To say that the French nation loves cheese is an understatement. France is the home to some of the most beloved cheeses in the world, and their names are legendary – Rochefort, Brie, Camembert, Comté. While opinion differs about how many varieties of cheese there are in France, there are at least 400 (with some estimates ranging to over 1000)!
French cheese differs greatly depending on the region in which it is produced, the source of the milk, the history of the region, and local traditions. Many French cheeses have attained the certification known as AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée), guaranteeing authenticity for the origin and production of a cheese (in the same way that champagne is only produced in the Champagne region). To understand this great big world of French cheese, let’s explore the different regions of France, and some of their more well-known cheeses.
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Centre-Val de Loire
Centre-Val de Loire is the region just south of Paris, a region of wide open green spaces that follows its main river, the Loire. It is best known for its spectacular Loire Valley châteaux, home to French kings, queens, and nobility for centuries. The region is best known for its goat cheese, and 6 varieties have attained AOC status.
The unpasteurized soft goat cheese Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine is perhaps the most well-known cheese of the region. The cheese is shaped as a log, with a distinctive grey mould rind, rolled in ash, traditionally with a length of straw running through its centre. Another unpasteurized goats cheese local to the region is Selles-sur-Cher, a wheel of soft cheese with a strong taste and a blue-grey rind. Another goat cheese is Valençay, which is formed in distinctive pyramid shapes. Some cows’ milk cheeses are produced here too, such as Olivet Cendré, a soft cheese with delicate and salty taste, and a grey ash-coloured rind.
Pays de la Loire
Stretching from the Atlantic coast, through to the lower part of the Loire Valley, Pays de la Loire is known for its grand châteaux, its Breton culture of the Brittany Peninsula, and fine Loire Valley wines. Cows milk cheeses are the specialty here.
Tomme de Chouans cheese comes from the Vendee department, a soft and chewy cow’s milk cheese. It is known for its stripey yellow rind and mild taste. Another popular cow’s milk cheese familiar to many is Port Salut, with an orange rind, semi-soft texture, and creamy and mild taste. Curé Nantais is a supple and sticky cheese with a characteristic smoky flavour, and is commonly eaten with fruit. One of the more unique cheeses of the region is Embruns aux Algues, a 1-month aged cheese mixed with seaweed, giving a strong and salty taste.
Île-de-France is the smallest region of France, best known for being home to the city of lights itself, Paris – as well as Disneyland, and the palace of Versailles. While Paris doesn’t make any cheese, in the towns and cities outside of Paris are some of the country’s most famous cheese producers.
Arguably France’s most famous cheese is made in Île-de-France, the soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese of Brie. It has a white mould rind and a creamy texture. Brie was the model for Normandy’s version, Camembert. The cheese originated from the Brie region (now modern day Seine-et-Marne), and was first produced around the 7th century by monks from Meaux and Melun. Emperor Charlemagne was said to be one of the earliest lovers of Brie, and arranged to have it regularly sent to his castle in Aachen.
While there are several varieties of Brie, some of the most popular include Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun. Brie Noir is a variety of Brie aged for over 2 years, lending it a rich, mushrooms taste. Other examples from Île-de-France include Coulommiers and Boursalt, soft cows milk cheeses similar to Brie.
Hauts de France
France’s northernmost region is Hauts-de-France, sharing a border with Belgium, and home to the Channel tunnel that connects to England. Hauts de France is the location of many of France’s historic battlegrounds, from the Somme to Dunkirk, and is beloved for its strong beer and medieval Belfry towers. Cheese from Hauts-de-France is usually made with cow’s milk, and pairs well with beer.
Mimolette from Lille is one of the most renowned cheeses of the region. It is a large spherical cheese made from cow’s milk cheese with a taste like parmesan. With its ball shape, bright orange colour and rind, it is jokingly compared to a cantaloupe. One of the oldest cheeses of the region is Maroilles, which dates to 962CE and was created by monks in the Abbey of Maroilles. Maroilles is a soft cheese with a strong smell and a moist orange rind. For lovers of beer, one of the best pairings it’s the stinky Gris de Lille, a salty and pungent cow’s milk cheese often served with a glass of Bière du Nord.
