If you’re traveling to France and you like cheese (who doesn’t?), it’s helpful to read a guide to French cheese that will help you determine which varieties to try. It’s not uncommon to feel little overwhelmed by choice in your quest for indulging in French cheese. Particularly, when entering into a fromagerie (cheese shop).

Different French Regions, Different French Cheeses

Every region of France has its own particular cheeses. The French love of cheese is legendary, and absolutely real. Recent surveys show that 96% of French people eat cheese, often daily. The typical French person will eat a whopping 25.9 kilos of cheese each year. That’s enough to make the French the hungriest for cheese in the world, according to a 2013 report by International Dairy Federation. Indeed, there are so many varieties that Charles de Gaulle once said “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Well, Monsieur de Gaulle, you’d be in for a surprise if you were alive today. Estimates put the number of French cheese varieties as high as 400, though with the sub varieties on offer, some say it’s closer to 1,000.  And of course, different cheeses come from different regions, prompting several “Cheese maps of France” to surface on the internet.

Cheese map of France

Cheese map of France

France provides us with a thousand different cheese varieties, including soft cheeses (Camembert, Coulommiers, Munster), blue-veined cheeses (Roquefort, Bleu d’Auvergne), pressed cooked cheeses (Gruyere, Comté, Parmesan), 45 controlled designations of origin cheeses and 38 protected designations of origin cheeses. With more than 20 kg of consumed cheese per year and per capita, French people are the largest cheese consumers after Greeks.  This guide is not by any means a comprehensive listing of all the products that France can offer to deck a well-garnished cheese-board. It is a look at some of the most common, and the most tasty. This website features an excellent illustration that shows the most common forms of cheeses in France, and also gives a very detailed description of just what categorizes various types.

Terroir, AOC, and PDO

AOC stands for Appellation d’origine contrôlée. This means that everything from the cows/goats/sheep, to the method of making the cheese, is from a specific region associated with that cheese (for example, camembert officially comes from Normandy).

AOP, Appellation d’origine protégée, is essentially the same thing but on a European scale. In other words, you could make camembert cheese in Italy if you wanted to, but that’s not its official region of origin, with its traditional production methods, so Italian camembert cheese would not have an AOP label.

Terroir refers to the literal geographic region the cheese is produced on, such as Burgundy or Alsace. The influence of natural factors such as mineral content in the soil, raw source milk, or particular vegetation have an effect on the qualities of the cheese produced on that terrain. AOC is a national system of France that is designed to guarantee the adherence to strict methods of production native to particular terroirsProtected Designation of Origin (PDO), additionally, is a system designated by the European Union which guarantees that the AOC standards have been met. PDO signifies the cheese is of excellent quality and is recognized as part of French gastronomic culture and heritage. Having both AOC and PDO certifications is a good indication of the heritage and quality of the cheese. There are about 50 French cheeses that have both. There are around 40 cheeses that have been awarded the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status, which means they can only be produced in a certain region. The cheeses with this status range from the famed Beaufort of the Savoie département to the Camembert of Normandy. Others include Comté from Franche-Comté, Roquefort from Midi-Pyrénées, and Brie from Meaux and Melun. The most recent addition to the list was the Rigotte de Condrieu from Lyon, which got AOC status in 2008.

A little history

Cheese is so important in France, both culinarily and culturally, that you’d think it had been invented there. In fact, cheese was first made in prehistoric times, probably in the Fertile Crescent, as far as we know, in the region that would become France. Cheese making and eating had certainly spread into Europe by the time of the Roman Empire. By 77 AD, Pliny the Elder claimed that the best cheese (to the Romans, at least) was from places like the city of NÎmes and the Lozère region, both located in Gaul (modern-day France).

