Why is French cheese fabulous we ask at PumpjackPiddlewick

France is known for many things, beautiful language, wonderful wine, and stinky cheeses to simply mention a few. But considering the latter, what is that makes French cheese special? It’s not just it’s odour. Honestly.

Variety

France makes around 1400 to 1600 different cheeses. No one can quite agree on how many. But it’s a lot. It is actually third in the quantity of cheese produced, falling in behind the USA and Germany. But it does produce the most variety in the world.

Cheese here is made from a variety of milk’s – cow, goat, sheep. Though predominantly cow milk. And much of French cheese is unpasteurised, e.g. it is made with raw milk. It is also why you will not see the majority of the over 1000 cheeses in many other countries. The US and Australia in example do not allow the shipping of unpasteurised cheese into their countries. So if you wish to truly taste a variety of cheese, you have to visit France. It’s a good excuse anyway, should you need one.

Location

Like wine, the name of a cheese is generally based on location. A wine here is not known by it’s grape, rather a ‘Chardonnay’ might be called a ‘Chablis’. (Which is wine made from chardonnay grapes from Chablis in France). French Cheese follows a similar concept.

Roquefort cheese, that one with the blue veins running through it, is made and aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France. Camembert from Camembert in Normandy. And then there is one of my favourites from Burgundy, Epoisses. It is made in, surprise, surprise, Epoisses. You are getting the picture?

Uniqueness

A number of cheeses have an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. 63 at last count. This list includes those cheeses I have mentioned above. This AOC protects the cheese makers (as well as wine and other foods) from copiers. Highlighting the uniqueness of their cheese.

This uniqueness stems from a number of things, including the climate of the area, the soil, the local raw ingredients, even the storage. These factors come together to make this unique product. And because many of these factors are unique to the location, it can not be replicated elsewhere. And the French recognise this through awarding it AOC status.

That is not to say goats 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.

Health

Statistics tell us that over 96% of those who live in France consume cheese. So although we may not export a lot of it, it is certainly not going to waste. It is the number one source for calcium in France. And in fact is twice as high in calcium than milk.

In researching that, it made me aware of something I have found curious here. That it is quite difficult to get milk. Not impossible, but there is very little in the supermarkets. Rather cheese is the recommended way to get calcium, instead of milk. Much more variety in flavours and textures means everyone can find at least one they like.

Curiously, as someone who loves cheese but it does not always love me, my doctor recommended eating hard cheeses over soft cheeses. The concept being that hard cheeses are easier to digest. (Possibly something in the making process?) I am still testing that theory. And there are a lot of cheeses to test with.

Process

Which brings me on to the difference between hard and soft cheeses. They are actually made very differently. Soft cheeses are not ripened, or aged if you prefer. They are made by coagulating the milk proteins with culture acids.

Hard cheeses are produced by coagulating milk proteins with rennet and culture acids. You then age the or ripen the cheese. The growth of bacteria or mould speeds up the ripening process. A hard cheese may be ripened for a short time, or many months, even years.

If you go to a French market cheese stall you will see many of the hard cheeses offered by age. In example, Comté may be anything from 6 months to 24 months. Increasing in intensity of flavour with its age. And of course higher in cost.

Stinky

I would be remiss if I didn’t address the stinkiness of French cheeses. First, I must say, not all cheeses from France smell strongly. Many do, but it is fairly easy to determine which ones will. In the majority, it is the soft cows milk cheeses with a rind. Such as Camembert or Brie. Or those with mould (those blue veins) like Roquefort.

But the strong smell comes from how ripe it is. The more ripe, the smellier. But also the tastier. Truly. If you are a fan of brie for example, it is at its best when it is gooey. When the cheese is very soft and spilling out of the rind around it.

Something we don’t do in France is refrigerate cheese, unless we wish to put a hold on its ripening. Cold temperatures affect the taste. Rather we would keep in a cool dark place, say a pantry. Usually within a domed dish to keep insects and other pests away.

Of note, if you do wish to slow ripening of a potentially stinky cheese, the fridge will help. And a cut lemon placed near it will absorb the odour, so all your other food will not smell of cheese.

More

If you would like to read more along these lines, I have my own write up on terroir and how it defines wines : What is Terroir

And more about the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system : Understanding the French AOC

For a small taste of the variety of cheeses available in France, and those with AOC : Wikipedia’s List of French Cheeses

Plus

And if this post has wetted your appetite to understand, let alone taste, more cheeses, I can recommend* a book on French Cheeses:

From UK:

From USA:

*I am affiliated with Bookshop.Org. As I love reading, I wanted to offer a way to purchase the books I recommend about France and French Lifestyle. I specifically chose to affiliate with Bookshop because they support independent bookshops. They are currently supporting, and you can buy from, bookshops in the UK, USA and Spain. Learn more about my affiliations in Nourishing Pumpjack & Piddlewick.

PS

If, like me, you are keen on all things cooking, kitchen gadgets (including cheese knives) or simply food, do visit My Shop, where I offer up the quirky, unusual and unique items from France.

Simply click on an image to see more.

2023-05-07

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