Military leader and statesman Charles de Gaulle once said of France: “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?”
That was over 40 years ago. Today France officially boasts more than 400 types of cheese – some say 500. And with new French masterpieces being created each and every year, that assertion may be deliciously correct.
There is perhaps no other country that offers such creativity and range in its cheese making. That’s because in addition to world-famous AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) cheeses such as Camembert, Roquefort, and Brie de Meaux, there are hundreds of subtly nuanced regional cheeses like Tomme de Savoie, Gruyère de Comté, and the rich, caramel-flavoured Abbaye de Belloc.
In fact, France does not seem at all affected by the industrialised uniformity of other cheese making countries. Tradition, artisan craftsmanship, and closely guarded cheese recipes reign here. With unique tastes, textures, and sheer inventiveness in cheese making methodology, France is a true cheese lover’s paradise.
And now just a sampling of the many great cheeses from France:
This cooked and pressed raw cow’s milk cheese is a member of the French Gruyère family. An AOC protected variety, it is exclusively made in the Rhone-Alps, where it was born. Beaufort is a large, round, hard cheese, with a sticky rind and damp, pale yellow interior. It is rich and creamy, with sweet, fruity flavours and the aroma of milk, butter, and honey. Beaufort is perfect in salads, fondue, and quiche, and it pairs well with a Burgundy white or Chablis.
Brie is a soft, bloomy-rind cheese from Ile-de-France. Made since the Middle Ages, this mild, creamy cow’s milk variety has been adored by many cheese lovers, including Charlemagne and Henry VI. Brie has a lightly acidic fruity flavour that when left to unfold, suggests hazelnuts. Brie de Meaux, considered the finest AOC variety, has a white velvet rind and compact, supple, straw-coloured interior. It is a first-class cheese that belongs on a cheese board surrounded by fresh fruits. Pair it with Champagne.
One of the most famous cheeses in France, Camembert is a relative newcomer, dating back only to the 18th century. Named after the Norman village where it was created, it is perhaps the most widely copied cheese in the world. A genuine Camembert has a rind striped with white velvet and red pigments. The soft and crumbly clear yellow interior only gets softer with time, and the flavour is delicately salty. The uncooked, unpressed cow’s milk cheese is a lovely companion for French baguette, fruit, and nuts.
Young, mild, and creamy, “Pur Chevre” from France is made entirely from goat’s milk. This soft, uncooked, unpressed cheese is crafted in a variety of shapes and sizes, including logs, cones, drums, and pyramids, many of which are covered with ash, leaves, herbs or pepper. With age, Chevre becomes firmer and drier with a slightly sharp and acidic taste. An ingredient in many fine French recipes, the cheese is wonderful in salads, soufflés, omelettes, and as a pizza topping. It’s appropriate before dinner or as a dessert cheese, especially when paired with Sancerre or Merlot.
Epoisses de Bourgogne
Legend has it this AOC protected cheese was invented by Cistercian monks at the beginning of the 16th century. Washed with a mixture of salt water during ripening, this cow’s milk variety from Burgundy develops a sticky, red-cultured rind and an intense, but agreeable, alcoholic taste. Epoisses is a powerful cheese, with a creamy, salty, pungent profile. It’s best enjoyed with raisin bread and Sauternes, or a white wine from Burgundy.
Originally invented by seventh century Benedictine monks in the Alsace valley of Munster, this AOC protected cheese has a washed, humid, corrugated rind and a pliable, sticky pate. Soft in texture but full in flavour, cow’s milk Munster is aromatic, tangy, and lightly acidic. It is sometimes seasoned with caraway or cumin. In Alsace-Lorraine, Munster is traditionally eaten with baked or boiled potatoes and finely chopped onions. It’s exceptional with a good beer, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Noir.
One of the world’s ancient cheeses, Pont l’Eveque is the oldest cheese variety from Normandy still produced today. In the Middle Ages it was known as Angelon. Soft, creamy, and full-bodied, the soft, washed-rind cheese has a delicate, herbaceous flavour and bouquet said to be reminiscent of the Norman countryside. The cow’s milk cheese is AOC protected and right at home on a cheeseboard paired with Pinot Noir.
This bold, blue-veined ewe’s milk cheese is one of the first French cheeses to receive the AOC seal. As such, it may only be ripened in the natural stone caves of Mont Combalou in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. The French call Roquefort “The King of Cheese,” an appropriate designation for a cheese of such strong, tangy, salty flavour. Excellent all on its own, this French blue looks crumbly but is actually very smooth and rich on the palate. The complex cheese is a luxurious delicacy when paired with nuts and figs, or a glass of sweet Muscat or Port.