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A guide to the aromatic world of French cheese

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Because there are more than 1,200 different varieties of cheese available in France, it might be difficult to know what to choose; thus, we have selected our favorites to assist you in eating like a local.


It is well known that the French have an unhealthy obsession with cheese. The nation comes in at number four on the list of countries that consume the most cheese worldwide. Because the typical French individual consumes close to 27.2 kilograms of the substance annually, it is safe to claim that you will not be at a loss for choices if you develop a yearning for dairy products.


Indeed, cheese is a fundamental component of French culture and exemplifies centuries' worth of culinary expertise and tradition thanks to France. In addition, it is served as a separate course at mealtimes, taking up space between the main dish and the dessert. The expression "as sad as a supper without cheese" comes from the French phrase "triste comme un repas sans fromage," which translates to "as disappointed as a lunch without the cheese."


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Naturally, each area in France has its terroir-driven kinds of cheese that are unique in taste and genuinely convey a feeling of location. This guide will explain the various types and textures of French cheese, with a focus on the most artisanal options: AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) and farmstead (fermier) cheese. And if you are interested in getting a taste of France through one of the country's most well-liked food items, then you will find that this guide is very helpful. There is a wheel, chunk, or wedge of cheese that will satisfy everyone's preferences, from the smooth Brillat-Savarin to the pungent Munster.


Cow’s milk cheese


Cantal


Cantal cheese has a history that extends back to Roman times, making it one of the oldest cheeses in France. It was formerly served at the table of King Louis XIV, but now it is just as well-liked as it was back then. There are three different types of Cantal: buttery jeune (young, between one and two months), entre deux (between three and eight months) with undertones of hazelnut and vanilla, and vielle (old, over eight months), which is as sour as a good, sharp cheddar.


This cheese is made from cow's milk from November to April, and it is produced in huge quantities so that it may be used to feed farmers and their families during the winter. Fermier, which translates to "farmstead," uses raw milk, whereas laitiers, which means "dairies," use pasteurized milk. The name Cantal comes from a department that is located in the center of the Auvergne region in France.


According to the locals, this area in the center of France has more cows than humans, which means there is enough Cantal to go around. When cut into slices or used to make sandwiches, it makes for a delectable meal. Additionally, it is delicious when melted and used in a gratin or aligot, which is a traditional dish from the area that consists of puréed potatoes and cheese.


Brillat-Savarin


The rich, buttery, and somewhat salty taste of this French cheese has earned it the nickname "foie gras of fromage," which means that it is considered to be the most indulgent of all cheeses. The extra cream, often known as triple crème, is what gives it its luxurious texture and flavor. This has a threefold impact: it increases the fat content of the cheese to 75%, it imparts the cheese with its delicious texture, and it mitigates the lactic astringency. The downy, white rind has a tinge of mushroom flavor, which makes it much more delectable than it already was.


The legendary French epicurean Brillat-Savarin, who once said that "a dessert without cheese is like a lovely lady without an eye," is where the name "Brillat-Savarin" comes from. Henri Androuet, a renowned cheesemaker, invented Brillat-Savarin in the years between the two world wars by enhancing the flavor of Excelsior cheese with more cream. This cheese is made from cow's milk and was originally produced in Normandie. These days, however, it is produced in Burgundy and in the region of Île-de-France that surrounds Paris.


Goat's milk cheese


Banon


Banon is a cheese that is very much influenced by its environment. It is wrapped in the chestnut leaves native to the area, and the taste comes from the aromatic garrigue that the goats graze on. Since the first century, cheesemakers in the hills of Provence have been making this cheese from unpasteurized goat's milk. It is said that the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius ate so much that he eventually starved to death as a result of his excessive consumption.


When it is still young, Banon has the form of a puck and is so beautifully unctuous and creamy that you could almost eat it with a spoon. As time passes, the goaty scents that it emits likewise grow more apparent. However, regardless of how you consume it, the nutty and fruity taste that is so distinctive to this cheese is contributed by the tannin that is found in chestnut leaves. Why are chestnut leaves being used? During the severe winters, when the goats are unable to give milk, the cheese is safeguarded by these methods. During the fall, the community members collect the falling leaves and soak them in vinegar or water. After that, the cheese is rolled up into brown bundles and secured with raffia string.


