French Cheese, an Elegant Appetizer
Pieter Claesz, Dutch Master Painter: Still Life with Basket of Cheese
There are Three Main Categories of French Cheese:
– Pressed Cheeses
– Soft Cheeses
– Blue Cheeses
The Three Types of Milk for French Cheese-Making
– cow’s milk
– goat’s milk
– sheep’s milk.
The Two Basic Sources of French Cheese
French cheeses either are produced at a farmhouse (fromages fermiers) , or are industrially manufactured.
French Cheese Labels
A further distinction is also possible: traditional regional cheeses with an “appellation contrôlée” label (there are about 40 of these), traditional cheeses without an “appellation contrôlée” label, and modern dairy-designed and produced cheeses.
1. Pressed Cheeses
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 “appellation contrôlée” 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 aging, 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.
This delicious French cousin of the swiss “Gruyère” cheese is an appellation contrôlée from the Franche Comté region of eastern France. The production area stretches along the Swiss border, and all milk comes from cows grazing at at least 400 metres altitude. This cooked cheese is manufactured collectively village by village, and the production method has changed little over hundreds of years. Any Comté that is produced outside the region, or using milk not coming from cows grazing according to the “appellation contrôlée” rules, is sold as Gruyère.
Though produced village by village, in the local village dairy (fruitière), a lot of Comté is matured 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).
A cheese similar to comté is Beaufort, made in a similar manner in the French Alps. Beaufort tends to be stronger tasting than Comté, and the taste is also slightly different.
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.
A round cheese, made in the area of Lille in the north of France. Its orange colour is the result of added vegetal colouring. The cheese was originally made as a French variation of the Dutch Edam cheese, to which it is very similar. Mimolette production relies upon the use of mites in the cave, which cover the cheese during the aging process. I’ll take Edam!
(Tomme des) Pyrénées
This slightly-cooked hard cheese is produced in the Pyrénées mountains. It does not benefit from an appellation contrôlée label. Pyrénées 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.
Reblochon is a rich, soft pressed cheese made in the Alps; it has quite a strong flavour, and a creamy texture.
2. Soft Cheeses
There are hundreds of soft cheeses in France; each region has its own specialities. 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.
There are two sorts of Brie: Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, both named appellation contrôlée 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 traditionally eaten. Brie is a very mild creamy cheese that should appeal to anyone who does not enjoy strong tasting cheese.
A cheese from Normandy, Camembert is known and imitated worldwide. A ripe Camembert should be just soft on the inside, but not runny. A young Camembert will tend to be hard and dry, and rather tasteless; an overripe Camembert, gone yellow on the outside, will tend to smell quite strongly and is only recommended for those who enjoy strong cheeses. The crust of a Camembert is usually eaten.
Supermarkets are full of Camembert imitations, since any similar cheese that is not manufactured in the appellation contrôlée area in Normandy cannot call itself Camembert. These look-alikes tend to be sold young. To test a Camembert or an imitation thereof, open the box (not the protective wrapping paper) and press gently. The cheese should be just soft, but not spongy.
A fairly strong “rind-washed” soft cheese from the Burgundy region. 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 contrôllée cheeses, and are admirable accompaniments for red wine. Another cheese in the same family is Maroilles, made in the north of France.
Mont d’ Or
This very distinctive appellation contrôllée cheese from Franche Comté (known asVacherin in Switzerland), is manufactured along the French-Swiss border, at altitudes of at least 800 meters. Like the 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 has a different quality when the cows have rich summer pastures to graze on.
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.
A fairly strong rind-washed soft cheese from the Vosges mountains in Eastern France. Muenster 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, Muenster generally has a thicker rind which some eat, others cut off. Even an unripe Muenster is tasty; a ripe one – which may well be quite hard on the inside – will be very strong. However, like other strong cheeses, Muenster should never have an acrid taste. If it does, it is over-ripe.
A creamy soft cheese, uncooked and unpressed, from the coastal region of Normandy, south of Deauville; Pont l’Evèque is one of the oldest cheeses in France, and has been documented since the 12th century.
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. 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 Saint Nectaire.
A cheese very similar to Saint Nectaire, notably to the variety found in supermarkets, isSavaron, a non-appellation cheese that is also produced in the Auvergne, mostly by industrial dairies.
3. Blue (Bleu) Cheeses
ranges from bland to sharp. An appellation contrôllée cheese whose quality and taste can vary considerably, you can ask to taste it before you buy Bleu d’Auvergne. Specific varieties of this cheese include the ancient Bleu de Laqueille
.Bleu de Bresse
is not an appellation contrôlée cheese, but a French industrial dairy’s attempt to imitate the success of Danish blue. It’s a soft and almost spreadable cheese.Bleu des Causses
is 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
is a blue from the Swiss border, rather hard and not very strong.Fourme d’Ambert
is a mild blue cheese from the Auvergne, often with an almost nutty flavour. No one should find this too strong.Roquefort
is the most famous of France’s blue cheeses, though not necessarily the best. 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, making it into a virtually industrial product. Over 18,000 tons of Roquefort are manufactured each year, and the cheese is exported worldwide. Though made in the “causses
” mountains of southern France, in the department of the Aveyron, and matured in caves, a lot of the milk used in the making of Roquefort is imported into the region.
Crottin de Chavignol, Valençay
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 is a pressed cheese from the Basque country, similar to other southern European ewe’s milk cheeses, such as Pecorino Romano from Italy.
Some Modern Dairy Cheeses
Saint Agur (a soft blue cheese, made in the Auvergne), Brillat-Savarin, an almost buttery soft cheese, Roulade, Saint Albray, Port Salut, Boursin, a cream cheese containing herbs and garlic.
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. I prefer Comté (the best) or Cantal.
The words “tomme” and “fourme” are generic words that can describe several different types of cheese. Etymologically, the French word for cheese, “fromage” is a diminutive version of the word “fourme”.
Cancoillotte is a very distinctive cheese that 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.
Remember to always serve cheese at room temperature, because cheese has a high fat content, which needs to become softer to be flavourful.
Below, French Cheeses: the Image is Originally from Cook’s Magazine