Cheeses: the treasures of French gastronomy
Apr 14, 2024

Cheeses: the treasures of French gastronomy

Cheeses: the treasures of French gastronomy
Julien Mainguy

French and based in Vancouver since 2014, Julien Mainguy is the co-founder of Best of France. Passionate about the cultural difference between Canada and Europe, he is leading numerous projects to create awareness, help people grow, and bring communities together.

France is renowned all over the world for its cheese-making tradition and culinary heritage. There is a great variety and richness of French cheeses, which are an integral part of the country's culinary culture. 

A Frenchman consumes an average of 57 pounds of cheese a year, that’s the world record! The French eat cheese every day because it is part of their culture and it is considered a healthy food rich in calcium. It is in France that this food has been most developed. Each region offers different cheeses by their taste, texture and color. Indeed, France has more than 400 different varieties of cheese. These varieties distinguish the French terroirs and are part of the traditions and art of the table unique in each region. Moreover, France has about 40 types of cheeses with AOP. The AOP “Appellation d’origine protégée” (it could be translated by “Protected Designation of Origin”) aims to protect unique and quality products being manufactured in a specific geographical area, meeting specific manufacturing rules defined by specifications and enjoying a recognized artisanal savoir-faire. The AOP has been issued to exceptional products by the French State since 1992. AOP products are the pride of French gastronomy. In October 2016, France had 45 cheeses benefiting from such recognition, including 28 in cow’s milk, 14 in goat’s milk and 3 in sheep’s milk. Thus, when visiting France, do not hesitate to ask a cheesemaker which cheeses are AOP certified to taste them!

If you have ever wanted to know more about one of the most precious treasures of French cuisine, here is a guide to French cheeses for beginners!

What does cheese represent for France?

Its history

Cheese culture has crossed civilizations and history. Originally, it was a milk preservation accident that led to the creation of cheese. The first implantation of cheese in France would be due to the Romans.

In France, cheese was made mainly in cheese-making cellars (a huge millstone in which farmers pooled their milk to produce a large cheese to share afterwards) and in the monasteries. This is why many great French cheeses have monastic names such as Munster, Pont-l'Évêque, Tête de Moine, Maroilles and many others...

Being the pride of their regions of origin some cheeses bear the name of a city like the Coulommiers, native of the city with the same name in the Seine-et-Marne region or the Camembert native of a city of the same name in the Orne region.

Apart from the monasteries, it was mainly women who produced cheese, with recipes passed from mother to daughter. The first cheese cooperative was created by women farmers in 1267 in Déservillers. Cheese was becoming a staple of daily meals in France.

Around 1850, Charles Gervais launched the fresh cheese industry in France after visiting a woman farmer and in 1857, Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization, which was quickly applied to cheese making. These revolutions and the industrialization of cheese made cheeses more and more accessible, especially in department stores and not only at the local farmer. 

Artisanal cheese-making process

Its present

Most French consumers buy their cheese in large supermarkets where the choice is impressive. Cheese departments contain quality cheeses and are often presented differently depending on the region. Specialists cheesemakers (“fromagers” in French) are often more expensive but they are experts in the field and can advise you on which cheese to choose depending on the dish you want to cook, the wine you want to accompany or simply your taste. The best cheeses can be found in the specialty cheese factories (“fromageries” in French) where French craftsmanship from generation to generation can be enjoyed

You can also buy your dairy products at the markets. More and more local producers are selling their product there and are happy to tell their story and that of their product. In general, you can ask to taste the cheese before you buy it: it is a true sensory experience! 

Today, it is still very important for the French to honor the history of cheeses and to savor them in an authentic way. Cheese is not simply a dairy product, it is the result of an ancestral tradition, the fruit of a family and local history and the pride of the savoir-faire of an entire people. Basically, cheese is one of the greatest symbols of the French Art de Vivre. When visiting different regions in France, make sure to taste the cheese specific to each of them to complete your savory journey through French culture! 

A French fromagerie

Main types of French cheese 

Soft Cheeses with Bloomy Rinds:

Soft cheeses with bloomy rinds are probably the most iconic French cheeses as they embody French cuisine and culture. Among the most famous of those, we can cite the Brie de Meaux (from the parisian region), the Camembert de Normandie (from the Orne region), the Neufchâtel well-known for its heart shaped form (from the Pays de Bray region) and the Brillat-Savarin (From the Bourgogne region).

