French people eat 30 kg of cheese per year per person and there are more than 1200 types of cheese. Winston Churchill even said during WWII “a country capable of giving the world 360 cheeses can not die.” It makes it hard to know all the French cheese names!
French cheese is a jewel of French gastronomy. French people love it and eat it every day. When it comes to food, the French eating etiquette rules and the cheese doesn’t make an exception. Here is everything you should know to be able to buy, serve, eat and keep your cheese the French way!
Where to buy good French cheese in France?
At the cheese shop
Buying your French cheese at the cheese shop is the most recommended place when you don’t know what to buy and the French cheese names. You will find only good quality cheeses, properly aged and ready to be savoured. The cheesemonger will take the time to guide you to make your choice according to your taste and will make you try if needed.
Some cheese shops also sell other local delicacies to pair with the cheese, like wines, bread, local jams,…
At the supermarket
We often hear that the cheese sold in the supermarket are of lower quality. It can be true when it comes to buying the industrial pre-packaged cheeses. But you can also buy cheese by weight at the cheese counter. Don’t get me wrong, you can buy pre-packaged industrial cheese, many French people do, including me, but these will not be as tasty and delicate as traditional cheese.
If you find it easier to buy the pre-cut cheese and still want to find the most authentic and traditional option, look for the AOP or AOC label. AOP means Protected Designation of Origin (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), it is the European label similar to the French label AOC for controlled designation of origin (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). These labels guarantee that the product is produced following the traditional determined method and in a defined location. The AOP and AOC labels are used for many different types of products, in France, it was first initiated for the French wine production. Therefore, to have the name Camembert, the Camembert can only be produced in Normandy or the authentic Brie de Meaux in the region surrounding the village of Meaux.
You can also find traditional cheeses that didn’t go through the AOP or AOC label process, these ones are usually done with raw milk and will have no branding. These cheeses are definitely worth a try.
At the market
The local outdoor or indoor market is also a great place to buy cheese, the same way you would at the cheese shop. The prices will be slightly lower at the market. The cheesemaker will sell his/her own production and other traditional cheeses from a refrigerated truck. The cheesemaker knows perfectly the products and will be happy to give you advice on the one to choose, the best way to learn new French cheese names!
This is usually where I buy the cheese, as well as the fresh yoghurts and eggs. You will also be able to buy churned butter, but I advise you to buy it in a small portion as you can keep it shorter than industrial butter.
At the farm
If you have the chance to buy cheese directly from the farm, this is an experience not to miss. When you are on a road trip in the French countryside, keep on eye on the side of the road signs as you may find farmers selling their cheeses and other products.
Also, many farmers sell their small productions to their neighbours and acquaintances without promoting it. Since I’m a little girl, my family get cheese from my grandparent neighbouring farm, they make only one cheese but its taste changes so much according to its stage of ageing that it feels like it is a totally different cheese from the one you got one a few days ago. If you know how to make it age properly.
Which cheese to buy?
What is the difference between pasteurized vs unpasteurized cheese?
When it comes to choosing the cheese, we often wonder whether we should choose between a pasteurized milk cheese or a raw milk cheese. There are actually 4 different types in terms of milk treatment method: unpasteurized, thermalized, pasteurized and micro-filtered in the ordered of processes modifying the initial nature of milk.
Without getting into too much into technical details, here are the main difference between these 4 types of milk treatment that will then be used to make the cheese.
Unpasteurized milk cheese
This is the most traditional method as the cheese is made with raw milk and has been heated up under 40 °C. The milk must be used within the first 48h after milking and the cheese natural bacterias will be preserved and give a specific taste to the cheese.
This type of cheese is produced near the milk supply and gives a better ageing process to the cheese. Some AOC cheeses must be made with raw milk to have the label as it is the case for the Roquefort cheese.
The raw milk cheese is contraindicated for pregnant women apart from the pressed and cooked cheeses such as Comté cheese or Beaufort cheese. If you are pregnant, make sure you ask your doctor’s advice before making your personal decision as everyone will have a different opinion regarding cheese consumption and pregnancy, especially in France!
Thermalized milk cheese
This process is a good compromised to maintain the “good bacterias” of the cheese and get rid of the bad ones responsible for the listeria for example. The raw milk is heated up for a minimum of 15 seconds between 57 and 68 °C.
Pasteurized and micro-filtered milk cheese
The pasteurized milk is heated up at 63 °C for 30 minutes or 72 °C during 15 minutes. The milk can also be micro-filtred to separate the cream and then reintegrate the amount of cream desired. This is why we often see indications of light cheese or low cream cheese.
