There is something special about French cheese. Indeed, cheese is almost a way of life there. There are strict guidelines for creating cheese and no matter what variety, it has a rich flavor different from those we eat in the US.
During my barge cruise through Burgundy, France a few years ago, one of my pleasures each day was tasting the cheese. I was onboard European Waterways‘ La Belle Epoque and we were wined and dined all week. While I loved all the food and enjoyed some great wines, the cheese was the hit of the week. We had at least two varieties with both lunch and dinner. The cheese varieties in this article are my favorites. While most aren't the run-of-the-mill varieties you’ll find in your local supermarket, there are a few cheese shops where you can order many of these specialty cheeses. Go ahead. Treat yourself. You’ll not regret it. Here are a few of my favorite French cheese options.
Beaufort is a firm, sharp raw cow’s milk cheese with a taste and texture similar to Gruyere cheese.
The cheese comes from the town of Beaufort in the French Alps. The milk used to make Beaufort comes from either the Tarentaise or Abondance cows that graze in the Alps. The cheese ages for six to twelve months in a cool mountain cellar and the ripe cheese has a pale yellow color.
Brillat-Savarin Cow's Milk Cheese
Brillat-Savarin is a soft triple-cream cow’s milk cheese with high-fat content.
It was created in the 1930s by cheesemaker Henri Androuët and named for the 18th-century French gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. This is one cheese that is produced throughout the year in Burgundy and Normandy and aged from two weeks to two months. Brillat-Savarin is a creamy, Brie-style cheese with a rich taste and is quite salty. It pairs well with cranberries and dates and goes with Champagne and pale ale.
Brique de Jussac Cheese
Brique de Jussac is a soft creamy cheese in a brick shape.
It has the consistency of a Brie, but there’s no rind. The cheese, produced in France by Fromagerie de Jussac (a small family-owned cheese operation) is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and not normally found in the US.
Camembert is a soft, ripe cow’s milk cheese that has aged at least three weeks.
It originates from Camembert in Normandy. There is a version made with unpasteurized milk (Camembert de Normandie) or the version made with pasteurized milk, simply known as Camembert. When it first becomes cheese, after about 48 hours, it is hard and crumbly with little flavor. Then, the surface is sprayed with Penicillium camembertis mold and left to ripen for three weeks, until it has a creamy interior. This cheese became famous during World War I when it was issued to French troops. This brought international attention to the cheese.
Chabichou du Poitou Goat Cheese
Chabichou du Poitou is a soft, unpasteurized French goat cheese with a natural rind.
It is firm yet very creamy, usually aged from 10 days to two months. I really enjoyed the Chabichou du Poitou. The goats graze in a lush, grassy area (Poitou) south of the Loire Valley. That gives this cheese a fresh, lemony flavor. This is a perfect cheese to accompany a white Chablis, Sancerre, or Sauvignon Blanc.
Chaource Cow's Milk Cheese
Chaource is manufactured, using a recipe similar to Brie, in a French village in the Champagne-Ardenne region.
Made from cow’s milk, Chaource is sold in a cylinder of soft creamy cheese, though slightly crumbly, covered in a white creamy rind. It is aged between 2 weeks and 2 months. If you get this cheese young, it blends a salty and creamy taste. It mellows out as it ages. This one is beautiful with a flute of Champagne.
Chevre au Piment d’Espelette
Chevre au Piment d’Espelette is a soft goat cheese covered in chili pepper (Piment d’Espelette) and aged for three weeks.
The one I had was coated in the chili pepper, while others might just have a sprinkle. Because the cheese was so sweet, the spice of the chili pepper just had a touch of a kick.
Comté is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese, closely regulated by the French government so it is only made from the milk of Montbéliarde cattle.
Each Montbéliarde cow must have at least one hectare of grazing land and must be grass-fed. I adored the Comté and have since used it in cooking. It's a firm cheese, so really lovely to pair with wine. We paired this with a beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon. As Adam Centamore comments in Tasting Wine & Cheese, this is really good with the cherry notes in a CabSav.
Crottin de Chavignol
Crottin de Chavignol is a small round goat cheese from Chavignol in the Loire Valley. It is possibly one of the most famous of the Loire Valley cheeses, found in every little market.
The cheese was first produced in the 16th century. The older the Crottin, the more yellow the rind. Despite the fact that it looks like a soft cheese, Crottin is a hard cheese with a crumbly but smooth texture. This is a great cheese to bake or it tastes great for nibbling. It pairs well with a Sancerre.
Epoisses de Bourgogne
Epoisses de Bourgogne is an unpasteurized cow's milk cheese from the village of Epoisses in the Cote-d’Or, between Dijon and Auxerre. Despite its extremely strong aroma, it has a somewhat mild flavor. I really enjoyed this cheese, but when I bought it and took it home, it left quite a pungent aroma in my fridge. It's best to buy it and use the same day.