Sharing a border with Germany in the north, this region of Grand Est is the home of Champagne vineyards, the Christmas markets of Strasbourg, expansive forests and mountaintop castles. Grand Est is a big cheese producing region, with a wide range of different varieties.
Grand Est is a major cheese-producing region of France. The most famous from this northern region is probably Munster (or Minschterkaas), a mild cow’s milk cheese with a strong smell and an orange rind, produced in the town of the same name. One speciality from Lorraine is Carré de l’Est (square of the east), a soft cheese similar to Brie with a smoky flavour.
Other notable cheeses include Langres, an AOC cheese from Champagne-Ardenne with a slightly crumbly texture and a white penicillium rind. Chaource is another crumbly cow’s milk cheese with a soft rind that is often served with a glass of champagne. One of the most commercial cheeses is Caprice des Dieux from the Haut Marne department, a soft cow’s cheese with a bloomy rind sold in distinctive blue boxes.
The island of Corsica is the only French region in Europe that does not lie on the mainland. Its position in the Mediterranean guarantees this mountainous island beautiful sun and beaches, as well as a unique culinary culture that is distinctively Corsican. Corsican cheese is often produced from goats milk or sheep milk.
By far the most famous Corsican cheese is Brocciu, a creamy goat or sheep cheese similar to ricotta. It is a soft cheese which is served with white Corsican wine, or as in ingredient in cooking. Brin d’Amour (also called Fleur du Maquis), is a sheep’s cheese which has a creamy texture. Its rind is often covered with herbs such as rosemary or fennel, or sometimes juniper berries. Other cheeses from Corsica includes the soft goat’s milk cheese Niolo, with a strong flavour and smell, as well as the raw sheep’s milk cheese Corsu Vecchiu.
Centred around its capital city Toulouse (the Pink City), Occitanie is a southern region with landscapes that vary between rugged Pyreneés mountain ranges to sunny Mediterranean beaches. It’s a region with an amazing collection of Roman architecture, and medieval castles like that of Carcassonne. Occitanie cheese includes blue cheeses as well as creamy varieties, made with sheep or goat’s milk.
Occitanie produces one of France’s most iconic cheeses, the blue cheese Roquefort. Roquefort is an unpasteurized sheep cheese with a bitey and tangy taste, characterised by veins of blue mould. The cheese is classified as AOC, with only cheeses aged in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon considered to be the genuine Roquefort product.
Occitanie also produces Cathare, a disc of raw goat’s milk cheese imprinted with the Occitan Cross, and Cabécou, a soft goat’s milk cheese which is wrapped in chestnut leaves, dipped in plum brandy, and seasoned with pepper.
France’s largest region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine borders Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, and is perhaps best known for the city of Bordeaux and its esteemed wine region. With sunny beaches, prehistoric caves, and Basque culture on offer, the region is one of France’s most diverse. Cheese from Nouvelle-Aquitaine is typically goat cheese (chevre).
Topping the list of most popular cheeses in Nouvelle-Aquitaine is perhaps Chabichou, a cylindrical goat’s cheese with a soft, white creamy texture, either eaten with wine or in cooking. Another local speciality is Bûche de Chevre, a goat’s cheese hailing from the Poitou region. It has a soft, creamy texture and slightly sweet taste. Known for its bright orange colour is Chaumes cheese from the Périgord region. It is a smooth and creamy cheese with a distinctive rubbery and aromatic crust.
The home of Mont Saint-Michel, Étretat, and the D-Day landing beaches, Normandy is an important historic region of France. It was the birthplace of William the Conqueror, the setting of Viking raids, and the Duchy of Normandy. Apple cider is made in abundance here, as is the region’s most famous cheese, Camembert.
Known around the world as one of France’s most famous cheeses, Camembert is a wheel of soft, creamy cheese made from either pasteurised or unpasteurised cow’s milk. The first camembert was produced in the small commune of Camembert in the 18th century. Another similar cheese is Livarot, a wheel of soft and springy cheese with a creamy texture and a pungent smell. Livarot is nicknamed The Colonel, so named for its five strips of raffia twine that traditionally wrap it (similar to the uniform of a French Army Colonel).
