Five French Cheeses You Must Try
French cheese like it’s wine is popular the world over and shares many of it’s qualities. A wide choice, varieties to suit any palate and all produced with a clear goal of making the best cheese without any compromises.
The French like making cheese. There are currently somewhere between 400 and 450 distinct types of cheese available within France with some having multiple varieties. So you have plenty of choice. Like wine there is also a classification system, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) which assigns varieties to one of four categories.
- Fermier – cheese produced on the farm where the milk is produced
- Artisanal – single producer who may use milk from more than one farm
- Co-Opérative – multiple milk suppliers who co-operate in the production of cheese
- Industriel – factory made usually with milk sources from all over France
The Wheel Deal
With so many different varieties of French cheese it helps to group them into distinct types.
- Fromage frais is exactly what it sounds like. Made with milk and curdled with lactic acid rather than a rennet it’s normally eaten like a yoghurt or as a cooking ingredient
- Camembert and Brie are examples of Les Fromages à Pâte Molle et à Croûte Fleuries or soft cheese with a natural rind. These are typically made with a cow’s milk and a rennet. The rind usually has a white floury finish
- Les Fromages à Pâte molle et à Croûte Lavée are cheeses where the rind is washed during the ageing process to stop surface mold forming. This results in a supple, yellow colored crust and a cheese with a more pronounced taste and odour. Epoisses de Boourgogne and Reblochon are typical examples.
- Fromage à Pâte Pressée cheeses have pressure applied during processing to reduced the amount of water and then aged over several months being turned to ensure a uniform finish to the rind. These cheeses tend to be firmer but not hard. Morbier is a well known cheese of this type.
- Pressed and cooked cheeses or Fromage à Pâte Pressée et Cuite are heated prior to being pressed. They are formed in large cylinders and generally ripened for longer than other cheeses. Comté is a well known and widely available cheese of this type.
- Fromage de Chèvre or goat’s milk cheeses can be made in a variety of ways but generally they are not aged and are consumed when relatively fresh. Texture can vary from crumbly to very soft depending on age and variety. As with cow milk cheeses there are a number of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) varieties such as Chabichou du Poitou and commercial brands such as Bucheron.
- Fromages à Pâte Persillées are a group of cheeses characterised by a blue-green marbling running through the cheese which results from adding mold spores (Penicillium sp.) or bacteria during the production process. This harmless addition produces the blue veins in the cheese and the distinctive flavor and aroma. Famous examples include Roquefort, Saint Agur and Bleu d’Auvergne
- Fromage à Pâte Fondue or processed cheese are usually made commercially from other cheeses blended together. They are often flavored with specific additions such as pepper, garlic, herbs and fruits. One of the most well known is Boursin.
The Roche de Solutre in the heart of Bourgogne in France – home of Pouilly-Fuissé wine and Chabichou goats cheese
Camembert de Normandie is an example of a soft cheese with a natural rind. The AOC version is originally from the Camambert area of Normandy in northern France and is made with unpasteurised cow’s milk. Camambert dates back to the end of the 18th century but it remained a locally available cheese. Industrialisation of cheese production and the development of the wooden box at the end of the 19th century saw it sold and transported across Europe and to America.
The milk is warmed and bacteria and rennet added to make the milk coagulate. The resultant curd is cut into cubes, salted and transferred to moulds which give it the distinctive shape and allow the wey (liquid) to drain away. The surface of each cheese is sprayed with a suspension of the mold Penicillium camemberti and the cheese left to ripen for three weeks. Originally the rind varied in color but is now distinctively a floury white. Once the cheese is ripe it’s wrapped and placed in the distinctive wooden boxes.
The unpasteurised Camembert de Normandie (AOC) is not available in the USA due the use of non-pasteurised milk. There are however many versions produced in France which use pasteurised milk and these are available in the USA and other markets.
How do you eat it ? Good question as Camembert is a surprisingly flexible cheese. Some people add it with a hard cheese like Gruyere and Emmenthal to a good old Mac and Cheese. Personally I love it deep fried in breadcrumbs with a tart red currant sauce. Other just eat it with bread – but please not cold out of the fridge – let it warm up. Drinks ? Find some Normandy apple cider if you can good or a fruity red.
Camembert – perfect with just a slice of baguette
Époisses de Bourgogne
A cheese with an interesting history. Legend has it this cheese was first made by Cistercian monks in the 16th century in the village of Époisses in Burgundy. When they left the area two centuries later local farmers took over production of the cheese and even Napoleon was said to be a fan. It was popular right up to the second World War but all but died out immediately afterwards as focus turned toward growing food rather than making cheese.
In 1956 two farmers Robert and Simone re-started production of Époisses using traditional cheese making techniques. The Fromagerie Berthaut now run by their son make the best known fermier Époisses but it is available from other artisanal cheese producers too.
Époisses is a soft cow’s milk cheese with a strong aroma, stinky some might say. The milk is heated and coagulated with lactic acid. The curds are placed in circular moulds and the whey drained. After about the 48hrs the cheese is salted and placed on racks to dry. Once dry they’re moved to cellars to mature. This is a rinsed cheese so three times a week the cheeses are rinsed with water and a local brandy. They are also brushed by hand to coat the cheese with specific yeast and bacteria which produces the distinct orange colored rind over about six weeks. The original Époisses now has AOC status and regional protection so that only cheese produced in the region can be called Époisses de Bourgogne.
To enjoy this cheese you’ll probably need a spoon as it’s a bit runny, a fresh piece of proper French baguette and one of those Trappist beers as it tends to dominate any wine you might want to drink with it.
