That the French love cheese is well-documented. After all, the average consumption of cheese in the country is 24.4 kilograms per person per year (read: a lot). And with over 1,600 types of cheese spread over 13 regions in the country, who wouldn't develop a love affair with the stuff? Fromage is a way of life in La Republique, and the Francais take it so seriously that their government established the Appelation d’Origine Controllee (AOC), a wine, cheese, and butter classification and certification authority that ensures producers adhere to strict production methods native to particular terroirs (geographic regions).
This is why French cheese is truly unique. Factors like milk sources, vegetation and diet of milk producers, temperature and humidity, and mineral content in the soil are all carefully applied at every step of the cheesemaking process. These are all done to ensure that the final product can be enjoyed as intended — as people have for hundreds of years.
Below are brief descriptions of the different types of cheese, as well as some of France’s most notable histoires sur la fromage:
Types of cheeses
- Pressed cheeses
Pressed cheeses are thusly called because their curds are pressed after heating. They tend to come in large units, such as wheels or barrels, from which the merchant can cut off slices for consumption. Most pressed French cheeses are made from cow’s milk, and tend to be dry because the pressing process removes as much moisture (in the form of whey) out as possible. This is why pressed cheeses such as parmesan and pecorino are great shaved or grated over pasta or a salad.
The pressing process tends to make for a denser cheese with more curd content per pound than softer cheeses. Most go through a ripening or aging process called affinage, which is always done in a controlled environment. Aging experts called affineurs typically take cheeses from a cheese producer to be aged before selling.
Pressed cheeses have a predominantly salty flavour, have nutty notes, have a crumbly texture, and often have a waxy outside rind. French dry cheeses are excellent with sweet wines.
- Soft cheeses
In France, soft cheeses are made from either cow, goat, or sheep milk. The first few steps in producing soft cheeses are similar to that of pressed cheeses, except they don’t get pressed much (or at all) afterwards. This makes for a rich, creamy texture usually accompanied by a mildly salty flavour with a bit of tang.
Soft cheeses are best enjoyed at room temperature, as this ensures that the fat molecules within the cheese expand to their fullest size (they shrink in the cold). This brings out a more intense taste that spreads to the palate, especially when paired with contrasting flavours of honey, figs, or bright wines like Sauvignon Blancs or off-dry Rieslings.
- Blue cheeses
Blue cheeses are produced similar to pressed and soft cheeses with one key difference: they are “stained” with cultures of the mold Penicillium, which gives them their spots or “veins” and their distinctly strong flavour and aroma.
These cheeses need to be produced in certain environments that properly draw out their unique flavours, which is why certain blue cheeses can only be made in certain regions of France. There is a high regard for traditional methods of cooking in the country, particularly in la France profonde ("deep France," a reference to rural and provincial living outside of big French cities), so many blue cheeses are still cured in caves or in certain underground locations where temperature, humidity, and microbiological balances are naturally optimal.
Cheeses by region
Normandy is home to the Camembert village in Orne, and is best known for its soft cheeses, the Camembert de Normandie (a type of camembert) and the Pont l’Eveque (a type of angelot cheese). The region’s camemberts are made from strictly local Normandy cows that have been raised outdoors day and night, while their angelot cheeses are made in the same way that Cistercian monks did back in 1230 AD.
Camemberts are excellent with crusty breads (like baguettes), fruits, crackers, pecans, or hazelnuts. In France, they are also often served with a traditional glass of Normandy cider or apple brandy called Calvados. Angelots are excellent paired with a silky, fruity red wine like a Beaujolais-Villages, Bouches du Rhone, or even champagne.
The Aquitaine–Occitanie regions, both in the Bordeaux prefecture, are situated in the southernmost part of France. They feature the Pyrenees–Atlantiques department, home to both the stunning Pyrenees mountains that border with Spain and coastal views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The area is best known for its wines, but because it is such a rich melting pot for cultures and natural elements, it has also become a key cheese-producing region. French edam hails from Aquitaine, although they’re produced much in the same way as the original Belgian kind have for centuries. Aquitaine–Occitanie is also known for the rare delicacy Ossau-Iraty — pressed, uncooked ewe cheese that is only found here, where the conditions are well-suited for dairy sheep farming.
Lastly, Occitanie is known across the world for being the birthplace of Roquefort, a wildly flavourful blue marble cheese. Legend has it that the cheese was first discovered when a shepherd left his rye bread-ewe cheese sandwich in a cave to pursue a fair maiden. When he returned sometime later, the sandwich was untouched, albeit with a bit of mold on the cheese. Many a French royalty have since declared Roquefort “king of cheese” (how convenient).
The twin regions’ most famous cheeses are not entirely local, as their flavour profile and production methods recall Swiss influences. The areas’ favourites are French emmental, Bouton de Culotte, and comte.
French emmental, nearly identical with Swiss emmental, is the quintessential cheese that’s easily identifiable because of its holes. Despite being industrially produced, this cheese retains and is quite popular for its distinctive look and inviting flavour. Bouton de culotte (which literally means “trouser button”) is the opposite of emmental — it is not for the faint of heart. It’s made from goat milk and is aged for up to two months. It has a moldy feature and a strong, peppery taste.
Comte, the delicious cousin of the Swiss gruyere, is made from cows that live and graze in the mountains, and is still manufactured collectively village by village, as it has been for hundreds of years.
When the French talk about Parisienne food, one of the first things that comes to mind is brie. King Charlemange spoke fondly of the cheese for the first time in 774 AD, and King Louis XIV allegedly had it every day of his life. Brie is the ancestor of all soft cheeses, and in the French capital — where brie was born — two types are king: Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun.
What’s the difference between the two, you ask? Brie de Meaux is refined for four to eight weeks and is molded using a shovel, while Brie de Melun is refined for 4 to 12 weeks and is moulded using a ladle. Both go great with champagne, and either bake excellently into vol-au-vent (imagine a croissant in the size and shape of a small cake).
Discover the magic of French cheeses yourself — by signing up for our Tastes of Eastern France Tour. This seven-night degustation cruise features the best of Rhone, Soane, Lyon, Burgundy, and Champagne. Click the link to learn more.