The distinctively heart-shaped Neufchatel is a soft, creamy, and slightly crumbly cheese with a salty taste. Thought to be among the oldest cheeses in France, it dates to around the 11th century and is often sold in a heart shape.
Bourgogne-Franche-Comté is a region known for Burgundy wine country, mountain ranges and large risk areas borders Switzerland to the east. It is famous for Dijon mustard, the colourful rooftops of Beaune, Roman ruins and Burgundy beef. Cheese from Bourgogne-Franche-Comté includes some AOC varieties, and is typically made with cow’s milk.
Bourgogne-Franche-Comté produces one of France’s most popular hard cheeses, Comté. It is the AOC cheese with the highest production in France. Similar in taste to Gruyère, Comté is an unpasteurized semi-hard cow’s milk cheese with a mild taste, and is produced as large wheels, with a mild taste.
Another specialty of the region is Morbier, a semi-soft cheese with a creamy taste and a characteristic line of ash running through the centre. Mont d’Or is a cheese made with raw cow’s milk. It has a runny centre, and is packaged in a distinctive box made of spruce wood. An even runnier cheese is Cancoillette, which is made by combining water or milk with melted metton cheese. One of the stinkiest cheeses of the region is Époisses, a cow’s milk cheese with a soft texture, with pairs well with a glass of Trappiste beer.
Occupying a hilly pensinsula in France’s north-west is the region of Brittany, the hub of Breton culture and people, as well as a region of rugged coastlines, amazing fortified cities, ancient stone megaliths, and crêpes with cider. While Brittany specialises more in producing butter, it has some fantastic cheeses on offer as well.
In Brittany, Saint-Paulin is one of the most popular cheeses of the region, a firm cheese with a creamy texture and a nutty, milky taste. It was originally produced by Trappist monks working out of their monasteries. Some other local specialties include the Trappe de Timadeuc, known for its elastic texture; Merzer, with a mild taste, low fat content, and pungent smell; and the raw cow’s milk Tome de Rhuys, with a characteristic fruity flavour.
Situated along the Mediterranean coast is the sunny region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. It contains the vibrant city of Marseille, the glamorous towns of the French Riviera, and sprawling lavender fields. While Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur isn’t the biggest producer of French cheese, it has some local specialties on offer.
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure is perhaps best known for Brousse du Rove, an unpasteurised goat’s milk cheese first produced over 2000 years ago. Brousse de Rove has a creamy, soft, sweet taste, and is commonly sold in plastic conical cylinders. From the town of Banon in Provence is Banon cheese. It is another goat’s milk cheese wrapped in a circular form with dried chestnut leaves, and has a nutty taste and a strong smell.
The region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is France’s premier alpine region, with grand mountain ranges that includes Mont Blanc and the Chaîne des Puys. Meanwhile, some of the country’s most beautiful cities such as Lyon and Annecy are here. Auverge-Rhône-Alpes is one of the most celebrated cheese producing regions in the country, specialising in fine blue cheeses and hard cow’s milk cheeses.
Hailing from Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is the unpasteurized cheese Reblochon, made of unpasteurised cow’s milk, with a white outer rind and a soft centre. It has a nutty taste that goes well with a glass of wine, but is also famous as an ingredient in tartiflette, one of the region’s signature dishes.
Thought to be France’s oldest cheese is Cantal, a hard yellow unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese with a mouldy rind and a strong taste like nutty cheddar. It is thought to have first been produced in ancient Gaul. Le Brin is a creamy, semi-soft cheese with a red-orange rind, made from cow’s milk. A regional specialty blue cheese is Saint Agur from the Auvergne region, with a mild and spicy taste and a green mold throughout. The strong smelling Bleu d’Auvergne, is another blue cheese from Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, a creamy cheese with a pleasant buttery taste.
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France has a fantastic selection of incredible cheeses. From blue cheese to goat’s milk, hard wheels of cow cheese to cheese so runny it can only be served with a spoon, there is a dizzying variety. By looking at French cheese according to the region in which it is produced, we can start to see the cheese specialties from all around the country, and how the culture and produce influences this amazing and delicious food.
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