What does the French AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, mean here in France? What is it actually about? And how does it pertain to cheese, as well as other food and drink? Let’s delve…
The French AOC Explained
So what actually is this AOC thing? AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or “protected designation of origin”. It was set up in France, way back in 1411, to protect specific unique agricultural products, such as wine, cheese, butter, even lavender and lentils. (Ever heard of Puy Lentils?)
Essentially it protects artisans and/or unique products from people who would copy (and could not make it as well and, as important, consistently). Why is it not possible to copy? Because much of AOC designation is about the climate of the area, the soil, the local raw ingredients, even the storage, all coming together into the special product. Thus, not able to replicate elsewhere.
The French AOC is most notable, or infamous, in relation to wine. A wine in France is not a ‘Chardonnay’ but might be a ‘Chablis’, which is wine made from chardonnay grapes from Chablis in France. Champagne is probably the most contentious, and often the most fought over. It is because of Champagne’s AOC status that other countries, let alone other regions in France, are not allowed to use the Champagne designation.
If you are buying wine, you will find if it is designated as AOC on the label. There are only 363 wine AOCs in the whole of France. The first was given to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 1937 (and probably why it is still one of the most well known wines even today.)
Cheese follows a similar concept. Like wine, cheese in France is based on location. An epoisses cheese is from Epoisses in Burgundy, France. And I dare you to find a stinkier cheese when it is ripe. The more familiar Roquefort cheese, that one with the blue veins running through it (another good smelly cheese when very ripe), is aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France. Camembert from Camembert in Normandy. Getting the picture?
Brie, a very well known cheese, is a slightly unusual one, though not the only one. It is actually a region, just outside of Paris, as well as various Brie named towns within the region.
There are in fact two ‘types’ of Brie. Brie de Meaux (a town) and Brie de Melun (also a town) which both have the French AOC. Brie from these towns is unpasteurised. Whilst Brie’s from the region, and any other Brie named town in the region, does not have AOC designation and so have the choice to be unpasteurised or pasteurised.
That is not to say cheese from one part of France can’t be as good as from another part of France, but they would taste different because of the difference in weather, grass, and ultimately the milk that goes into the making of the cheese, as well as the actual making process.
As mentioned above, the French AOC covers a number of products. There are 101 French AOC registered food products, the highest percentage of which is cheese. But there is also honey from Corsica, Echire unsalted butter with its taste of hazelnuts, figs from the micro-climate of Solliès, apples of the Limousin plateau, the Cévennes sweet onion… olives, walnuts, lamb, beans and of course, bread.
There is the likes of Bresse chickens. These are the most sought after chickens in France, particularly by chefs. And having tried one, they really are delicious, they taste like, umm, chicken. But are additionally very creamy in texture and taste.
From immediately around Pumpjack and I, we can see the Charolais, a white breed of cattle bred for meat. The beef is known for being particularly tender and flavourful. Charolais beef attained AOC status in 2010. So you can see that though there is a long history, it is also an on-going and current thing.
AOC’s lengthy history is one of the main reasons why France is known for its food. The concept of AOC has now in fact spread to other countries in Europe where it is known as the PDO. If you are truly into quality and the taste of your food, then a tour of France by AOC might be a wonderful taste filled adventure and a good way to truly get to know and understand what makes France, well, France.
More information on AOC :
Our own write up on terroir and how it defines wines : Terroir – Wine 101
Rural France Journals have a wonderfully informative French cheese discovering video, complete with looking at a map, that we can recommend.
(In French with English subtitles) And is also a great channel for insight into life in rural France.
If you are into all things French, particularly French wine or cheese gifts, do check out Our Shop. Here’s a taste…
(Simply click on an image to see more.)