The main categories of French cheeses

Cheeses in the Loire Valley

Enjoying a moment in Chinon with plate of local cheese from the Loire Valley

Three families of cheese:
French cheeses can be divided into three main families:
– hard/pressed cheeses (like most British cheeses)
– soft cheeses , such as Camembert
– blue cheeses to which can be added a number of hybrids or very individual cheeses.
For example, cantal, is a hard, sort of salty-tasting cheese that’s usually sold as a hard slab you take slices from. On the other hand, camembert and the very internationally popular brie are soft cheeses, that is, when you cut their rind, you’ll discover  a thick liquid or paste. There are some exceptions to these two categories. One of the most notable is a cheese called cancoillote. In grocery stores, this cheese is purchased in a little cup, a bit like yogurt, and is a thick liquid with no rind.

Three different types of milk:
Cheese is traditionally  made from three types of milk:
– cow’s milk (lait de vache)
– goat’s milk (lait de chèvre)
– sheep’s milk (ewe’s milk) (lait de brebis)

Pasteurized (Fromage au lait pasteurisé) or unpasteurized (Fromage au lait cru). Pasteurization is a process of removing bacteria from milk to make it healthier to drink. But many people claim that unpasteurized milk gives cheese more flavor.

Organic (bio) or not. You might see that a cheese is described as bio (organic). This usually means that the animals that produce it are given all-natural foods, with no growth hormones, etc.

Fromage de ferme, artisanal or industriel. Another way you could classify French cheeses is whether they’re made on a farm (fromage de ferme or fromage fermier), with the milk that comes directly from the animals there; artisanal (fromage artisanal) is made on a small scale with traditional processes, by someone with extensive knowledge of cheesemaking; or mass-produced (fromage industriel). Farm and artisanal cheeses are usually fairly pricey and tend to be eaten at the end of special meals or brought out for company. A French person might also buy one as a little treat to savor on their own. Mass-produced cheeses, on the other hand, are easily accessible (any grocery store in France, even a small corner shop (épicerie) will have a fairly decent cheese selection) and usually pretty inexpensive. That makes them perfect for taking along on a picnic, giving to kids as part of their snack, serving at the end of school lunches, and enjoying in everyday life. Some mass-produced cheeses also don’t necessarily have an artisanal equivalent. For example, many companies, most famously Boursin, make a cheese and garlic spread that is absolutely delicious and appreciated by many French people. This is used not only on its own, but in some recipes, sandwiches, etc. With all of these different ways to classify and categorize French cheeses, it might be a little easier to understand how there are so many varieties in France!

How do the French eat cheese?

My selection of cheeses, with baguette and a red wine for my snack in my hotel room while I work on my upcoming private tour

The French have rules on how you cut the cheese

There is a right way and a wrong way, and it all depends on the shape. There’s a full guide to this in our “Briehaviour guide to French cheese etiquette“, but in short: For round cheeses, make pie slices. For log-shaped cheese, go for parallel slices. For square cheeses, triangles are the way to go. For wedges of Brie or Roquefort, cut along the side. And please do not pre-slice your cheese before your guests arrive.

In general, the French eat cheese just like people in many other cultures do. That is, either on its own,  sliced or spread onto something (most often a piece of baguette), or in a recipe (traditional French cheese-based meals include la soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup), la tartiflettela quichele croque monsieur/croque madamela fondue, and l’aligot, among many others ).

There are official cheese knives and other tools for cutting cheese, but the average French person uses a sharp knife to cut a small wedge from a cheese wheel or a slice from a slab or portion of hard cheese. One issue that can be a bit divisive is whether you should eat a cheese’s rind or not. Some French people, especially those of older generations or those who are really into cheese, will eat the rind (la croûte) of any cheese that has one. The rind is full of different kinds of bacteria (the cheese-making kind, not the disease kind) and some people consider it even a bit nutritionally beneficial, like eating the skin of an apple.

When do the French eat cheese?

