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Everything you want to know about French cheese!

If you’re a cheesehead, you’ll love our podcast “Welcome to cheeseland“! But for those who aren’t into podcasts, here’s a summary (not a transcript – you can find that here in its entirety) from the podcast so you don’t miss out!

The French love their cheeses – and everyone else loves them too! I never much cared for cheese before I moved to France but you can hardly eat a chunk of cheese without someone telling you a story about it and when food comes with such a fascinating history it’s hard not to get caught up.

So let’s dive into histories and more of the stinkiest, weirdest and oldest cheeses of France… an homage to fromage.

Homage to Fromage

When you think of France – maybe you get an image of your head of a man carrying a baguette, perhaps wearing a stripey Breton T-Shirt and maybe wearing a beret. But for me, now that I live here, my image of a typical French person revolves around food, sniffing wine and say “mmm …… “. Yes maybe carrying a baguette or more like eating the end of it on the way home. Taking ages to pick just the right cake in a cabinet full of cakes. And discussing which cheese to buy with the help of an affineur in a cheese shop, a fromagerie.

An affineur is a cheese maturing specialist! Basically, they get the cheese from the maker and they care for it, ripen and age it – they refine it until it is perfect for eating. So there are shops all over France run by affineurs who buy the cheese in and just as you lay wine down until it’s at its best, they nurture the cheese until its ready to go on the shelf in the shop.

They are some famous affineurs in France, they’re cheese celebrities, like the Hollywood Stars of the cheese world, Philippe Olivier who is from the north of France for instance, is a legend.

Cheese, to the French is a symbol of Frenchness really. And it’s more than that because cheeses are a regional symbol and they are a symbol against the mechanisation of food because the best and most loved cheeses are often made by hand, artisan products. Although in the supermarket there are also loads of corporate-made cheeses too – whole aisles full of different cheeses.

Cheese legends

In a little restaurant in Le Touquet near where I live, I ordered moules cooked in white wine and Reblochon cheese. It was delicious. And there was a lady on the table next to mine and she heard me say “I’ve never tried Reblochon before in a sauce – it’s really nice”. She was a French lady and explained the story of Reblochon to me. It comes from Haute Savoie and comes from the word ‘reblocher’, literally: ‘to pinch a cow’s udder again’. In the 14th century, the French farmers were taxed according to how much milk their herds produced. The clever farmers thought if we only partially milk the cows when the tax assessors are here, wait until they go and then milk them again – we’ll save money. So that’s what they did and the second milking was more full and rich and they used to make Reblochon cheese.

The French love their cheese legends. It’s said that “Le Banon” from Provence which is wrapped in chestnut leaves, caused the death of the roman Emperor Antoine Le Pieux (Antoninus Pious) through gluttony. He just couldn’t get enough of it!

Cheese flavours everything in France and it comes in all shapes and sizes, covered in ash, herbs, flowers, straw, leaves and all sorts of things. One of the cheesiest cheese dishes ever is local for northern France – it’s called Le Welsh…Some say that the Welsh archers of Agincourt fame made it popular, hmm I don’t think so. Anyway it’s a bit like Welsh rarebit – a cheese and ham toasted sandwich, and it’s basically cheese sizzling away in a dish. Basically it’s a bowl of melted cheese on top of a piece of bread and sometimes they use maroilles.

Stinky French cheeses

Maroilles was made by monks more than 1300 years ago in the town of Maroilles in the far north of France. The monks paid their taxes with it. It’s very very smelly. And it comes in many forms including round here at least, the famous Boulette d’Avesnes nicknamed the ‘suppositoire du diable’ – the devil’s suppository, thanks to its pointed shape and intense red colour which comes from the paprika it’s covered in, as well as pepper, tarragon, cloves and parsley. It’s been made for at least 500 years and in the old days it was left to mature on windowsills for a month to dry – that must have been nice for the neighbours!

