In honor of Made In’s love of French cookware and our trip to France this fall, we’re breaking down the most popular cheeses hailing from France.
Among the many global locales specializing in cheese, there’s perhaps none as famous as the beautiful rolling hills and romantic cities of France. The first French appearance of this dairy delight goes all the way back to the 13th century. We’re talking the medieval era (picture Game of Thrones, minus the magic). Much more than brie or Munster, French farmers across the country devised their own unique interpretations of this milk-derived product, resulting in over 246 types by the mid-20th century.
Over the years, recipes were passed on, tweaked, changed and reinterpreted to meet consumers’ tastes as well as changes in modern manufacturing. While cheesemaking was predominantly a ‘woman’s’ economic venture centuries ago, nowadays, any enthusiast can throw their hat in the ring. Not to mention, modern refrigeration and technology allow us to transport our goods anywhere in the world. This widens dairy farmers’ global impact, whereas in the past, they were limited to consumers in their region.
Photo: Alexander Maasch
Why do different cheeses taste so different?
Although the fermenting process hasn’t really changed over the years, each variety of cheese comes out with its own special properties. No matter time or place, you always follow the simple 3-step process:
Turn milk to curds > Add salt > Dry or ‘age’ the cheese
But why is it that one variety has a smoky flavor, while the other has a subtly sweet or salty taste? Why do some cheeses have a soft, spreadable texture, while others are seemingly hard as a rock? The fact is, every farmer has a series of choices to make, all contributing to the final product. Here are just a few factors to consider:
- The temperature and method of warming milk
- Differences in mixing
- The technique of curdling via milk bacteria
- How the individual cuts the solidified curd
- The size of yeast/bacteria grains used
- How long the cheese is pressed
- Brining and washing methods
- Levels of humidity and ambient temperature
What cheese is France best known for?
Although good cheese comes from all over the world, there’s a special ‘something’ that makes French fromage a truly delectable gourmet treat. Whether it’s the country’s rich cheese-making history, quality products, production methods, peasant patience or ‘fancy’ reputation is still to be determined.
Without further adieu, here are our picks for the top 10 cheeses of France. Take note of each variety’s unique flavor profile and the particular region of origin.
Top 10 French Cheeses
Profile: Soft, sweet
Recommendation: Baked Garlic Rosemary Camembert from Olivia’s Cuisine
Similar to the more mainstream brie, camembert cheese boasts a soft, creamy texture and earthy, nutty flavor. Also more intense than brie, this variety can sometimes be described as sweet but also buttery or mushroom-like to taste.
Profile: Crumbly, spicy
Recommendation: Roquefort Salad with Pears, Chicory, and Walnut from BBC
Akin to blue cheese, Roquefort offers a robust, tangy flavor which is perfect for topping salads and other dishes in need of a sharp, acidic kick. It’s also crumbly in texture, but moist and soft to chew. This cheese is specially derived from a ewe’s milk and is often compared to gorgonzola or regular blue cheese (of course, with a French twist).
Region: Franche Comté
Profile: Semi-hard, earthy
Recommended: Apple Comté Cheese Walnut Panini from Yummly
Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and originating in the Eastern area of the country, Comté is a pressed cheese comparable to gruyere. It melts perfectly, making it ideal for dips, raclette or an upgraded mac and cheese. Warm, nutty flavors complement a variety of ingredients, and although spreadable, Comté retains its firmness and can even be crumbled. This characteristic makes it extremely versatile.
Region: Ile de France
Profile: Soft, creamy
Recommended: Baked Brie with Honey from Ina Garten
Like Camembert, brie is beloved for its ooey, gooey texture when heated slightly in the oven. Its edible rind is a distinguishing characteristic, alongside its mild, creamy, buttery flavor perfect for everything from burgers to desserts. Charcuterie lovers can skip the time-consuming setup, pop an entire wheel in the oven and wow a crowd in no time. There’s no denying the awesome popularity of Brie—especially in America.
5. Bleu d'Auvergne
Profile: Semi-soft, grassy
Recommended: Cauliflower and Bleu d'Auvergne Soup from Do It In Paris
Sometimes described as herb-like, salty or even spicy in flavor, this artisan classic is akin to Roquefort, although made with cow’s milk. Take one look at Bleu d'Auvergne, and you’ll instantly see its identifiable blue curds sprinkled throughout the creamy wedge. Flavors can range from tangy to grassy, while its aroma is on the stronger side, so don’t get too close!
Profile: Semi-hard, fruity/nutty
Recommended: Classic Cheese & Crackers from Food Network
Remarkable for its intensely savory bite, Salers is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and is a traditional hard cheese with a crusty rind. Although generally strong in taste and aroma, this Cantal-like cheese can also exude fruity, nutty or grassy notes depending on preparation. For those who like artisanal-quality fromage, Salers provides that farmhouse look, feel and flavor.
Profile: Rind-washed soft, super strong
Recommended: Epoisses, Ham and Apple Tart from Food & Wine
So pungent that it was supposedly banned on public transport across the country, Epoisses is derived from raw cow’s milk and takes on a chewy yet firm texture. The flavor is salty, mildly sweet and also quite piquant. This ‘in-your-face’ quality allows Epoisses to shine in many appetizers or main dishes. Get past the offensive odor, and you’re in for an exciting French culinary treat.
Region: Alsace – Lorraine
Profile: Semi-soft, neutral
Recommended: Munster Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Build Your Bite
Popular the world over, Munster boasts a vibrant orange rind and uniquely bland flavor. Still, its satisfyingly smooth texture and notes of sharpness make it an ideal pair for practically any deli meat sandwich. Back in the day, this traditional variety was aged in Monks’ monasteries in the town of Muenster in Alsace. Flash forward a few centuries, and it’s a common staple in every refrigerator.
9. Saint Nectaire
Profile: Semi-Soft, sweet
Recommended: Saint Nectaire Tomato Tart from Fromages
As its name suggests, Saint Nectaire is a nod to the sweet, ripe taste of the nectarine. But as a whole, the cheese boasts a certain complexity. Hints of fruitiness emerge alongside slightly sour, nutty, bitter flavors, which balance it nicely. Its texture is decidedly smooth.
10. Buche de Chèvre
Region: Across France
Profile: Soft, tangy
Recommended: Roasted Figs with Buche de Chèvre from Hungry Empress
Composed of goat’s milk and ripened for a minimum of a week, Buche de Chèvre offers bold flavor, rich texture, and melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness whether you’re indulging with a meal or by itself. Described as complex yet caramely, this goat cheese makes an ideal showcase for any dinner party or holiday get-together.Thanks for joining us on this cheesy journey! We’ve got more Made In French foodie ideas coming up soon.