape, microclimate, grass quality, processing methods, yeasts and moulds and how much fat is retained in the milk. Cheese is as much about terrior – the place they are made – as wine.
The most popular cheeses in France, like Roquefort and Comté are unpasteurised. This means the milk has not been treated with heat to kill potentially harmful bacteria and is known as “raw milk cheese”. Unpasteurised cheeses have the distinct taste of the local milk as the pasteurisation process tends to diminish the flavour of milk. Australian law forbids the importation of unpasteurised soft cheeses but some hard cheeses are permitted.
- If you plan to eat cheese as part of a formal lunch or dinner, serve between main course and dessert.
- Always serve at room temperature (remove from the fridge at least one hour prior to serving).
- Have a separate cheese knife to serve each cheese, if possible, to prevent cross-contamination.
- Whether you are selecting cheese from a cheese platter or from a trolley at a restaurant, it is polite to take no more than four pieces, no thicker than your thumb.
Soft cheeses are generally those varieties that are easily spreadable across bread. The most famous (and imitated) varieties are the creamy white-rind AOP cheeses like Camembert from Normandy. Generally, but not always, these cheeses are made from cow’s milk and have a fatty, creamy, mild flavour. A more refined version of the typical Normandy creamy cheese is d’Affinois. Délice de Bourgogne is a version from Burgundy. Both these cheeses are readily available in Australian specialty cheese shops. Soft cheeses from cow's milk are ready to eat after as little as two weeks, but can last up to two months when they start to get slightly stinkier and oozy.
- Brillat Savarin and Boursault, Normandy
- Chaource, Champagne
- Coulommiers, Ile-de-France
- L’Explorateur, Ile-de-France
Chèvre means goat’s cheese in France. The most common form of goat’s cheese is a log up to 10 cm long and wrapped in paper or rattan/plastic matting. Chèvre can also be sold as small round discs or pyramids. Generally, chèvre is a soft cheese, easily spreadable, with a strong, sharp, tangy flavour. It is often used in salads as an entrée, or goes well on a cheese platter after a rich meal. Goat’s cheese is produced in most regions of France, including the rugged mountain-regions of Corsica. The island of Corsica provides a snapshot of the depth of this variety across the whole of France as in just one region you can choose from the soft, fresh, Brocciu, or the aged, more pungent harder cousin Casinca or the aged Brindamour marinated and wrapped in a rind of local herbs containing rosemary, thyme, coriander and juniper berries – a herb mix known as fleur de marquis. Goat’s cheese is as idiosyncratic as each region: Provence has Banon, wrapped in chestnut or vine leaves and tied with raffia so it looks like a little present. The small ash-covered rounds from the Loire Valley like Selles-sur-Cher and the white-rind Crottin de Chavignol go perfectly with the viscous, aromatic whites of that area, such as Vouvray and Sancerre.
- Cabecou, Midi-Pyrénées
- Chabichou du Poitou, Poitou-Charentes
- Charollais, Burgundy
- Chevrotin, Savoie
- Pélardon, Languedoc-Roussillon
- Rocamadour, Midi-Pyrénées
- Valençay, Centre
These cheeses are firmer than the soft cheeses when you touch them and often have a “washed-rind” that is orange. The colour is the result of the cheese being scrubbed/washed in cider, wine or brine and generally aged for up to two months. The flavours of these semi-soft cheeses can vary from very mild, like the small round Époisses de Bourgogne made from unpasteurised cow’s milk, to the square Pont-l’Evêque from Normandy and the creamy Reblochon from up in the mountainous Savoie region near Annecy. To take you out of your creamy comfort zone and into stronger, more pungent territory try Livarot from Normandy or the very stinky Gris de Lille and Mariolles (or Marolles) from up north near Lille in Nord-Pays-de-Calais. The Gaperon cheese from near Auvergne is a ball-shaped cheese blended with garlic (and sometimes peppercorns) that is so distinctive you are better just to eat it plain with a baguette. A special mention must go to the Tomme-style cow’s milk cheeses from many areas of France, particularly the Savoie, whose consistency can be from semi-soft to hard.
- Langres, Champagne
- Munster, Alsace
- Pave d’Auge and Pave de Moyeaux, Normandy
- Port Salut, Brittany
- Rollot, Picardy
- Vieux Pane, Normandy
No self-respecting cheese platter is complete without a hard cheese. These cheeses have been aged for at least five months and sometimes up to two years. Stars include the hard unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheeses Ossau-Iraty and Etorki from the Basque region in the Pyrénées, which were traditionally made to last through the cold winter and go well with the smokey flavours of Bayonne ham and other charcuterie. Comté, an unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese from the Jura region near the Haute-Savoie is another benchmark. Comté has a nutty, sweet flavour and can be served with fruit and nuts, on bread or as a savoury snack with charcuterie and salami.
Hard cheeses are often used in cooking in the Alpine regions of France. A good example is Beaufort (like Gruyère) in the mountains of the Haute-Savoie near Switzerland. Beaufort is aged in caves for a minimum of five months and comes with a delicious, nutty flavour and is fab served plain, but also commonly used in melted cheese dishes like gratin, omelettes and fondues.
- Cantal or Fourme de Cantal and Salers, Auvergne
- Cantalet, Auvergne
- La Brouère, Alsace
- Pyrénées and Midi-Pyrénées (can range to semi-soft to hard)
It's impossible to talk French cheese without a special mention of blue cheese. Blue mould is actually added to the milk during the first stage of cheese-making; it is not – as commonly thought – injected with wires. After the cheese is made, the mould lies dormant. Then, the cheese is pierced with stainless steel needles, allowing oxygen in – as soon as the mould spores come in contact with the oxygen, they grow and form blue mould.
A milder blue is the Bleu de Bresse from Burgundy, which has a mushroomy-flavoured Brie-style cheese that goes beautifully with the plush pinot noir of the region. At the other end of the spectrum is Roquefort – the famous unpasteurised AOP sheep’s milk cheese from the mountainous Midi-Pyrénées areas that has been aged in the Combalou caves for between three and six months every year since Roman times. Blue cheese works well in salads, as a sauce for steaks or with pears and apples on a simple cheese platter.
- Bleu d’Auvergne, Massif Central
- Bleu des Causses, Midi- Pyrénées
- Bleu de Gex and du Haut-Jura, Franche–Comté
- Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage, Rhône–Alpes