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With over 250 varieties (depending on who you talk to) the French have an understandable special appreciation for cheese. However, to a novice enthusiast or just someone looking to enjoy a local lunchtime bite, deciphering the label can be a bit of a hassle. From terminology to how to shop, we’ve got you covered when tackling the world of French cheese.
While a bit of a roundabout, terroir and Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) are two related terms that signify the region of origin and means of production. 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 terroirs. Protected 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 over 20 cheese-producing regions of France. While each one has particular production heritage and tradition, at the end of the day it’s still the cheese itself that is the celebrity. Below is a great info-graphic of AOC cheeses by region.
Traditionally, French cheeses are divided into eight groups known as les huit familles de fromage (the eight cheese families). These cheeses are made from one of three sources of animal milk: cow, goat, or ewe (sheep). If eight categories prove too much to handle, French cheese can simply be narrowed into three main groups: hard, soft, and blue. However, taking the time to know a few specifics could make the difference between purchasing an average cheese – or an exceptional one.
Fresh Cheese – Fromages frais
Made from cow’s, sheep’s, or goat’s milk, fresh cheese is not aged and contains a lot of water. Popular Types: Petit Suisse, Brousse.
Soft Cheeses with Natural Rind – Fromages à pâte molle et à croute fleurie
Made from cow’s milk these cheeses are aged approximately a month and are easily recognized by their doughy white surface. Popular Types: Brie, Camembert.
Soft Cheeses with Washed Rind – Fromages à pâte molle et à croute lavée
During the aging process this cow’s milk cheese has its rind washed away to prevent surface mold. Popular Types: Muenster, Livarot.
Pressed Cheese – Fromages à pâte pressée
By undergoing intentional pressure during the aging process, these full-fat raw milk cheeses lose the majority of their moisture, yielding a dense, hard cheese. The cheeses are aged for several months and are meticulously washed, turned, and brushed in order for a consistent rind. Popular Types: Cantal, Laguiole.
Pressed and Cooked Cheeses – Fromages à pâte pressée et cuite
These hard cheeses are aged after being heated and form in cycliners. Popular Types: Gruyère, Comté.
Goat Cheese – Fromages de chèvre
Generally a soft cheese made of goat’s milk that is aged two to six weeks. Sometimes mixed with cow’s to create a mi-chèvre. Popular Types: Rocamadour, Crottin de Chavignol.
Blue Cheeses – Fromages à pâte persillées
Channels or ‘veins’ of blue-green mold form throughout the typically two-month ageing process of the cheese. Made of cow’s or sheep’s milk. Popular Types: Roquefort, Bleu de Bresse
Processed Cheeses – Fromages à pâte fondue
These cheeses are a blend of other cheeses and often flavorings. Generally spread over bread, these cheeses are usually consumed as appetizers. Popular Type: Boursin
How and where the cheese is produced is often an important indication as what to expect from the cheese. These four terms can tell you a lot more about where your cheese came from:
A farmhouse cheese where the milk production and cheese making takes place all on the same farm.
A collaboration between local milk producers and cheese makers, these cheeses are produced in the same area but not on the same exact plot of land.
Similar to fermier, but the cheese producer may supplement the production with milk from other farms.
The cheese is made in a large-scale industrial factory receiving milk from multiple regional or national sources.
Now equipped with all the label know-how it’s time to head to a fromagerie or even the local grocer to pick your purchase. Fromagerie Laurent Dubois, Barthélémy, and Alléosse in Paris are all strong choices when it comes to purchasing from the experts. Shop cheeses like you would fresh veggies. Some are in season and some are not. Liken it to buying hothouse strawberries in the middle of winter versus the ruby-jewelled summertime berries of a farmers’ market. Both are enjoyable but the latter is utter perfection – because it’s the right time. The same thing can be true of cheese.
Ask the fromager about which cheeses are in season, and which are not. Finally, when selecting cheese, keep in mind that it is very much ‘alive’. Due to differing bacterial cultures some cheeses will happily sit in the fridge for several days once cut into while some need to be eaten quickly. Again, defer to the attentive experts at the fromagerie about when and how to enjoy your specific cheese selections.
If the premier camembert or stinkiest high end blue cheese isn’t your fancy – then don’t feel pressured to splurge. The lucky thing about the hundreds of varieties and levels of French cheese is that you can trust your own tastes when it comes to purchase. Enjoy what you like, not just what the critics and judges have decreed as the cream of the crop. So if that means eating the cheapest French Brie at your local Carrefour, then do it! Food is about pleasure, so trust your own gut when it comes to filling it.