Cheese is often a part of multiple-course meals. The French don’t eat cheese with the other courses or as an appetizer (although some meals or salads may of course include cheese in them). Instead, the cheese plate comes at the end. The Word Reference page for « le fromage » includes two expressions, le fromage ou le dessert and le fromage et le dessert. The first means you have to make a difficult choice. The second meals “the whole kit and caboodle” (in other words, all of the good stuff). Both expressions refer to the idea that the cheese plate comes at the end of a meal in France, and often replaces dessert. This country has some amazing pastries, but the French generally prefer the salé  (savory) to the sucré (sweet). So for dessert, cheese  is all you will get, not a pastry or ice cream or any other sweet treat at the end.

Cheese isn’t only served at the end of French meals. On the rare occasions when  a French person snacks, they will sometimes cut a bit of cheese and put it on a baguette. Cheese and bread (or sometimes just cheese, depending on the person) is also a popular part of French picnics. One place you’ll probably never see a French person eat cheese is at the breakfast table. As a rule, French breakfasts tend to be light and sweet, not savory.

What are the most commonly eaten cheeses in France?

Audrey shopping in a cheese shop in Paris

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. You don’t have to know a thousand or so cheeses in order to fit in in France. But there are a few cheeses that you should be familiar with, whether you want to eat them or not. These are the classics, the standbys, the one every French person and person living in France knows and has probably tasted at least once.

Many of these cheeses are more than just something to eat; they have a certain connotation and cultural significance. That’s why they’re worth knowing, regardless of how much or little you like dairy products.

According to this news segment from French TV station France 2, the most commonly consumed cheeses in France are: emmental (often called “Swiss cheese” in America), camembert, chèvre (goat cheese), fromages fondus/fromages à tartiner (spreadable cheeses), coulommiers, and comté.

Other sources like this one and this one will list these cheeses in a different order, or sometimes not include them at all. I chose to use France 2’s list because, based on my years of experience, it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. Most of the French people I know, have ordered or bought one or more of these cheeses, and probably have at least one in their refrigerator (or on their countertop, under a cloche, as I write these lines). Most of the cheeses on this list also have cultural connotations. Let’s talk a little about those.

The families of cheese:

1. Pressed/hard cheeses. All of these are made from cow’s milk

Cheese that is produced  using milk not coming from cows grazing according to the “appellation contrôlée” rules for Comté, can be used to make French Gruyère. Although Gruyère is the name of a Swiss village, it has recently been given an IGP label (= PGI – Protected Geographical Indication) in France. Gruyère is an AOP in Switzerland. A selection of the best-known “pressed” (or “hard”) cheeses in France. All of these cheeses come in large units, off which the cheese merchant will cut slices. There are two types, “cooked” cheeses, where the whey is heated during the production process, and “uncooked” cheeses, where it is not. Cooked cheeses can sometimes keep for a very long time.

Cantal
A very tasty uncooked pressed cheese from the Auvergne mountains, Cantal is a cheese that many consider to be quite close to an English farmhouse cheddar or chester. A lot of this “AOP” cheese is made on farms, but obviously local dairies in the region also produce it in large quantities. Cantal comes in two varieties: “jeune” (young) and “entre deux” (between two), meaning cheese that has matured for longer. This cheese’s strength and taste increase with ageing, and generally speaking cantal cheese is stronger than cheddar. Two smaller areas within or bordering the Cantal department produce specific appellations of their own, Salers and Laguiole. These cheeses, made from the milk of cows grazing at high altitude, tend to be more expensive than generic Cantal, and are generally aged longer.

Comté

Comté

This delicious French cousin of the swiss “Gruyère” cheese is an appellation protégée cheese from the Franche Comté region of eastern France, from the Massif du Jura. This cow’s milk cheese melts in your mouth dissolving into a nutty bite that pairs beautifully with a dry white wine. The texture is firm but soft to eat, and the buttery yellow color of the cheese contrasts beautifully with its dark rind.