This semi-soft pressed cheese named after the Morbier area in Franche-Comté close to the Swiss border. It is typically ivory covered with a yellow, moist rind. It’s most distinctive feature is the black dusty line that runs across the middle of the cheese.
Traditionally the cheese was made with a layer of morning milk and layer of evening milk. So the story goes when whey was left over from making Comté cheese they’d put it in a cheese mold, cover it with a thin layer of ash and then in the morning top it up with the left over whey from the morning milk. And thus you’d get some Morbier cheese which was primarily for the consumption of the person making it. These days the commercial cheese is made from a single batch of milk and the ash replaced with a vegetable dye.
Morbier can have a strong smell but the taste is rich and creamy and can have quite a sweet taste depending on the milk. It goes well in sandwiches or any bread, salads and even melts well.
Wheels of Morbier cheese with the distinctive ash layer being dried during the affinage stage
Gruyere de Comté
Better known as just Comté this cheese is a Fromage à Pâte Pressée et Cuite, a cheese which is both pressed and cooked to give a harder cheese. It is said to be the most popular AOC variety with recent estimates at 64,000 tonnes per year. So yeh – quite popular.
Comté in it’s original and AOC form is an unusual cheese. Any sample will have a very distinctive terroir , a smell and taste which is very much of it’s locale, the milk, production method and age. With several hundred producers there is a variation in flavor which have drawn some to compare tasting Comté with wine tasting and it’s tasting notes, scents etc
The milk for Comté comes from only two cow breeds, Montbéliarde and Simmental. There is even a grazing requirement – each cow must have 2.5 acres each. The milk must be turned into cheese within 24hrs of milking so that’s cheese making 365 days of year ! Each 80lb wheel of Comte needs 120 gallons of milk to make – hence the co-operative collection of the milk from multiple herds.
The milk is heated and rennet added to start the process and production of curds. Once the right consistency is reached the temperature is raised further and the cheese begins to solidify and separate from the whey. The cheese goes into a mould and the remainder of the whey pressed out. After that it is removed from the mould, washed in saline and left to dry out. Repeated salt rinses helps create a thick rind which protects the cheese. The final step is the Affinage or maturing cellar where the cheese ages for a minimum of 4 months by law and anything up to 18-24 months.
So what does it taste like ? Well you won’t be surprised to know it can vary. Younger cheeses tend to be sweeter, softer and perhaps buttery. Sounding like a wine tasting yet ? Older samples will probably be earthier, nutty and just stronger. That said this cheese is so variable that the reverse might be true too.
Comté is a very versatile cheese when it comes to eating it – which is the whole point in the first place. You can eat it with bread, cook with it , add it to a fondue or even sprinkle it on a risotto. When it comes to pairing it with wine – with a younger Comté it goes great with a sparkling wine (most things do!). Personally I think it’s one of the most interesting cheeses because it’s not uniform and shows a clear link to where it was produced and the people who made it.
Comté is one of France’s most popular cheese with a firm texture and wide range of subtle flavors
“How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?”
Chabichou du Poitou
Chabichou is a traditional soft, unpasteurized French goat’s cheese with an unusual history. The common name for this cheese – chabichou was originally cheblis which is Arabic for goat. In the 8th century much of Spain and now southern France was subject to occupation by invading Arab and Berber forces. One legacy of this period was the introduction of goats which were well suited to the terrain. Following the Battle of Tours in 732 and success in battle by Charles Martel the Duke of of the Franks, the invading forces left but the goats stayed. In so doing they provided a rich and ready supply of milk which in turn was used to produce cheese.
Chabichou du Poitu first mentioned in 1732 is made only in the Poitou-Charente region, now part of Nouvelle Aquitaine and it received AOC status in 1990.
Chabichou du Poitu is made with fresh, whole goat’s milk. The milk is lightly pressurised and left to coagulate for 24hrs before being put into a temporary mould to allow further drainage of whey for another 18-24hrs. It is then removed, rinsed with brine or dry salt and laid out in drying rooms. it generally stays there for 2-3 weeks. In some cases the cheeses is left for longer to produce a stronger taste.
Only the Chabichou which meet the strict AOC criteria will carry that quality designation and that includes a testing process with the larger producers being checked more frequently. There aren’t that many producers of this cheese. There are 450 goat farms producing the milk, 5 farmer products and 6 dairy/cheese factories.
Unless you are a real aficionado and have access to the more artisanal cheese it’s likely to be a younger less mature variety so eat it as a dessert cheese with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre or Touraine. Or all three.
Bleu D’Auvergne is a Fromages à Pâte Persillées , a creamy cheese with with blue green veins running through it. Although it has a strong and pungent taste it is not the strongest of the blue cheeses making it ideal for a range of uses including salad dressings and of course with a piece of French baguette as a light snack. It was awarded AOC status in 1975.
It was developed in the mid 19th century by a French cheese maker in the Auvergne region in the southern part of central France. Antoine Roussel discovered that bread mould on his cheese curds resulted in a better tasting cheese so he did various experiments to get the mould to spread into the whole cheese. He used a rye bread mould (Pencillium roqueforti) and pricked the cheese with needles to aerate the cheese and get the spores to spread deeper.
The cheese is now made by both local artisanal producers and commercial dairies with unpasteurized and pasteurized milk, the latter being exported worldwide. The cheese is typically aged in cold and damp conditions for about 4 weeks which by blue cheese standards isn’t that long and give it’s a buttery, creamy texture and milder taste than other blues cheeses.
Personally we would eat it as a dessert cheese with a Reisling or Savignon Blanc or perhaps a heavier red or port.
Bleu d’Auvergne is a rich creamy blue cheese with a mild taste – ideal to eat after a meal
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