The main distinctive characteristics of these cheeses are their extremely creamy texture, delicate aroma and intense flavor. Depending on the cheese’s ripening time, the rind may take a different color, from white to brown or orange which also changes the flavor from mild to really strong.

Those cheeses have a big role in French cuisine as key ingredients in many classic dishes like the roasted Camembert, the Maroilles pie or Brie dressings for meat…

Preparation of a roasted Camembert

Pressed and Cooked Cheeses:

Pressed cheeses include famous cheeses like Comté (from the Franche-Comté region), Beaufort (from the Savoie region), and Gruyère 

The production of this type of cheese requires a specific cheese-making process, including pressing and cooking the curds.

Their complex flavors and firm texture is ideal for solo tasting and pairing with wines or accompanying traditional dishes. This type of cheese is essential to mountain gastronomy in the East like in the French Alpes or in the Jura. If you go skiing in the French mountains, you must absolutely taste Raclette and fondue Savoyarde!

Soft cheese from Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Blue-veined Cheeses:

Among the most renowned blue-veined French cheeses, we can name the Roquefort (from the Aquitaine region), the Bleu d'Auvergne (from the Massif Central region), and the Fourme d'Ambert (from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region).

Blue-veined cheese production requires a special aging process, allowing the development of blue veins of mold that distinguishes this unique kind of cheese. Its intense flavor and creamy texture distinguishes blue-veined cheeses from every other type of cheese, making it a sought-after ingredient for bold recipes like pears baked with Roquefort and honey, mussels with a Roquefort dressing, rabbit cooked in Roquefort and many others…


Goat Cheeses:

The tradition of making cheese from goat’s milk is strong in several regions in the West (Nouvelle Aquitaine for example) and in the South (Corse for example) especially. France is the first producer of goat cheese. You can find famous goat cheeses like Chavignol and Crottin de Chavignol in the French Cher department or the bûche cendrée in the Indre et Loire French department.

Cheeses made from goat's milk offer a wide range of flavors from mild to robust and can have different appearances (ash coated, spices coated, herbs coated…).

Goat cheese is often used as a key element in salads, hot dishes like quiches, salted French pies and cheese platters.

A Crottin de chèvre

How to savor French cheese

French ways to eat cheese

If you are invited to a typical French dinner, you should know that it is composed of many parts: first the aperitif (“l’apéritif” in French), then the starter (“l’entrée” in French), then the main course (“le plat principal” in French), then the cheese and finally the dessert (“le dessert” in French) and the coffee. The most “French moment" of the meal is probably the cheese part. In general, cheese is eaten before dessert to bring out all the flavors. It is served in a dish at room temperature and is accompanied by its faithful friend, the wine. The cheese is habitually presented on a beautiful board that can be decorated with charcuterie, grapes, lettuce, dried fruits, nuts, jam and honey and accompanied by fresh bread, often baguette, and wine. The most important is to accompany cheese with bread and wine and when savored at the aperitif, the charcuterie is essential! On this board, several types of cheese are served. French like to have the choice and to savor variety. To this effect, a cheese board is usually arranged with cheeses from every kind. If we had to compose a typical French cheese board, we could put together a Brie de Meaux (soft cheese), a Comté (pressed cheese), a Roquefort (blue-veined cheese) and a bûche de chèvre cendrée (goat cheese). To perfectly accompany each cheese, several wines should be offered, red wines as well as white wines. 

A typical French aperitif with cheese, charcuterie and wine

Where to buy cheese in France?

If you travel in France and wish to taste artisanal cheeses with authentic flavors, you can go to local markets that are present in most French cities. If you prefer shops, here are some specific addresses we recommend you to find delicious cheeses and discuss with passionate people:

A cheese board from Cassius fromagerie, La Rochelle

The huge cultural importance of cheese in France is not up to debate. Cheeses represent the artisanal craftsmanship and the traditional savoir-faire emblematic of each region specific terroir. Some can feel repulsed at the sight, or by the odor of some cheeses, but believe us, it’s worth going out of your way to see. Moreover, there are so many kinds of cheeses and ways to eat it that it is impossible to not find your fit!

The French Art de Vivre is an adventure meant to be tasted and one way to live it would be to explore and savor these dairy treasures of French gastronomy for an unforgettable culinary experience.