French Cheese - Cheeses of France
"You can unite the French only through fear.
You simply cannot bring together a country that has over 265 kinds of cheese."
Charles de Gaulle
Cheese is a very big deal in France. It is produced practically everywhere and anywhere, from monasteries to large farms, mountain huts to dairies. The official list of French cheeses varies, depending who you ask, but there are between 265 and 500 cheeses produced in France. These cheeses are made from ewe's, goat's or cow's milk that is either raw, pasteurised or petit-lait. It is hardly surprising that cheese is sold in its own shop, a fromagerie, as the choice is overwhelming. The cheese merchant will be happy to let you sample some cheese before you buy it though and, as with all French merchants, they are usually happy to discuss the various qualities of their products.
Like wine, French cheese is protected by AOC laws (appellation d'origine contrôllée) which only allow certain limited quantities of a particular cheese to be produced in order to prevent mass production ruining the subtle variations in regional French cheeses.
In good, traditional restaurants, there will be a plateau de fromage (cheeseboard) with a comprehensive range of cheeses, particularly local ones, kept at optimum temperature and ready to be served with bread (no butter). Trying the local cheeses rather than sticking to the ever-present Brie, Camembert and chèvre will broaden your knowledge and really open your eyes to what France has on offer.
Fromage de chèvre (goat's cheese) comes in a number of forms but is usually creamy and sweet at first, growing more salty and harder with age. Cabécou-de-Rocamadour from the Pyrenees is good served warm with salad; Crottin-de-Chavignol is a classic from Burgundy and gets quite salty after a couple of weeks; for a milder version try the Loire's Ste-Maure-de-Touraine.
Fromage à pate persillée (blue cheese) - Roquefort is the most famous and made from ewe's milk; Bresse-Bleu and Fourme d'Ambert (very mild) are both made from cow's milk in the Rhone-Alps.
Fromage à pate molle (soft cheese) includes the popular Camembert from Normandy, and Brie de Meaux, both made from cow's milk.
Fromage à pate demi-dure (semi-hard cheese), uncooked and pressed, includes Cantal, which tastes a bit like Cheddar and is made from cow's milk in the Auvergne, and the delicious Tomme de Savoie.
Cheese should be served at room temperature so that the flavour is able to develop. If you are cutting a round cheese, like a Camembert, cut it into wedges like a pie. A wedge shape (eg, Brie) should be cut tip to rind, remembering never to cut off the tip. With blue cheeses, don't steal all the best bits - take your share of the rind too! As for wine, regional wines often go well with cheese from that region, so ask for tips from the locals.
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