Beginner’s Guide to French Cheeses

Beginner’s Guide to French Cheeses

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“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 new wine. 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….

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 immediately.

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-star restaurant.

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 among children.

We hope that this brief introduction will speed you on the way to a fascinating cheese adventure as you sample and compare cheeses on your own. Soon you’ll take as long to describe a cheese as you will a wine! Keep us posted on your progress via the Discussion Boards. Bon Appetit!

If you’d like to try some REAL FRENCH Cheese… now you can order it online. Please visit : www.fromage.com

Photo credits:

Photo #1 FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Photo#2 Dino de Luca / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

*Originally published in January 1999
Copyright © Paris New Media, LLC

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