The production area stretches along the Swiss border, and all milk comes from cows grazing at at least 400 meters altitude. Dotted with charming villages and luscious pastures, the mountains of Jura in eastern France provide fresh grass for the Montbéliarde and French Simmental cows during the summer. From their milk, the local creameries produce the iconic flavors and aromas that characterize Comté. This cooked cheese is manufactured collectively village by village, and the production method has changed little over hundreds of years. Though produced village by village, in the local village dairy (the “fruitière”), a lot of Comté is matured for up to two years in industrial cellars by large dairy companies such as Jurador. Comté cheese generally comes without holes in it; but sometimes it may have small holes. Like Cantal, Comté comes in different varieties, sometimes called “fruité” or “salé” (fruity or salty). Fruité Comté is often more elastic; salé is usually a little more brittle. The most expensive Comté is “Comté vieux” (old Comté), which is generally aged over six months and possibly over a year. Comté is the traditional cheese used in a cheese “fondue”, and also for “raclette” (see below). Cheese that is produced  using milk not coming from cows grazing according to the “appellation contrôlée” rules for Comté, can be used to make French Gruyère.

Gruyère

Gruyère cheese

Gruyère cheese

Gruyère is the name of a Swiss village, it has recently been given an IGP label (= PGI – Protected Geographical Indication) in France. Gruyère is an AOP in Switzerland. Cheeses similar to comté are Beaufort, and Abondance  made in a similar manner in the French alps. Beaufort tends to be stronger tasting than Comté, and the taste is also slightly different. A landscape entrenched in meadows and grasslands, the canton of Fribourg serves as the ideal birthplace of Gruyere. No silage enters the diet of the cows providing the milk. Instead, the alpine cows roam freely on pastures cushioned between freshwater streams and hillsides in the Fribourg Prealps. This natural forage is key to imparting the signature flavors of the Gruyere, making it impossible to replicate fully in other regions.

Emmental
Emmental is your traditional cheese with holes in it. It is not an appellation contrôlée cheese, and is thus produced over a large area of France, notably in the east. It lacks the finesse of Comté, and is generally produced industrially, though industrial producers have their own label of quality for this cheese. French Emmental benefits from an IGP label and is a pillar of everyday French cuisine. For example, in the US, if you order a cheese pizza (usually called a pizza margherita in France & Italy), it will have mozzarella cheese on it. Although pizzerias in France usually make margherita pizza with mozzarella, when you  buy frozen pizza in a French grocery store, you have to check if the mozzarella is mixed with emmental. Many basic French meals include emmental, from a ham and cheese sandwich, my favorite for a picnic lunch in Paris (usually called a jambon-beurre, since the French usually butter the inside of the bread before adding the other ingredients), to cheesy dishes like endives wrapped in ham and covered in emmental cheese. And let’s not forget the croque monsieur, the iconic French hot sandwich. Strangely enough, despite its ubiquity in France, emmental doesn’t have a particular connotation. It’s just sort of there, like the sun in the sky or a boulangerie in your town.  I wonder if this is because it’s a multicultural cheese, with origins in Switzerland, even though it’s produced in the Savoie and Franche-Comté regions of France, as well. But it may simply be that emmental doesn’t have an extremely pungent, strong flavor, which is what French people respect most in a cheese.

Mimolette
A round cheese, made in the area of Lille in the north of France. It’s orange color is the result of the addition of natural coloring. The cheese was originally made as a French variation of the Dutch Edam cheese, to which it is very similar.

(Tomme des) Pyrénées
This slightly-cooked hard cheese is produced, obviously, in the Pyrenees – though it does not benefit from an appellation contrôlée label. Pyrenees comes with a distinctive black skin. Generally speaking it is a fairly bland cheese that will appeal to those who do not like strong-tasting cheeses. An IGP cheese.

2. Soft cheeses

There are literally hundreds of soft French cheeses; each region has its own specialties. Many of these – notably those with appellation contrôlée – are manufactured in small units, and (with notable exceptions such as Brie and St. Nectaire) if you want to buy one, you must buy a whole cheese.

