In France, cheese making is a traditional craft and art, which goes back thousands of years. France is rightfully referred to as a country with the best selection of cheeses in the world, let alone with the most sophisticated taste for gourmet products. Do you know that modern France is blessed with more than six hundred different types of cheese, many of which are very famous and enjoy virtually universal popularity?
I think you could say that the strong cheese culture in France represents their resistance to modernisation. France has held onto it and it defies modernisation. Many of their cheeses cannot be made with a machine, and the traditional techniques are taken very seriously. Each is made in a certain region, with milk from certain pastures, then molded and ripened, then sent to a skilled fromager to be offered to customers. It’s a strong part of the culture and I must say it is very endearing. My local “fromagier” is so passionate and knows I am Australian so always gives me cheeses to try when I go to market each weekend.
Personally, I found this very daunting when I first arrived in France. I would peruse through my local market and not dare to get in line to order because I wouldn’t have ever known where to start. Now that I speak French and have an amicable bond with my local “fromagier”, I have worked my way through a large number of cheeses and would even go so far as to say that I know how to pair them with wines. But that’s another story. If you are lucky enough to find a local “fromagerie” (cheese store), how would you decide what to go for? Let me give you some tips and guide you through the basic varieties of delectable cheeses of France!
A visit to a cheese shop can be a daunting experience. It’s an experience I love. You often don’t know what to expect, as many cheeses are seasonal and a good cheese shop will only carry what’s best at the moment. Although people do buy cheese at the supermarket, I like the one-on-one discussion with the vendor, who will ask you questions as to what you are looking for and about it’s strength, until they find the right cheese for you that day.There is an exchange of playful banter and you can see that everybody really does know about cheese.
French cheeses are made from cow, goat, sheep or ewe’s milk, each with particular aroma, taste, and consistency. If you prefer more “American” taste and lack of “cheesy” smell – go for fresh unripe products, which are made from cow’s or goat’s milk. Look for “fromage frais” (fresh cheese) or “fromage jeune” (unripe cheese). The best choice would be goat varieties like Buchette de Banon or Le Larzac, which have mild and pleasant taste, more suitable for those who are not quite yet ready for the strong blue cheese or old cheese taste and smell.
For the real gourmets, I would recommend Roquefort- one of the most famous French eye’s-milk cheeses. In France, this sort was grated a royal patent as long ago as in the thirteenth century! Roquefort has a strong odour and a sharp taste and is best to be washed down with a red wine from Burgundy. This pungent blue cheese is a great aphrodisiac, the fact which even was noted by the world’s famous lover – Casanova.
Some French cheeses are extremely smelly – their odour can even bring tears to your eyes! Actually, strong odour is a particular characteristic of many aged French raw-milk cheeses. The older the cheese, the stronger, the smell and the more delectable the taste is. If you don’t mind their overwhelming odour, try absolutely delicious Cancoillotte or Epoisses.Some are far too strong for me and it depends on my mood and how much red wine I have had!
If your taste belongs with cream cheeses, select Capri Lezeen, St-Moret or Kire – the tastiest of creamy French varieties.
Need cheese for children? Oh, kids will love if you buy them St-Paulin, Mimolette or Port-Salut – the least pungent kinds of French cheese, which are delicious and odourless and easy to spread. Children could also like Cantal, which has the same fabrication technique as Cheddar, so it’s soft and slightly crumbly depending on it’s age and is not a very strong cheese. You can really taste the dairy in a good Cantal.
If you are arranging a party or looking for a variety cheese gift basket, go for a balanced selection of soft cheeses, such as Camembert (choose one in a wooden box), Brie, or Roblochon, hard cheeses, such as Comtre or Beaufort, and semi-hard types – Saint Nectaire, Morbier, or Tomme de Savoie. This way you can please everybody and not risk overwhelming everybody with a strong cheese smell.
Just for your own knowledge, Saint Nectaire is a cheese that the French go wild about. They get excited and say that it has the taste of the terroir (regionality).
Now, to address a small detail that may seem petty: the crust. The rule about eating the crust of the cheese is that if it won’t heavily affect the flavor, the crust is edible. And in spite of the fact that some people scoff if you don’t eat a particularly smelly and almost slimy crust, in France, I’ve seen people leave behind crust that I thought was perfectly edible. So it’s a personal choice. To be honest, I don’t eat the crusts of really old cheeses.
When it comes to cutting the cheeses, there are also certain “faux pas” when it comes to the direction that you cut the cheese in. If the cheese is round, you cut it in triangles like a pie. If it’s any other shape you cut it the way you want, but being sure that the last piece left is not just a piece of crust that you leave so that it can’t actually be eaten.
And one last detail before I leave you all salivating at the idea of all this cheese, I must address the topic of butter. When do you eat butter with cheese? Do you even eat butter with cheese? There’s unsalted, salted, and demi-sel croquant (crunchy) à la fleur de sel de Noirmoutier. My goodness, I cannot even begin to explain how delicious their butter is. I don’t usually eat butter with my cheese and baguette but I know many French people that do, and others that don’t. There is no rule about this, it’s simply a matter of taste and whatever you find more delicious.
When I do a cheese platter for friends I like to add a few nuts on the plate and some fresh figs, pear or apple depending on the season. Sometimes I will get a “saucisson sec” for those of my friends that like their sausage.
I buy my cheeses at:
Le Marché Couvert des Batignolles
96 Rue Lemercier
The French prefer to eat their cheese with a crusty baguette and to serve it before dessert with a glass of dry red wine. So, try it French style, too! Bon appetit!