The name Banon originates from the little town from which it takes its name. Goats may be seen contentedly grazing on the herbaceous scrubland that blankets the area, which is located in the heart of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. If you have the chance, you should sample some Banon cheese since it has one of the smaller productions of AOC cheeses.


Chabichou du Poitou


This cylindrical goat cheese, known as chèvre, stands out at the fromager because it is taller than the conventional discs of goat cheese. It takes the form of wooden stoppers that are used to close the barrels that hold local wine. The outside of Chabichou du Poitou is covered in a lacy rind that has a buttery flavor and is sometimes mottled with grey fungus. On the other hand, genuine magic is found on the inside. Its inside, which is silky and creamy, is so thick and rich that it could as well be white chocolate fudge. The semi-soft cheese has a sweet flavor with a hint of salt and lemon zest after it has been aged for two weeks (also known as young, or jeune). After a period of affiné (aging) for six weeks, the flavour becomes more robust with notes of goat and mushrooms.


The western area of France known as Chabichou du Poitou is located in Haut-Poitou, which is to the south of the famous Loire River. The goat's milk produced in these luxuriant meadows takes on a grassy flavour as a result of the clover, alfalfa, and other plants that grow there. The origins of both this French cheese and the goats that produce it may be traced back to the seventh century. The territory was overrun by Arab forces at that period ("chebli" is the Arabic word for "goat.") The famous French author Francois Rabelais, who lived in the 16th century, proclaimed Chabichou de Poitou to be the "Best Cheese in France." Even after more than 400 years, it has not lost any of its appeal to the public.


Sheep's milk cheese


Ossau-Iraty


One of the most flavorful French cheeses available, Ossau-Iraty is characterized by a flavor that is reminiscent of olives and a somewhat greasy texture. This brébis (cheese made from sheep's milk) contains notes of nuts and toasted wheat, yet it melts on your tongue like butter. In addition to this, it has a high butterfat level, which gives it a delightful richness that can be tasted in every mouthful. One of the cheeses that go with almost everything is Ossau-Iraty. You may, for instance, pair it with the traditional French quince paste known as pate de coming or jam made from black cherries. On the opposite side of the Pyrenees, where Roquefort is produced, they use the same sheep's milk to make the cheese.


Ossau-Iraty is one of the oldest European cheeses, although it is not very well recognized outside of France. Surprisingly, the earliest records stretch back to 3000 B.C. Even as late as the 14th century, Ossau-Iraty remained in use as a kind of payment among farmers, shepherds, and sharecroppers. Both the Ossau Valley in Béarn and also the Iraty Massif in the Basque nation are responsible for its production; nevertheless, the manufacturing processes used in each location are distinct. For instance, the cheese is brushed with a dry brush in the cellars of the Basque country, which are quite dry. On the other hand, the damp and musty Bearn basements call for saltwater and a wet towel. Both processes result in the formation of an edible rind that may be used to identify the origin of the product: the rind is grey for Basque cheese and reddish-orange for Bearn cheese.


Brocciu


If you ask a Corsican about Orcu, they would gladly tell you the story of the dangerous monster who was lured into a trap by shepherds. Orcu provided them with a top-secret concoction that he had concocted to save Brocciu's life. This fromage made from sheep's milk has a flavor and consistency that are comparable to ricotta. However, in contrast to the Italian cheese that is made from whey, this one has milk added to it and has nearly no lactose. It has a crumbly and creamy texture, and the shelf life is anything from a few hours to a month after it is created.


The fresh (frais) variety of the cheese may be used to make exquisite omelets, can be put into pastries, or can be incorporated with fiadone, which is the renowned cheesecake of the island. It is recommended that the younger varieties be strained through cheesecloth to eliminate any extra liquid, and ideally, the more potent Brocciu Passu (aged for at least 21 days) should be saved for after dinner.


At that time, locals in Corsica offer it with either fig jam or chestnut liqueur, both of which are additional specialties of the island. In both the food and the culture of Corsica, brocciu plays an important part. As a result of this, the French author Émile Bergerat said in the 19th century that "he who has not tasted it, does not know the island."