I first ate Maroilles cheese in Lille in Nord. I’d been cycling in the city to see the sites with friends and we were really hungry and wanted real food afterwards. We went to the Guingette de la Marine, which is one of those authentic little places that pepper the region. There were wooden swings hanging from the ceiling in front of the bar, and old man with a hat sat there nursing his pastis and moaning about politicians. There was an old hurdy gurdy organ in the corner, fabulous French music played – the sort you play on your radio station Oli, classic and vintage, and there was a big blackboard menu. On it was a dish called flamiche Maroilles.

I asked my French friends what it was – a sort of cheese pie they said, with Maroilles and they nodded to each other knowingly. They said it was very strong, very pungent but less so when cooked as it would be in the cheese pie. Well You could smell it before the waitress came from the kitchen… strong, earthy, powerful. It was ferried across the room with reverence, it felt like everyone was watching its progress and I could almost swear that I got a nod or two from other diners – a sort of secret acknowledgement of my excellent good taste.

I felt like everyone was watching me as I tucked in. It was hot, liquid, sticky, strong, full bodied, fermented and fruity and very very smelly with a just hint of sweetness and – absolutely delicious. For me it was love at first bite.

Delicious cheeses

Another strangely named cheese is crottin de Chavignol from near Sancerre in the Loire Valley. Crottin is an old French word for sheep dropping! French food isn’t all haute cuisine, it’s earthy too, I love to think of some shepherd hundreds of years ago coming up with this cheese mix  and thinking hmmm – where I have seen something like this before?! It’s delicious – creamy and nutty, especially good with a glass of Sancerre…

And how about a slice of cheese that really packs a punch. Vieux Boulogne, Old Boulogne or as the locals call it ‘Old Stinky’. It was tested by scientists in the UK who were attempting to categorise the smelliest cheeses in the world, and it was awarded first place. They used an “electronic nose” sensor but I could have guessed the outcome as I have smelled it myself from about 100 metres away from where it was being sold. A creamy, cow’s milk that’s pungent, powerful and pugnacious. You never forget your first time. Enjoy it with a glass of local beer and a picnic on the cliff tops of the beautiful and uncrowded Opal Coast of northern France.

The most popular cheese in France

You can’t talk about French cheese without mentioning France’s most popular cheese – Camembert. Legend has it that it was first made in 1791 by Marie Harel, a farmer from Normandy after she was given advice by a priest from Brie – where another famous French cheese is made. Brie was invented by monks more than 1200 years ago and it was a favourite of the great Emperor Charlemagne who visited the priory where it was made in the year 774. He liked it so much he had it regularly delivered to his castle.

1000 years later another King loved it so much it cost him dear. Louis XVIwas under house arrest during the time of the French Revolution and was about to escape but he couldn’t resist feasting on Brie and red wine – and missed his chance… In French they say “La gourmandise te perdra” – greed will be your downfall.

Camembert is known as the King of Cheeses. In the early 1800s a series of diplomatic meetings were held in Europe called the Congress of Vienna. During a break, the diplomats held a cheese contest – suggested by the French delegation of course! More than sixty varieties of cheese were presented, including English stilton, Dutch Limberger, Italian Strachino and Swiss Gruyere. The French Duke de Talleyrand waited until the end, and had Brie brought in. Everyone had to vote, and Brie was declared the winner: ‘Le Roi des Fromages’ (King Of Cheeses). I love that – you know all these old geezers, because I doubt there were any women involved in the meeting then, all really serious, taking themselves more seriously than anything, and then having a cheese eating contest!

The oldest cheese in France

Cantal cheese is so old that the Romans knew about this cheese, Pliny the Elder mentioned it in his writings. It’s a cows milk cheese made in Auvergne and named after the Cantal Mountains. And it’s the only French cheese made like an English cheddar! And this is a big cheese, a round of Cantal can weigh up to 100 pounds! It’s very nice with a little glass of fresh red, like a Beaujolais. The cheese tastes of the flowers and the herbs of the mountains. If you go to the region and find a farm where they make it the tradition way, get some butter to go with a baguette and your cheese – they scrape the cream off the whey from the cheese and if it’s a real artisan maker they put the cream in a bucket and just churn it with their bare hands. It’s amazing to see, to smell, to taste…