Brie
Proclaimed “the king of all cheeses” during the Congress of Vienna in 1968, this soft cow’s milk cheese has proven its popularity as a mainstay on menus around the world. There are two sorts of Brie, Brie de Meaux (AOC1980) and Brie de Melun (AOC1990), both appellation contrôlée (AOC) cheeses named after two nearby towns in the the country some fifty miles south east of Paris. Brie comes as a thin round cheese about 20 inches in diameter, with a soft white crust. This crust is eaten, not cut off! Brie is a very mild creamy cheese that should appeal to anyone who does not enjoy strong tasting cheese.

Neufchâtel AOC 1969
Known to many as a flavor of cream cheese, Neufchatel has much more noble platforms than bagels. Made in the Normandie from unpasteurized whole milk, this cow’s milk cheese is handcrafted by letting the coagulated milk hang in cheese cloth for 12 hours, after which the bacteria in the milk will form a layer of snow white layer of mold around the cheese while it ages for at least three weeks in damp caves. One of the most curious and traditional shapes this cheese comes in is that of a heart. Supposedly this began during the 100-year war when a young French girl gifted her future husband with her heart made of Neufchatel.

Camembert AOC1983

French cheese camembert

A cheese from Normandy, Camembert is perhaps the most famous French cheese, and is known and imitated worldwide. Recreated throughout the world, the true Camembert traces its origin to 11th century Normandie, but only officially became known as Camembert in the 18th century. To best conserve the velvety soft cow cheese, it is sold in small wooden boxes. Keep an eye open for Camembert de Normandie; this is a ladle-molded Camembert that is usually made with unpasteurized milk, which helps the true, mild and creamy milk flavor of this cheese unfold. A ripe Camembert should be just soft on the inside, but not too runny. A young Camembert will tend to be hard and dry, and rather tasteless; an overripe Camembert, going yellowish on the outside, will tend to smell quite strongly and is not to be recommended other than to those who enjoy strong cheeses. The crust of a Camembert is usually eaten. Supermarkets are full of Camembert lookalikes, since any similar cheese that is not manufactured in the appellation contrôlée area in Normandy cannot call itself Camembert. These lookalikes tend to be sold young. To test a Camembert or a lookalike, open the box (not the protective wrapping paper!) and press gently. The cheese should be just soft, but not spongy.

Reblochon AOC 1958
The story as to why this softer than Brie cheese is made with the milk of three different breeds of cow attests to the ingenuity of Savoie farmers. In an effort to evade paying their landowners high taxes on milk, 13th century farmers would only partially milk their cows, only to return to milking once the inspectors had left. This act of re-blochaient, or re-milking, is an integral part of the cheese’s production, as it offers a creamier milk that affords Reblochon its extraordinary consistency. A true Reblochon is produced from the second milking of Abondance, Tarine, and Montbéliarde cows. To facilitate the aging process, Reblochon is washed in whey and turned every two days as it rests in caves or cellars. The nutty, musky, and slightly herbal taste of the cheese meshes well with a fruity Beaujolais-Villages. Be sure to try Rebolochon when it is just ripe, any longer and its flavor turns bitter.

Epoisses
Epoisses is for the lovers of a truly smelly fromage. This cow’s milk cheese originated during the 18th century in the midst of Burgundy at the Abbey de Citeaux. The cows that produce the milk for a true Epoisses graze for three months in the meadows of Burgundy, after which their milk is coagulated, washed with brine, and finished with white wine or brandy. The dark orange rind hides a silky interior rich with a salty and pungent flavor, which is great with sweet bread like a buttery brioche or deep-flavored walnut bread. Thicker than a Camembert, Epoisses, like other rind washed cheeses, is yellowish on the outside, and white on the inside. The white center is often almost crumbly, while the cheese under the skin remains very soft. Epoisses has a distinctive taste, shared with a similar cheese from a bit further north “Langres“; both of these cheeses are appellation contrôlée cheeses, and are admirable accompaniments for red wine. Another cheese in the same family is Maroilles, made in the north of France.

Gaperon
A semi-soft cheese from Auvergne, made with cows milk, and flavored with pepper and garlic. A small hemispherical cheese weighing about half a pound.