This was originally created by monks at the Abbaye de Citeaux. There is nothing better than to warm this cheese up a bit and then dip a piece of crusty bread into it. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it. This is one that you can find in US specialty stores or order online. I love this one with a white Burgundy.
Morbier Cow's Milk Cheese
Morbier has a strong aroma, but a surprisingly rich and creamy taste. It is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the small village of Morbier in Franche-Comte.
There is a thin layer of tasteless ash that separates the milk horizontally in the middle. Traditionally, the ash separated the layer of morning milk from the layer of evening milk. Today, the cheese is usually made from single milk, but the ash is still added for tradition. This creamy cheese works really well with an Old World Pinot Noir.
Neufchâtel is another quite popular cheese in France. It is soft and slightly crumbly with a bit of a grainy texture. While it may be sold in logs, it is most popularly sold in a heart shape.
It has a dry, white, edible rind. In the U.S., you can find a variety of Neufchâtel, often called Neufchâtel–style cream cheese or farmer’s cheese, but it is quite different from its French counterpart. The American version was brought to the U.S. in 1872 by New York dairy farmer William Lawrence. The American Neufchâtel has a lower fat content (33%) and higher moisture content than both the French version and traditional American cream cheese, so it is often used as a reduced-fat option to cream cheese. The artisanal Neufchâtel matures for about 2 months. It is a rich, nutty texture and I enjoyed this one spread on a piece of crusty bread.
Petite Munster is a cow’s milk cheese made in a small town in the Vosges Mountains. It is in the Alsace-Lorraine region on the border with Germany. This cheese was first made in the 7th century by Benedictine monks at a nearby abbey.
Throughout history, the price of this cheese was set on June 23 each year at a fair in Gerardmer (also known as Gerome), so the cheese was sometimes known as Gerome. Today, the cheese is manufactured and shipped extensively. The small disc-shaped cheese has an inedible orange rind and a creamy center that is the consistency of melting chocolate.
Reblochon Cow's Milk Cheese
Reblochon, my favorite of all the cheeses I tried on the trip, is a cow’s milk from the Alps region of France.
This rich, soft cheese became known as “fromage de devotion” (devotional cheese) in the 16th century because farmers offered it to the monks in return for blessing their homes. Reblochon has a bit of a nutty taste. It is best when you eat reblochon between May and September after it ages for six to eight weeks. Sadly, you cannot buy reblochon in the US because it’s from unpasteurized cow’s milk. However, you can substitute Delice du Jura for a similar taste.
Sainte-Maure de Touraine
Sainte-Maure de Touraine is a goat’s milk cheese from the Touraine region of France in the Loire Valley.
It’s formed into a small log with a straw through the center that is used to hold the log in place. Legend has it that it is bad luck for anyone to break the straw while serving the cheese. Sainte-Maure de Touraine is now the second most popular cheese sold in France. It is a deep, nutty flavor, but with a bit of a lemony finish. It ages about one month and is great with fruit-forward wines. I suggest a Chenin Blanc if you want a white wine or a Merlot because there is a smooth finish without any spice.
Soumaintrain is a rustic, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese made in Burgundy. During the six to eight weeks of aging, the 5-inch discs are brushed with a solution of brine and Marc de Bourgogne. It is an unpasteurized cheese, so not one you'll likely find in the US.
The final cheese is a little salty but creamy at the same time. It is sometimes eaten when young, while it is still a mild, white paste. However, in its final state, it has a sticky, orange rind. The cheese does tend to run at room temperature, so it is often sold in a small round box. It is considered one of the more aromatic cheeses but has a lovely soft taste. We had this one with a rosé and I believe it would also pair well with a beautiful French Chablis because of the sweet and salty flavors in the cheese.
Valençay Goat's Milk Cheese
Valençay is an unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese known for its distinctive pyramid shape, but with a flattened top.
The outside is blue-gray, a result of the natural molds and a dusting of charcoal. This cheese has a nutty flavor, but with a touch of lightness, almost a citric under taste.
There is a unique legend about the shape of the Valençay. According to lore, Napoleon stopped by the castle at Valençay on his return from his unsuccessful Egyptian conquests. When he saw the cheese in its pyramid shape, he supposedly brandished a sword and chopped off the top of the cheese. You can find Valençay between March and December, but the best time to eat this one is between April and August. It has a lovely, smooth texture and tends to run a bit at room temperature.
These are a few of my favorite French cheese options. Be sure to check out Wander for more about the foods, wines, and experiences you can uncover in France.