Most of the prepacked brand cheeses are pasteurized you find in supermarkets are pasteurized and in some cases also micro-filtered. However, this is important to keep in mind, that the fact to use raw or pasteurized milk is not a token of quality. You can find very good quality of pasteurized milk cheese and lower quality raw milk cheese. The quality of the milk used and the fabrication process are essential to make a good and tasty cheese!
Why is the French cheese seasonal?
As it is the case for fruits and vegetable, the cheese is seasonal. Indeed, the grass eaten by the animals vary from one season to another, therefore the milk flavour will too. The spring and summer flowery, fresh grass will give a different taste than the hay and other flours given to the animals in winter. Also, the ageing process is an important factor.
When buying your cheese, you make want to ask the cheesemaker the difference between the summer and the winter cheese. Some cheeses are better to consume in specific seasons, for example, long time ageing cheeses like Epoisse or Parmesan would be more appreciated in winter. I don’t really know and follow this in my daily cheese consumption, but it might be worth exploring more this question. I could, for example, really taste the difference between a winter Beaufort and a summer one! It is worth making a small degustation and taking it into account when choosing your cheese!
How to vary the cheese pleasures the French way?
When buying cheese to make a French cheese board, you will want to have more and less strong cheese and also vary the textures of the cheeses. I always try to have 3 different kinds of cheese on my cheese board for at least 2 types of milk between the cow, goat and sheep milk.
I also try to have one hard cheese like Comté cheese, a sheep milk Tomme and Beaufort cheese. I also would buy softer texture cheese like Reblochon, Saint Nectaire, the famous Camembert and also fresh cheese, very creamy one or even blue cheese. One of my favourite cheese, and very accessible for people discovering French cheese is the Brillat-Savarin, an unusually French cheese name. Its inventor, the cheesemaker Henry Androüet, gave it the name of a famous 18th-century gourmet, Mr. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. A very fat and creamy cheese, that you can also find with truffle! A delight! There are so many options, the hardest will be to make up your mind!
How to serve cheese in France?
Cheese in France is an actual course of a meal. It is eaten after the main course and before or instead of dessert. This is the traditional and most common way to eat it in France. It can also be eaten at the apero when having guests.
Cheese should be served at room temperature. So French people usually take out the cheese from the fridge (and open the box) before starting their meal. That way the cheese will have the perfect temperature, only if you don’t eat too fast!
How to eat cheese like the French?
This is when it can get confusing for most foreigners, especially if you are invited by French hosts. My first advice would be not to serve yourself first and observe how others do before serving yourself. The French cheese etiquette is still very present and mainly unconscious for most French people.
The way French people cut cheese allow a fair distribution between the rind and the dough. The person taking the last piece of cheese shouldn’t only have the rind. So, for example, the Roquefort should be cut perpendicular to the rind and not parallel or the nose of the Brie should not be cut off but remade by cutting in an angle.
Once you have managed to serve yourself without committing a French faux pas (that really no one should openly reprimand you about), you have several pieces of cheese in your plate. The best way to enjoy your cheese is to start by the softer cheese and go up in taste until finishing by the strongest one. Otherwise, you will not taste the softer cheese by the end. Ask your host, they should be able to tell you which one you can start with.
Also, cheese is always eaten with bread. French cheese should never be eaten alone unless you’re having it at the apero. In addition, eating strong cheeses with bread will soften the taste in the mouth, and the wine will also give an amazing match!
People usually separate a piece of bread with their hands, take a piece of cheese with the piece and eat both at the same time. Cheese is not spread on bread like butter unless it is processed cream cheese. Also, butter should never be spread on the bread before adding the cheese, unless you are making a sandwich for a picnic. However, never make a sandwich with the cheese served after the main course. A cheese platter is an expensive delicacy and your host will feel that you are not respecting it if you are making a sandwich out of it and also that you haven’t eaten enough and liked the main course.
How to keep the cheese like the French?
The cheese should be kept on a cheese platter that can close or a plastic box inside your fridge. If you want to avoid spreading a “nice” cheese smell in the entire fridge, you shouldn’t keep the cheese in its original packaging unless perfectly closed. If you want to avoid the taste of each cheese to mix with the others, you can wrap them individually in kitchen paper before putting them all in a plastic box. However, if you want to age the cheese like a Camembert that is still too hard or goat cheese, you’ll need to keep it at room temperature. In the countryside, you can still find food safes to store the food, the best way to age your cheese as long as it is not too hot.
Discovering French cheese is all about trying, finding out the ones for you and how to match it with a good wine too. If you follow the above tips, you’ll master the French way of savouring cheese in no time! Enjoy your French experience with friends, a cheese board and a good bottle of wine!