Exploring the world of French cheese can be a bit overwhelming – former French president Charles de Gaulle even famously quipped that it was impossible to govern a country with 246 kinds of cheese (and today, there are over a thousand).
Each French region has a cheese – or several cheeses – that show off its local terroir: the climate, animals and history of the area. Here are ten that will give any aspiring cheese expert an idea of the truly staggering variety.
Maroilles — Photo courtesy of Emily Monaco
Maroilles may have been one of the first washed-rind cheeses ever. Its invention is, by and large, attributed to a monk at the Abbey of Maroilles in the 10th century. Ostensibly, this monk was trying to invent a cheese that tasted like bacon, to be enjoyed on fasting days when meat was forbidden by the Catholic Church.
Produced in the Northern French regions of Picardie and Nord-Pas-de-Calais, this square cheese has a sticky orange rind and a dense, slightly creamy interior. The 2008 French comedy film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis popularized the myth that locals eat the cheese for breakfast dipped in coffee, but it’s far more delicious when paired with local beer.
Brie de Meaux
Brie de Meaux — Photo courtesy of Emily Monaco
Nearly a dozen different cheeses boast Brie as part of their name, but Brie de Meaux, named for the city whose market was the closest to the region where this bloomy-rinded cheese is produced, is by far the most famous. Huge wheels of mushroom-y Brie de Meaux can be purchased from cheesemongers throughout Paris; despite its true region of production, Parisians have long considered it their local cheese.
Camembert de Normandie — Photo courtesy of Emily Monaco
Camembert’s similarities to Brie aren’t coincidence, if you believe the local legend: Following the French Revolution, a refractory priest who refused to swear allegiance to the new Republic was fleeing Paris for England by way of Normandy when he encountered a local woman, Marie Harel, who helped him hide from authorities.
To thank her, he gave her the recipe for Paris’ local cheese – Brie – which she made in local Livarot molds, thus inventing Camembert, a cheese she named after her small village. Today, much of France’s Camembert production is pasteurized; choose instead the cheese made by the Fromagerie Durand in the village of Camembert, one of the last made with raw milk by the farmer-producer who raises his own cattle.
Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine — Photo courtesy of Emily Monaco
France is home to a lot of goat cheese – by some counts, 1,000 different ones! As a result, it’s tough to pick a favorite, but Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine is definitely up there. This Loire Valley goat cheese is produced near the city of Tours in a quaint village that’s home to a small chateau and a dolmen.
The cheese is known for its log shape and ashed crust, as well as for the rye straw running through it, used during production to help it hold together. