There’s perhaps nothing more quintessentially French than cheese. Nowhere else in the world tucks into a spot of fromage after lunch or dinner with such gusto. And few places can rival France for variety in cheeses. They say it would take you well over a year to get through the full list of French cheese if you tried a different one every day.
All this makes a dictionary of French cheese something of a challenge. In this latest French Waterways foodie post, you won’t find a definitive list of French cheeses or even one per letter of the alphabet. Instead, we’ve looked at what makes a bon fromage and put together a guide to the best. Plus some of the things all discerning lovers of French cheeses should know.
French cheese from A to B
A is for Appellation d’origine contrôllée, more easily shortened to AOC. Like the best French wine, quality cheeses too must meet rigorous quality controls to qualify for the highest accolade of AOC. In 2016, 45 cheeses met the criteria. We mention some of them below.
A is also for Artisanal. This type of cheese is highly-prized since it’s made on farms using artisan methods. Production is always small-scale.
B is firstly for Banon, an AOC cheese from the town of Banon in Provence. Made with goat’s milk, the creamy cheese is matured wrapped in chestnut tree leaves, bound with raffia.
B is then for Brie. France produces lots of versions, but Brie de Meaux, made near Paris, reigns as the king of brie cheeses. This AOC brie tastes rich and sweet, and is made from cow’s milk.
Next up for B is Brillat-Savain, named after one of the France’s most famous gastronome (see below). Made in Normandy, Brillat-Savain has an extra high fat content because it’s a triple-crème containing raw and pasteurised cow’s milk plus a good dose of cream. As a result, the cheese tastes buttery and sweet, and comes about as rich as possible.
B is also for Brittany, a region that along with the Pays de Loire, doesn’t produce any AOC cheeses. But as anyone who’s visited these regions knows, there are lots of delicious cheeses to try!
And B is finally for Brocciu, the only Corsican cheese with an AOC label. Brocciu is made from whey from goat’s and/or sheep’s milk. The result is a fresh, mild cheese that isn’t easy to find but well worth seeking out at French cheese counters.
“Un repas sans fromage est comme une belle à qui il manqué un oeil” (A meal without cheese is like a beautiful women with just one eye) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 18th century writer and epicure.
French cheese from C to K
C is for cow’s milk, the main ingredient in French cheeses. 91% of them in fact. It might be used raw or pasteurised, on its own or mixed with sheep’s milk.
C is also for Camembert, one of the best known French cheeses. This soft, creamy cheese with a white rind hails originally from Normandy and the best comes with an AOC label.
And lastly, C is for Comté, another of the biggies on the French cheese stage. Made in the Franche Comté area and part of the Gruyère family, Comté is a firm yellow cheese. A whole cheese can weigh up to 48kg.
E is for Époisses de Bourgogne, a soft cheese with an unusual red-orange colour. This too is an AOC cheese and made from raw cow’s milk. One of the smelliest French cheeses on the board, it’s a match made in heaven for a red Burgundy.
F is for fermier, perhaps the most authentic cheese of all. Made in the farmhouse with home-produced milk, cheese with the fermier label on it is as homemade as they come.
F is for Fourme d’Ambert, one of the oldest cheeses in France and made in Ambert in the Auvergne region. It comes in a cylinder and although it’s a crumbly blue cheese, it has a surprisingly mild taste.
C is for that all-important cheeseboard. The most discerning showcase at least three types of cheese: a soft cheese, a hard cheese and a blue or goat’s cheese to add some fire to the board. And don’t forget to put out a separate knife for each cheese.
K is for kinds of cheese. It’s estimated that there are between 350 and 400 varieties of cheese in France. This doesn’t take into account the different versions of each kind of cheese, which number at least a 1,000. How’s that for choice?
French cheese from L to P
L is for Langres, from the Champagne region. This cow’s milk cheese comes in three sizes and has an unusual crinkly white rind. It’s at its best between May and August when the lush summer pastures provide the richest milk.
L also stands for Lingot de Saint Nicolas, a goat’s cheese made by monks in Languedoc-Roussillon for centuries. Just 80 goats make up the flock at the monastery whose monks produce the light, fresh cheese flavoured with thyme. Its shape literally resembles an ingot.