Mont d’Or
This very distinctive appellation contrôlée cheese from Franche Comté, (known as Vacherin in Switzerland), is manufactured along the French-Swiss border, at altitudes of at least 800 meters. Like Comté that is made in the same region, it is a cheese whose manufacturing process has changed little over the centuries. This rind washed cheese matures in a round frame made of a thin strip of local spruce wood. In the course of maturing, this wood imparts a delicious aroma into the cheese which is later packaged and sold in round boxes made from the same wood.
Unfortunately, Mont d’Or is a seasonal cheese and is not manufactured in the summer months because the milk quality in the region is different when the cows have rich summer pastures to graze on. However modern storage methods now mean that it remains available almost throughout the year in some outlets. This cheese comes with an undulating beige crust, and under the crust the cheese itself is soft to runny. Though it is quite a strong cheese, Mont d’Or is not usually a sharp cheese. It tends to appeal to all tastes. In recent years, local dairies have looked for ways to produce and market a cheese similar to Mont d’Or year-round. The most successful imitation is called Edel de Cleron, made in the Franche Comté region, but in a dairy at a lower altitude. Like Mont d’Or, Edel is packaged in spruce wood, to give it the distinctive aroma.

Munster AOC 1969
A fairly strong rind-washed soft cheese from the Vosges mountains in Eastern France, in the Lorraine region. Munster’s origins lay behind the walls of Benedictine monasteries situated in the Munster valley.  To escape the dull drum of their vegetarian diet, the monks invented this cow’s milk cheese, best enjoyed by breaking through its soft rind and scooping out its gooey center with breadsticks.  During its maturation the cheese is continuously turned and washed with water from the Vosges, which develops the cheese’s signature red, furrowed rind. Follow in the monk’s footsteps and savor creamy threads of Munster with a glass of chilled Riesling. Munster is definitely not a cheese for those who do not like strong tasting varieties. It comes in two varieties, normal and “au cumin” (with cumin seed). Darker on the outside than Langres or Epoisses, Munster generally has a thicker rind which some eat, others cut off. Even an unripe Munster is tasty; a ripe one, which may well be quite hard on the inside, will be very strong. However, like other strong cheeses, Munster should never have an acrid taste. If it does, it is over-ripe.

Pont l’Evèque
A creamy soft cheese, uncooked and un-pressed, from the coastal region of Normandy, south of Deauville; this is one of the oldest cheeses in France, and has been documented since the 12th century.

Saint Nectaire
Some claim that this is the greatest of French cheeses – and possibly this could be true for an exceptionally good cheese; but Saint Nectaire, an appellation contrôlée cheese from the mountains of the Auvergne, is, alas, a cheese that varies considerably in quality and taste. To start with there are two distinct types, the farm variety and the dairy variety. The farm variety is generally better and more expensive, the dairy variety, usually found in supermarkets, is frequently sold too young. When this cheese is young, it is quite dry and hard; a properly matured Saint Nectaire should be soft and elastic, with a slight tendency to flow if left at room temperature. One does not eat the rind of a Saint Nectaire. A cheese very similar to Saint Nectaire, notably to the variety found in supermarkets, is Savaron, a non-appellation cheese that is also produced in the Auvergne but generally by industrial dairies.

3. Blue cheeses

Bleu d’Auvergne
An appellation contrôlée cheese whose quality and taste can vary considerably , going from the bland to the sharp. Even in a supermarket, you can ask to taste before you buy. Specific varieties of Bleu d’Auvergne include the ancient Bleu de Laqueille. A popular modern variant of Bleu d’Auvergne is Saint Agur, a creamy blue cheese made in the Velay hills of Haute Loire by the large industrial dairy group Bongrain. There is no village called Saint Agur, indeed no saint either, but Saint Agur cheese is made according to traditional methods.

Bleu de Bresse
Not an appellation contrôlée cheese, but a French industrial dairy’s attempt to imitate the success of Danish blue. Soft and almost spreadable cheese.