Blue cheese


Roquefort


Roquefort is a blue cheese that is produced in France and is often referred to as the "King of the Blues." It is made using full-fat, unpasteurized sheep's milk. The white half of this traditional blue-veined (pate persillée) dessert is salty, creamy, and has just a hint of sweetness. On the other hand, the blue veins provide a taste that is more pungent and savory. When combined, they provide a mixture that is tantalizing to the palate and goes very well with meat. Honey, dried fruit, and apples are all examples of sweet foods that may help smooth out the rough edges.


The question is, where did this blue cheese originate? According to the annals of history, a young shepherd put off eating his meal to show his affection for a lovely woman. After a few days had passed, he came back to find that his cheese had gone moldy but was much more wonderful for it. To create the blue veins, Penicillium roqueforti is injected throughout the manufacturing process. As a consequence of this, these spores provide two distinct advantages. They soften the milk fat, which results in a more peppery taste, and they break down the protein, which results in an increased creaminess. Roquefort is produced in the little community of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, which is located to the north of Montpelier. Even though only 700 people are living there, there are a staggering 100,000 cheeses in the process of maturing at any one moment.


Fourme d'Ambert


If you do not like blue cheese, you should give Fourme d'Ambert a try; it just could alter your opinion. This blue cheese made from cow's milk is injected with a mold that is less pungent than the mold used to make Roquefort. As a direct consequence of this, the taste will be more subdued and loaded to the brim with flavors of dirt and mushrooms. The fact that one of these cylinder-shaped cheeses requires 20 to 25 liters of milk to manufacture is evidence of how nutrient-dense it is. You may sprinkle it over salads, eat it with pears, or nibble on it with a glass of port. All three of these options are delicious.


This French cheese has its origins in Roman times, a thousand years ago. It got its name from the old term for cheese, which was "fourme," which means wheel. As a result, it is considered to be one of the oldest in the nation. It is interesting to note that several artisanal producers are now making Fourme d'Ambert using raw milk (lait cru) rather than milk that has been pasteurized. If you are interested in purchasing any, you should opt for fermier cheese, which is produced using milk from the farmer's cows. Auvergne is a lush, central area with a large number of grazing cows. This is where Fourme d'Ambert cheese originates. As a consequence of this, the Auvergne region of France is home to five distinct varieties of AOC cheese.


Soft cheese


Camembert


It should come as no surprise that one of the most well-known French cheeses is Camembert de Normandie, which has a flavor that is described as being similar to caramelized butter with a touch of mushrooms. This mild cheese is made with raw low-fat milk, and it has a delicious bloomy exterior (croûte fleurie) that preserves its creamy core. It is also called bloomy rind cheese. The texture of Camembert de Normandie should be smooth and creamy, not grainy or coarse. You may purchase it affiné (ripened for 21 days) or à point (aged 30 to 35 days.) Importantly, as it matures for a longer time, the inside will become creamier and more flavorful to a greater degree.


It is recommended to consume Camembert de Normandie at room temperature or bake it in its wooden box before serving it with almonds or crusty toast. You might also try serving it with cider or Calvados, both of which are regional delicacies of the Normandy region. However, you should watch out for industrially produced knockoffs and check the label very carefully. The louche process, which is so important to the Camembert de Normandie's texture and flavor, is ensured by the AOC, which also assures that the milk used to make the Camembert de Normandie is raw and not pasteurized.


Munster


What passes for real Munster in American stores is a world apart from the real thing. People in France have strong feelings about this pungent, creamy cheese; they either like it or despise it. This cheese has a washed rind and is brined and soaked with Gewürztraminer from the area (an aromatic white wine). Because of this, the cheese has a distinctive rosy skin, which contributes to the sour flavor and robust scent of the cheese. If, on the other hand, you find the rind to be too dominant, you should skip it and go right for the cheese, which has a delicious and flowery flavor.


One interesting fact is that the color of a Munster might reveal its age. The smaller ones have a light pink color, while the older ones have a more orange-red hue to them. However, you may also get a type that has bits of cumin seeds mixed throughout it. Having said that, any form of it is wonderful when paired with chunks of bread or baked potatoes. You may thank monks for Munster, just as you can credit monks for beer and Chartreuse. Irish monks in Alsace are credited for developing soft cheese as a means of preserving milk and feeding the local populace during the Middle Ages. Munster is still produced across the area, with production reaching its zenith in the summer and autumn months. During this season, the cows go to higher mountain pastures, which allow them to produce milk with a more robust taste.


