to French Cheeses
Written by Nicole Duplaix (www.bonjourparis.com)
Should you eat the rind? What is that smell? And how on earth do you decide which
cheese to buy at the local fromagerie? Are cheese really in season? How? Once you have
discovered your local fromagerie (cheese store) down the street, how on earth do you
decide which cheese to buy? We'll give you some pointers and guide you through the
basic varieties. After that, it's up to your palate and nose to explore and enjoy France's
range of delectable cheeses. So grab your glass of red wine and a crusty baguette….
"How can anyone govern a country with 246 different cheeses!" moaned General de
Gaulle in 1968 as students rioted in the streets. What would he say today when the
Ministry of Agriculture lists over 600 cheeses produced in France?
Why so many cheeses in an era of downsizing and supermarkets? Isn't the delicate
homemade cheese that seldom travels far from its home village an endangered species?
Far from it! In France, cheese has never been more popular. Quite a few French families,
out of work and fed up with city life, are returning to traditional cottage crafts such as
cheese-making. And a new cheese somehow always finds a willing buyer -- just like a
Once you have discovered your local fromagerie (cheese store) down the street, how on
earth do you decide which cheese to buy? We'll give you some pointers and guide you
through the basic varieties. After that, it's up to your palate and nose to explore and enjoy
France's range of delectable cheeses. So grab your glass of red wine and a crusty
A bit of history
Cheese making goes back thousands of years. As long as people have been caring for
domesticated cows, sheep and goats, they have been making cheese from the milk. But
France can justify its claim as being the country with the best cheese selection in the
world, offering an incredible range of cheese that goes well beyond the mainstays like
Brie, Camembert and Emmenthal (what we call Swiss cheese in the U.S.). There's
everything from Corsican dry cheeses to pungent Munster of Alsace to sinfully creamy
and rich Chaource.
Don't ask about fat content -- most cheeses are packed with 35 % to 55% cholesterol-rich
fat, and are high in salt, too. At that rate, clogged arteries should be every Frenchman's
lot, but this is not the case, according to recent studies. The French actually have less
cholesterol in their bodies than Americans do, likely due to the cholesterol-cleansing
powers of red wine. Anyway, that's what I tell myself -- it dissolves the guilt
French cheeses are made from cow, goat or sheep's milk. Each one has its particular
smell and taste. The strongest is ewe's milk, which is more concentrated than the others,
containing twice as much fat and protein. Most cheeses start out the same way: take fresh
raw (unpasteurized) milk and squirt a little rennet into the vat to make the milk curdle
(coagulate) and start its fermentation process. If you must know, rennet is actually the
liquid from the fourth stomach of a calf or goat (I am not making this up!). Whoever
came up with the idea of squirting stomach juice into milk deserves a prize, because it
works beautifully, transforming the milk into a memorable cheese within a matter of days
or a few weeks.
One of the most famous French ewe's-milk cheeses, Roquefort, aged in the chalk caverns
of Mont-Cabalou in southern France, was granted a royal patent in 1407. Casanova, the
great libertine, claimed that Roquefort washed down with a red Chambertin wine from
Burgundy was a great aphrodisiac. It was the first cheese to receive an AOC (Appelation
d'Origine Controlee) in 1926. The cheese AOC, just like that developed in France for
wine, sets down strict regulations on where and how a cheese is made, every step of the
way. So far, only 34 types of French cheeses have received these coveted AOCs. But an
AOC does not mean this is the cheese to choose; many without an AOC taste wonderful!
And keep in mind that even a well-known cheese may disappoint. Take a Camembert
from Normandy, a region famous for its rich cow's milk. You can buy a Camembert
industriel (mass-produced) at the supermarket, which may be tasteless despite the fact
that it has an AOC. Or you can check the label of another Camembert on its round
wooden box and discover that it's a product of a process called fabrication traditionelle
(handmade) a la louche (with a laddle) and that it, too, has an AOC. The flavor of the
second cheese, you'll find if you taste them both, is incomparably better than the first one.
So careful scrutiny of the label is the first step to discovering fantastic taste. Trust your
local fromagers (cheese vendors); they often give the best advice on which cheese to
choose, just like the advice on wine offered by the sommelier (wine steward) in a three-
What is that aroma?
Some French cheeses are smelly, so smelly in fact that they can bring tears to your eyes
when you open the box (Cancoillotte, A Filetta, Epoisses may all do just that). This is a
characteristic of many soft French lait cru (raw milk) cheeses as they age. Raw milk has
bacteria, which multiply as the cheese ages, imparting a characteristic smell and texture.
The older the cheese, the stronger the smell. Some cheeses are injected with extra molds
(Roquefort, Fourme d'Ambert, Bleu d'Auvergne) to obtain the blue streaks.
The smell can be overpowering. Once, when I was living in London, I asked my father to
bring me lait cru cheeses from France. On the plane he noticed people giving him funny
looks. He was so mortified he hid behind his newspaper, pushing the very smelly carton
of cheese farther under his seat. Upon delivery, he swore he would never, ever, hand-
carry cheeses to me again.
Should you eat the rind (which is usually moldy)? In young "white" cheeses like St-
Florentin, Le Rocamadour, or fresh chevre (goat cheese), there is no rind to speak of. In
stronger cheeses (Munster, Epoisses), the moldy rind becomes sticky and should be
removed. Some cheeses are covered in ash (Cendre d'Aisy or de Champagne, Le Saint-
Maure), but you can eat this because it's not gritty and adds a pleasant taste. Finally, some
cheeses have very hard rinds that must be removed (Vacherin, Mimolette, Comte). It
really depends on personal taste, however. The rinds are not dangerous to eat, so if they
taste good, go for it. Be warned, though, that the rinds of very hard, old cheeses become
infested with cheese mites, even maggots after aging a year or more, which add a special
pungency. Try an old Salers, but do scrape away the rind!
If you prefer less pungent cheeses, be sure to ask your fromager for fromage frais (fresh
cheese) or fromage jeune (unripe). Many French cheeses are affines (ripened) for only
one to three weeks and do not develop a strong smell or flavor. For instance, fresh goat
cheeses like Buchette de Banon or Le Larzac are mild and pleasant, and the creamy Capri
Lezeen will not offend your neighbors. If you're looking for a cream cheese, try the mass-
produced St-Moret or Kiri -- not quite the same as in the States but close. Young pressed
cheeses like St-Paulain, Mimolette and Port-Salut are very bland and are often favorites
Questions: (in English)
1. Do you think the AOC system discourages the formation of new cheeses?
2. What are the pros and cons of a strictly controlled regulatory process like the
Questions : (en Français)
1. A votre avis, est-ce que le système d’AOC décourage la formation de nouveaux
2. Quels sont les pour et les contre d’un système strictement réglementé comme le