Bleu des Causses
An appellation contrôlée cheese which is generally delicious and strong tasting, without being sharp. A cows-milk cheese, sometimes quite crumbly, manufactured in the same area as Roquefort and quite similar tasting.

Bleu de Gex
A blue from the swiss border, rather hard and not very strong.

Fourme d’Ambert
A mild blue cheese from the Auvergne, often with an almost nutty flavor. No-one should find this too strong.

Roquefort AOC1925
The oldest and maybe most famous cheese of France, Roquefort received its official designation of origin in 1925, but its patent dates back to 14th century. Roquefort is an Appellation contrôlée cheese, made from the milk of one single breed of sheep, the “Lacaune” breed. The cheese has been made since the Middle Ages, and has been famous for many centuries; more recently it has been the object of intense and successful marketing. Over 18,000 tons of Roquefort are manufactured each year, and the cheese is exported worldwide. Made in the “causses” mountains of southern France, in the department of the Aveyron, and matured in caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. In the past, a lot of the milk used in the making of Roquefort is imported into the region; but the cheese’s success has led to a development of sheep rearing in the Aveyron, and all the milk used in Roquefort is now sourced locally. When it has reached its peak Roquefort will appear to melt— the semi-soft cheese becoming even softer in its prime. The French savor its strong, pungent flavor spread thickly on a slice of buttered bread. Now a bottle of Blanc de Blanc and you have yourself a meal.

Roquefort cheese

Other cheeses

Goat’s cheeses
Crottin de Chavignol (AOC1976), Valençay, etc… There are dozens of different goats’ cheeses, and many local producers market their cheese under their own local village or regional name. Goats’ cheeses can be sold either very young (frais), when they are soft and spreadable, medium matured, when they are still soft, but not spreadable, or fully matured, when they are hard.

Ewe’s milk cheeses
Ineguy: pressed cheese from the Basque country, similar to other southern European ewe’s milk cheeses such as Pecorino.

Some modern dairy cheeses
Saint Agur (a soft blue cheese, made in the Auvergne), Brillat-Savarin (an almost buttery soft cheese… delicious, but watch the cholesterol…), Roulade, Saint Albray, Port Salut, Boursin (a cream cheese with herbs and garlic).

Raclette
Raclette is a mass-produced industrial cheese designed for a “raclette”, i.e. a meal in which thin slices of cheese are heated and melted then poured over baked potatoes and eaten with gherkins, mountain ham and other accompaniments. Raclette is an easy and convivial meal, where everyone serves themselves from the raclette grill which is placed in the middle of the table. (Traditionally, the cheese was melted in front of a hot wood fire). However, “raclette” cheese is not the best cheese for a raclette. Prefer Comté (the best) or even Cantal.

Generic terms
The words “tomme” and “fourme” are generic words that can describe several different types of French cheese. Etymologically, the French word for cheese, “fromage” is a diminutive of the word “fourme”.

Unusual cheeses
Cancoillotte -this very distinctive comes from Franche Comté; it is a runny cheese strongly flavored with garlic, and is very much an acquired taste. It can be eaten cold or hot.

Cheeses and wine

You’ll read a lot of advice about pairing certain wines with cheeses. The truth of the matter is that cheese and wine go together, and as long as you follow a few basic guidelines, you can match a wide range of wines with any cheese. There is one exception; sweet white wines do not go well with cheese – unless the cheese is being used in a sweet/sour combination. Red wines go best with most cheeses, though with some very strong cheeses it is better to choose a light-bodied red wine. Dry white wines also go well with cheese, especially with tasty but mild cheeses. But in the end, it has to be a matter of individual choice.

Why do French people like stinky cheese?

The more pungent a cheese is, the more French people seem to respect it.  While many other cultures see cheese as a complement to food or drink, or a light, almost palette-cleansing snack, the French want it to stand out in its own right. That’s why for them, the best cheeses have presence! They’re not necessarily alone. As this fascinating article explains, the human brain seems to sort of like the contrast between some cheeses’ stink and their creamy nature.