Hard cheese


Beaufort


This crumbly cheese was produced in the picture-perfect French Alps, more especially in the alpine meadows and high slopes of the Haute-Savoie region. The name "Prince of Gruyères" was given to it by the French philosopher Brillat-Savarin. Because it is baked at a lower temperature than other gruyères, Beaufort has a texture that is more similar to cream cheese, and its floral tastes are more strong. For farmers to carry it, they were forced to tether it to donkeys because of its enormous size and weight (which might reach up to 130 pounds). As a direct result of this, Beaufort has an identifying form with concave sides, which prevents the rope from sliding.


There are three distinct varieties of Beaufort, and each one is produced with milk that has not been pasteurized. The first category, known as Beaufort d'été (summer), is abundant with a variety of plants and wildflowers. The second kind, known as Beaufort d'hiver (winter), has a paler hue than the first because the cows who produced it were fed hay. The third kind, the more exclusive Beaufort Chalet d'Alpage, is produced in mountain chalets using milk from a single herd of cows. It has the same level of distinction as a wine made from a single variety. The buttery taste of the cheese develops a nuttier quality as it matures. You may choose to eat it simply sliced, or you can melt it in a Savoyard fondue.


Mimolette


Mimolette is sure to grab everyone's attention on any cheese board thanks to its vibrant electric orange color and cannonball form. This firm cheese was first produced in Lille, and its origins may be traced back to a restriction on the consumption of Dutch cheese during the France-Dutch war of 1675. To identify this cheese from its cousin made from cow's milk, Edam, the French added a natural food color called annatto to it. Another name for this cheese in France is Boule de Lille.


The flavor and consistency of Young Mimolette are comparable to those of parmesan. On the other hand, the older versions, which might be up to 24 months old, are the ones that sell the best. Their tastes, as they mature, develop a caramelized heaviness (think bacon or butterscotch), undertones of hazelnut, and a fudgy finish.


The rough appearance of Mimolette's exterior is due, in part, to the presence of cheese mites. They have been shown to play an unexpectedly significant part in the aging process. These bacteria, which are also known as "tiny affineurs" (ripeners), burrow into cheeses that have been cooked and leave behind a somewhat sweet taste. The French often utilize Mimolette in place of the cheddar. For instance, they will cut it into cubes or wedges for snacking, melt it in quiches, or use it as a topping for burgers. All of these uses use cheese.


Fresh cheese


Faiselle


The French cheese known as faiselle belongs to the category of fresh cheeses. To produce it, first milk is fermented with lactic acid, and then the curds are drained into a basket (the word "fiscella" comes from the Latin phrase "small basket"). The finished product is a lovely, fresh cheese with just a touch of tartness to it. The consistency is somewhat similar to that of lumpy cottage cheese or yoghurt. First and foremost, the taste varies throughout the year because wildflowers, grasses, and other natural ingredients are shown in fresh milk.


The salt is left out in the production of Versatile Faiselle. As a direct result of this, you are free to enjoy it with either sweet or savory accompaniments. You may serve it as an appetizer by combining it with chives, or you can serve it as a summery dessert by drizzling it with honey and fresh fruit. Just make an effort to stay away from the flavorless versions sold in supermarkets and search for this fresh cheese at farmer's markets or fromageries instead. In particular, Faiselle may be found in France that is produced with raw cow's milk, raw goat's milk, or even raw sheep's milk. It can also be pasteurized.


Cervelle de Canut


After indulging in the traditional, hearty meals that are characteristic of Lyonese cuisine, it is nice to take a breather and enjoy this delightful, airy cheese. A mixture of fresh goat's milk faiselle and cream is whisked with finely chopped shallots, herbs, olive oil, and vinegar to produce cervelle de canut. The good news is that you can get it in stores located outside of Lyon as well. Having said that, some residents of France like making their food at home.


You may get perplexed if you Google the name of this French cheese since one of the results is "silk weaver's brain." Some people are under the impression that this is a dig made by wealthy Lyons residents at the expense of the canuts of the working class. Others, on the other hand, believe that it is because the canuts lacked the financial means to purchase genuine lamb brains. Regardless of whence, its name came from, though, you should give credit for this delectable culinary experience to the people who worked with silk. They had Cervelle de Canut as a snack (machon) in the middle of the morning, which was important to power the very arduous task that they were doing.



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