The weirdest cheese in France

The weirdest cheese I’ve ever heard of is casu Marzu. I visited Corsica on a brilliant cruise with CroisiEurope – which I thoroughly recommend by the way, and we were walking through a gorgeous town called Porto Vecchio and the guide was telling me about the local specialities and he mentioned what he called “wormy cheese.” He said you can’t buy it any more as it’s illegal to sell it though he said he knew of someone who still made it. Anyway it’s not wormy cheese – it’s maggoty cheese. It originates from the island of Sardinia which is very close to Corsica. It holds the Guinness Book of Records for world’s most dangerous cheese.

Basically it’s a sheep cheese and flies lay eggs on the cheese and then they hatch and the maggots turn the cheese into a soft creamy cheese. The guide assured me that when you open the cheese up it’s full of maggots and people eat the whole lot. But some people get rid of the worms, they store the cheese in Brandy and then spread it on toast. The guide didn’t think it was weird, but a tradition! Some people say that it can get up and walk thanks to the critters inside…

Some even say it’s an aphrodisiac. 

Very French cheeses

Mimolette also has bugs on it. It’s also known as Boule de Lille after its city of origin, or Vieux Hollande because it’s a bit like Edam cheese from Holland. It has a long history and was commissioned by the French King Louis XIV. Or that’s what they say… some people think it has always been made in France but was rebranded to suit the times but no one knows for sure. Legend has it that in the 1600’s the King decreed that the importation of foreign products to France was to be actively avoided. He wanted French goods to take their place so he put restrictions on imports included Edam which was very popular and everyone was very upset. So the King demanded that a French alternative be found, and if there wasn’t one – make one.

So, the cheese makers of Lille came up with a cow’s milk cheese in a ball shape weighing around 2kg with an orange rind created by introducing a natural dye called Anatto (this was used to differentiate it from Edam). But they didn’t stop there – those clever cheese makers found a way to add extra flavour by introducing little cheese mites, microscopic organisms, which create holes in the surface. They’re brushed off from time to time in the cheese making process, but some remain.

Mont d’Or –is one of just a handful of cheeses you eat with a spoon! In France it is seen as the best of the raw milk cheeses and when you taste it for the first time – you’ll understand why. It’s made in Franche-Comté (east of France) and ripened in wood cases which gives it a slightly woody taste. It was a favourite fromage of King Louis XV. It is only made between mid-August and mid-March. And only eleven factories in the French Jura region are licensed to produce it. It’s a protected cheese and there’s nothing else quite like it.

If you get a really ripe Mont d’Or you can eat it straight out of the pot. Dip in a chunk of fresh baguette and scoop it up, or slather it on with a spoon! It has got a delicious nutty, earthy taste. Or you can bake it too – that’s a really popular way to eat it in France as it brings out even more flavour.

Fun French cheese facts

Every year in France there are a load of cheese competitions for the best affineur, the best cheese maker, the best cheeses, goats cheese. That’s the Concours National des Fromages, the Salon du fromage and the Mondiale du fromage – the world cup of cheese making. At this contest candidates from around the world have to make and mature the cheese, then cut and sculpture it for presentation on a cheese platter.

French people don’t say fromage for photos. We say cheese in English when posing and want to have a big smile. If you say fromage, you won’t be left smiling but looking slightly demented with your lips puckered in a sort of goat face way. Nope the French say “marmoset”! Except they say it in French which is ‘oustitii’ – if you’re listening – give it a go, it pulls your smile right out.

President Charles de Gaulle famously said:  How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” Well old Charlie was a bit off the mark with that number because there are so many more than that. In fact nobody knows how many varieties of cheeses there are – more than a thousand, maybe 1300, maybe more! Just think if you are a cheese head, you could eat a different cheese every day of the year for three years. A challenge I would willingly take up (excluding that Corsican cheese I mentioned).

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Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream,  My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life and Toujours la France: Living the Dream in Rural France all available as ebook, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online.

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