That said, as the list of the most popular French cheeses shows, not every French person actually likes super-strong cheese – or at least, they only consume it from time to time. Part of that is because the strongest cheeses are usually from a farm or artisanal, often unpasteurized, and frequently a bit pricey. It’s a lot easier to just go buy some camembert at the grocery store. And then, there are the sacrifices you have to make if you do splurge on stinky cheese. As much as French people enjoy cheese with a strong taste, they don’t like the smell. It’s basically considered a necessary evil – and one that doesn’t always go away very easily. For example, many French people’s refrigerators emit a strong odor when you open them. It’s not because they’re dirty or something is rotting in them; it’s because there’s  a portion of delicious-but-stinky cheese in there! And this isn’t even limited to the most pungent kinds.

Making Your Own Cheese Platter

French cheese board

Now that you know the different types of French cheese, it should be easy to make your own platter! You can go about it in a number of ways.

  • First, decide how many cheeses you want; between three and five is usually enough, as otherwise things can get overwhelming. Plan on about 3-4 ounces per person.
  • Next, decide the “theme” of your cheese platter. This can be as simple as choosing one cheese from three to five different categories as listed above, or you can make things more interesting.
  • If you know your friends are fans of bleu, you could pick four different blue cheeses. If you’re working with cheese débutants, maybe pick a few cheeses that have all been aged fewer than three months. You could also pick cheeses based on region or milk type.
  • It’s a good idea to have at least one fresh, one hard and one of the softer cheeses (either bloomy or washed rind), and add a blue as a fourth, but there are no hard-and-fast rules here!

In France, you don’t often see sweeter pairings with cheese, but you can pick a few! A jam or compote can be a welcome treat with a stronger cheese like blue or Epoisses — try a fig jam or a cherry compote. You could also garnish your cheese platter with grape clusters!

Some French cheese myths

Cheese shop on Rue Cler in Paris

Naturally, when a country is so closely associated with cheese, some misconceptions are bound to arise. Here are a few French cheese myths I’d like to clear up.

1. All French cheese is unpasteurized

Not so!  In fact, most of the French cheese you’ll find in a grocery store (and thus, the kinds most frequently consumed by a majority of the population) is pasteurized. That being said, if you can’t have unpasteurized cheese for health reasons, make sure to read the label. If it says au lait cru somewhere, that means it’s unpasteurized.

2. Say “Fromage!”

When you want people to smile in a photo in France. Strangely enough, the French love cheese but unlike many Anglo-Saxons, they don’t say “Cheese” when taking photos. They usually opt for Ouistiti, which is a type of cute little monkey (and, like “cheese”, a silly word that will hopefully make people smile and laugh).

3. All French cheese is stinky

Although many kinds of French cheeses do have a distinct and sometimes extremely pungent smell, there are several kinds that don’t. These include industrial cheese spreads, and hard cheeses like emmental, gruyère, and edam, among others. This helpful article explains how cheese is made and why some varieties stink and others don’t.

4. Cheese should be refrigerated

French grocery stores keep cheeses in a refrigerated section, and many French people store cheese in their fridge, but traditionalists will often keep cheese inside une cloche, a special glass dome. This keeps it away from bugs, dust, etc., and keeps the smell locked inside, too, while allowing the cheese to remain soft and more flavorful.

5. French cheese is expensive

In France, many kinds of cheeses can be quite affordable, especially if you buy them in a grocery store. If you buy cheese at a cheese shop (fromagerie), farm, or market, on the other hand, they can get a lot pricier.

If you come to France, don’t be afraid to try as many different cheeses as you can. Even if you’re not a huge cheese fan, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find at least one kind that you like. If you’re not near a farm or market, stop by a grocery store and choose a few varieties from the shelves. Pair them with a good baguette, and voila – a delicious, genuine French cultural experience!

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Audrey De Monte

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, how I look at the world and continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages. Western Europe is my backyard, in particular Spain, France, Germany, and Italy—countries where I have spent my life, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working.