And lastly, L is for Livarot, one of the oldest regional cheeses in France – records date it to at least the thirteenth century. This creamy variety comes with a light brown rind, bound in the centre with raffia. Made in Calvados in Normandy, it pairs well with Calvados liqueur or a bold red.
M is for Maroilles, a square-shaped AOC cheese from Picardy in the north of France. This firm, yellow cheese is made from cow’s milk.
M is then for Morbier, a cheese from Franche-Comté, traditionally made in two layers with cow’s milk produced in the morning and in the evening. Nowadays, just one batch of milk is used but Morbier still comes with a layer of vegetable ash dividing the cheese into two sections. A bold cheese with a creamy texture, it’s made in large wheels weighing up to 7kg.
M is also for Munster, whose German-sounding name gives away its origin. From Alsace and made from cow’s milk, this AOC creamy cheese comes with a characteristic reddish rind.
O is for Ossau-Iraty, perhaps the cheese with the least French-sounding name. From Bearn in the west Pyrenees, this salty firm cheese looks (and tastes) rather like a Manchego from next-door Spain.
P is for Pont l’Eveque, a strongly scented but surprisingly mild cheese made in Normandy. It has a very orange rind and comes in a square shape packed in a wooden box. Unlike most French cheeses that are best served with red wine, Pont l’Eveque goes very nicely with champagne.
M is for map of cheeses and the French one is certainly colourful, varied and delicious.
M is also for Mondial de Fromage, the bi-annual cheesemonger competition held in France. This year’s competition was held in Tours and won by Nathalie Vanhaver from Belgium. French cheeses did, however, dominate the podium with most Super Gold awards.
P is for percentage of people in France who enjoy a bit of cheese every day. Currently around half the French population consumes it on a daily basis. And it isn’t actually a bit: the French eat half a kilo of cheese each, every single week.
“Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays où il existe 246 de fromages?” (How do you expect to run a country where there are 246 cheeses?)
Charles De Gaulle, 1958-1969
French cheese from R to V
R is for Raclette, a French institution when it comes to cheese. Produced in the Savoie region, although originally from Switzerland, this mild cheese comes into its own when sliced and melted in a raclette pan. Popular accompaniments include baked potatoes, mushrooms, ham and gherkins. The tastiest version is made from raw cow’s milk.
Most of all, R is for Roquefort, another French cheese that needs no introduction. Known as “the cheese of kings and popes” in France, Roquefort also boasts the first AOC label, awarded in 1925. This blue cheese is made from sheep’s milk and has an unmistakable strong, salty taste.
R is also for Reblochon, a lesser known AOC cheese from the Alps in the Haute Savoie region. The semi-soft cheese has a yellow/orange rind.
And finally, R is for Rocamadour, a Perigord cheese that dates back to at least the fifteenth century. Made with goat’s milk, the round cheese has a sharp taste.
S is for Salers, a farmhouse cheese with AOC denomination from Auvergne. Perhaps the oldest French cheese of all – it dates back 2,000 years, it’s made with milk from the Salers breed of cow which graze on the high mountains. The round cheese is produced between May and October and has a striking dark rind with red stains.
T is then for Tomme de Savoie, another AOC cheese from the Alps. It looks a bit like Camembert, although the rind is thinner and the taste nuttier.
V is for Valençay, an AOC goat’s cheese from the Loire Valley. This one is made in an unusual pyramid shape and its acidic salty taste isn’t unlike a traditional blue cheese.
T is firstly for temperature. Although you need to keep most French cheese in the fridge, room temperature brings out the best in all cheeses. Time the slot for the cheeseboard and take the cheese out of the fridge about an hour beforehand. This gives it time to breath and regain its full flavour.
T is also for timing and when to serve cheese at a meal. True connoisseurs only bring the cheeseboard out after the main course and before dessert. Never put cheese out as an aperitif and keep the pineapple and pickled onions firmly in their tins or jars!
Let’s not forget V for vin, the ideal accompaniment for any French cheese. Our hotel barge cruises bring you the best of both French cheese and wine while you’re on board. All you have to do is pick your barge!
PIN this post: