Robb Report Vices

A Connoisseur’s Guide to French Cheese

  • Troy Johnson

Cheese is as central to French cultural pride as is the liquid bounty from the vineyards. With more than 1,000 varieties, French fromage crosses all socioeconomic divides, from broke park-bench lovers to high-life-loving degustation-menu gourmands. Part of the charm of real French cheese is the use of raw, unpasteurized milk (pasteurization carpet-bombs flavors, yielding an innocuous yet safe product). But the United States has banned any raw-milk cheese that hasn’t been aged at least 60 days, so to try those, you’ll have to hit Paris.

For a primer on the best French cheeses you can buy in the United States, we turned to fromager Gina Freize (owner of the top Southern California cheese shop, Venissimo) and Laure Dubouloz, the U.S. rep for the top French cheese exporter, Mons Fromager/Affineur.

THE CLASSICS, according to Laure Dubouloz

The Story of Camembert

“This is a really interesting cheese. The name is not protected, so different styles are made all over the world. Traditionally it’s from a village in Normandy and dates back to the late 1700s or early 1800s. The story goes that a priest was escaping the French Revolution, and a woman farmer named Marie Harel offered him lodging. To thank her, he gave her the recipe for Brie. The only real difference between Camembert and Brie is the size and intensity (Camembert is more intense). With traditional Camembert in France, the smell is barnyard and animal-like, almost leathery. Usually the knockoffs are milder and sweeter in flavor, not nearly as bold.”

What to Drink with It

“An apple cider, since there are a lot of apples in Normandy. If you get a stronger-flavored Camembert, you can even go with a red wine like Cabernet. For the milder versions, stick with white wine.”

The Story of Comte

“This is a hard, raw, cow’s-milk cheese done in the Alpine style. Comte is protected, so it can only be made in the eastern part of France near Switzerland. It’s aged at least 6 months, but up to 2 years. Because it’s a protected cheese, the quality of the milk will be really high. It pairs really well with walnuts.”

What to Drink with It

“A white wine from Jura, like Savagnin. That wine is very particular and not everyone likes it, so another good option is Chardonnay.”

The Story of Roquefort

“The amazing sheep’s-milk blue cheese from the Aveyron region in the southwest region of France. Very popular and well-known, of course. The flavors can be intense and spicy but also very sweet and buttery with a long-lasting finish. It has a nice sheepy, leathery smell.”

What to Drink with It

“A sweet white Sauternes balances the strength of the cheese and brings a nice acidity.”

THE CULT FAVORITES, according to Gina Freize

The Story of Fougerus

“Unless you’ve seen the movie Julie and Julia, you might not recognize this cheese. It’s from the Rouzaire family in the town of Meaux, about 45 minutes east of Paris. From the street, it looks just like a large French farmhouse. Once inside, you’ll find caves of various aging cheeses. Fougerus is essentially a bloomy-rinded Brie. Each wheel is aged on straw mats, then hand wrapped in a fresh fern leaf. Not only is the cheese beautiful, but it will make you realize how great a Brie can be. When ripe, it oozes out of the rind, smells of earth and minerals, and tastes like mushrooms. While the wheel is too big to bake en croûte, melting a sliver over roasted mushrooms topped with chopped scallions is simply divine.”

What to Drink with It

“I like this one with a nice Hermitage, St.-Émilion, or Glenlivet.”

The Story of Basque Cheeses

“Sheep-milk cheeses from the Basque region are spectacular. My favorites are Abbaye de Belloc and Ossau-Iraty, which are both graced with the beauty of rustic (edible) natural rinds and creamy white interiors. Benedictine monks were the first to produce Abbaye de Belloc. The flavor of the sheep’s milk really shines through. These are classic and traditional; not fancy, just real. They are perfect for picnics, camping, or hiking, as they keep at room temperature extremely well. Sheep-milk cheeses are also naturally great with summer stone fruits, like cherries and peaches.”

What to Drink with Them

“They pair equally well with Pouilly-Fumé if you’re a wine lover, or Pilsners if you’re a beer lover. A fruity brandy would be a great pairing for dessert.”

The Story of Roves des Garrigues

“The Loire Valley gets all the recognition for its goat-milk cheeses (chèvre), but this one from the Mediterranean coast of Provence is not to be missed. The Rove breed of goats grazes exclusively on rosemary, thyme, laurel, fennel, and lavender bushes. Hence, the milk picks up these herbaceous qualities. The fresh chèvre is formed into truffle-size balls and wrapped in individual paper cups. I think they should be called rosemary marshmallows, because to me, they taste like rosemary cream. You can melt it on pizza, crumble it on a salad, or simply spread it on nutty bread. Any way you like it, it’s truly remarkable.”

What to Drink with It

“This cheese is super with a Pic St.-Loup, a crisp Hefeweizen, or gin on the rocks.” 

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