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French Cheese

The French nation has long had a tradition of being food connoisseurs. When you imagine the culinary delights on offer in France, you immediately visualise garlic and onions, baguettes and escargot, wine, and of course, cheese.

In 1962, Charles de Gaulle famously asked "How Can You Govern a Nation that has 246 varieties of cheese?" He would find that job infinitely more difficult today, as it is now believed that there are around 400 distinct varieties of French cheese. With variations and additions, such as herbs and fruits, it is believed there could be as many as 1,000 different varieties available to the food lover.

In 2011, the French produced almost 2 million tonnes of cheese, making them the world's third largest cheese producer behind the USA and Germany. So, just what is it about the French which make their cheeses so special?

French cheese is made from a variety of milks, most commonly Cow's milk, but goat's and sheep's milk are also used. Cheese can be manufactured in a number of settings, from individual farms, where all of the milk used in the production of the cheese must come from that farm, to large industrial units where the milk is sourced from all over France.

There are some 56 cheeses for which production is protected and regulated under French Law by the AOC (Appellation d'origine controllee). The AOC govern the specific requirements cheese, wines and other food items must meet before they can claim to come from a specific area of France. Many French cheeses have such a distinctive flavour that they often possess an international reputation. Below we have laid out a cheese board to show where you can find some of the best cheeses that the French have to offer.

A French Cheese Board

Banon

Banon Cheese

If you are in Provence, you are highly likely to encounter the goats cheese Banon. Banon's distinctive raffia tied, chestnut leaf wrapping gives the cheese an earthy taste. It is quite unusual and well worth seeking out if you are in the area.

Brie

Brie Cheese

Whilst similar in form and texture, Brie differs from Camembert in a number of significant areas, not least of which is the size. A traditional Camembert will measure just 4 inches in diameter, however, Brie is manufactured in large wheels, which may be up to 14.5 inches across. While Camembert originates from Normandy, Brie hails from the Ile de France region. Brie is aged for around 6 weeks, whereas a Camembert can be produced in just 3. Like Camembert, Brie also has a rich, buttery flavour, however, this may be slightly stronger depending on the ingredients added to the rind during the manufacturing process.

Brocciu

Brocciu Cheese

Brocciu may be made from sheep's or goat's milk and is often used as a substitute for the Italian cheese Ricotta as it is lactose free. It is a fresh tasting cheese which is produced on the island of Corsica. The cheese is made in such a way that no aging process is required, and it may be consumed immediately after production. It is best served with locally made white wines.

Camembert

Camembert Cheese

Camembert is possibly the best known of all French cheeses, it's wooden packaging identifying the cheese before it is even opened. Traditionally made from unpasteurised milk, the cheese is thought to have been first created in the late 1700's. Normandy farmer, Marie Harel, followed the cheese making advice of a priest from Brie, and the result was Camembert. The manufacture of the cheese has evolved over the last two centuries, until becoming the distinctive round white form it is instantly recognisable as today. Traditional Camembert is still manufactured in Normandy, and it's light, buttery taste is best enjoyed with a light red wine such a Beaujolais.

Comte

Gruyere de Comte Cheese

Comte, also known as Gruyere de Comte, has the highest production of all of the AOC cheeses, roughly 40,000 tonnes annually. The cheese has a semi-hard texture and is produced in round flat discs which can measure up to 28 inches in diameter and around 4 inches in height. Each disc can weigh up to 110lbs. The cheese is made to exacting standards regulated by the AOC. For example, only milk from French Simmental or Montbeliarde cattle can be used, and salt may only be rubbed on the outside of the cheese. The strong, slightly sweet taste of the cheese varies a little each year as the pasture on which the cattle grazes affects the taste of the milk produced. Comte is produced in Eastern France in the France-Comte region, and is usually aged for 12-18 months. In some high class restaurants, it is possible to buy Comte which has been aged much longer than that, L'Arpege in Paris carries a Comte which has been aged for four years.

Roquefort

Roquefort - world famous blue cheese

Roquefort is the best known blue-vein sheep's milk cheese in the world. Only cheese which is aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the Midi-Pyrenees, may be called Roquefort, a right which is protected by European law. The legend of the creation of the cheese is delightful. A young shepherd eating his lunch of bread and sheep's cheese in a cave spied a beautiful young girl in the distance. Abandoning his lunch so that he could go and talk to her, he did not return for several months, during which time the mold had transformed the cheese into the Roquefort which is so popular today. The legend does not state whether or not the young man was successful in his endeavours, but it would be nice to think that was the case. Roquefort has a distinctive creamy, tangy, salty flavour and is often called the 'King of Cheeses'. A sweet dessert wine is often recommended as an excellent partner for this cheese.

Valencay

Valencay Cheese

Valencay is another goat's cheese, this time from the Berry region of central France. It's distinctive topless pyramid shape make it an unusual addition to any dinner table. This fresh tasting cheese takes most of it's flavour from the natural mold which forms its rind, with more aged varieties having a nuttier taste than those which are slightly less mature.

A delightful evening

With so many varieties of French Cheese on offer, it is impossible to detail them all here. Suffice it to say that whichever region of France you are in, it is well worth seeking out the local cheeses. Team your selection with a loaf of freshly baked french bread, and a bottle of wine from the local vineyard, and you will find few better ways to spend an evening.

Your favourite?

Do you have a favourite French cheese that we haven't mentioned above? If you have, please let us know and we will add to the cheese board.

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