In France, cheese making is a traditional craft and art, which goes back thousands of years. France is rightfully referred to as a country with the best selection of cheeses in the world, let alone with the most sophisticated taste for gourmet products. Did you know that France is blessed with more than six hundred different types of cheese, many of which are famous and enjoy virtually universal popularity?
France’s emphasis on traditional cheese production is representative of their resistance to modernisation. Many cheeses cannot be made with a machine and traditional techniques are taken very seriously. Each cheese is particular to a certain region. They are made with milk from selected pastures, which is then molded and ripened and sent to a skilled fromager to be offered to customers.
Cheese is an important part of French culture and with this much choice and emphasis on quality, a visit to a cheese shop can be a daunting experience. You often don’t know what to expect, as many cheeses are seasonal and a good cheese shop will only carry what’s best at the moment. Although people do buy cheese at the supermarket, a one-on-one discussion with the vendor, who will verbally joust with you, until he or she finds the right cheese for you, is well worth the experience.
Top tip: If there’s a queue, this will be an ideal opportunity to see what other customers are ordering. You can often check out what the habitués are buying and find out what’s in season. This will also be an excellent moment to witness the exchange of playful banter between locals and their cheesemonger.
French cheeses are made from cow, goat, sheep or ewe’s milk, each have their own particular aroma, taste, and consistency. If you prefer a more “American” taste and less pronounced “cheesy” smell - go for fresh unripe products, which are made from cow’s or goat’s milk. Look for “fromage frais” (fresh cheese) or “fromage jeune” (unripe cheese). The best choice would be goat varieties like Buchette de Banon or Le Larzac, which have a mild and pleasant taste − much more suited to those who are not quite ready for the strong blue cheese or mature cheese taste and smell.
Roquefort is recommended for the real gourmands, it’s one of the most famous French ewe’s-milk cheeses. In France, this variety was grated a royal patent as long ago as the thirteenth century! Roquefort has a strong odour and a sharp taste, and is best washed down with a red wine from Burgundy. This pungent blue cheese is a great aphrodisiac – Casanova, who was a big fan, swore by it.
Some French cheeses are extremely smelly - their odour can even bring tears to your eyes! Actually, strong odour is a particular characteristic of many aged French raw-milk cheeses. The older the cheese, the stronger the smell, and the more delectable the taste is. If you don’t mind their overwhelming odour, you should try absolutely delicious Cancoillotte or Epoisses.
If your taste belongs with cream cheeses, select Capri Lezeen, St-Moret or Kire - the tastiest of creamy French varieties.
Looking for cheese for children? Kids will love if you buy them St-Paulin,Mimolette or Port-Salut - the least pungent kinds of French cheese, which are delicious and odourless and easy to spread.
If you are arranging a party or looking for a variety cheese gift basket, go for a balanced selection of soft cheeses, such as Camembert (choose one in a wooden box), Brie, or Reblochon, hard cheeses, such as Comté or Beaufort, and semi-hard types - Saint Nectaire, Morbier, or Tomme de Savoie. This way you can please everybody and not risk overwhelming them with a strong cheese smell.
Top Tip: Saint Nectaire is a cheese that the French go wild about. They get excited and say that it has the taste of the terroir (regionality).
Now, to address a small detail that may seem petty: the crust. The rule about eating the crust of the cheese is that if it won’t adversely affect the flavour. The crust is edible. Sometimes people scoff if you abstain from eating a particularly smelly and almost slimy crust. In the end it’s a personal choice.
When it comes to cutting cheese, there are also certain “faux pas”, particularly with regards to the direction that you cut the cheese in. If the cheese is round, you cut it in triangles like a pie. If it’s any other shape you cut it the way you want, but being sure that the last piece left is not just a piece of crust that you leave so that it can’t actually be eaten.
Finally, one must address the topic of butter. When do you eat butter with cheese? Do you even eat butter with cheese? One cannot even begin to explain how delicious French butter is. There’s unsalted, salted, and demi-sel croquant (crunchy) à la fleur de sel de Noirmoutier. Some French eat butter with their cheese — there is no rule about this, it’s simply a matter of taste and whatever you find more delicious.
When laying out a platter for friends, you can add a few nuts on the plate and some fresh figs, pear or apple, depending on the season. A “saucisson sec” is also a great accompaniment with cheese.
The French prefer to eat their cheese with a crusty baguette and to serve it before dessert with a glass of dry red wine. So, try it French style, too! Bon appetit!
Why not try French cheese with an expert, the next time you visit France? Try our scrumptious Eiffel Tower Food Tour and you will get a opportunity to take a very special private atelier with a cheesemonger, who is no less than the vice-chairman of the cheese brotherhood. Or why not try our fabulous food tours of Paris and Lyon, and you will discover the world of French cheese for yourself.
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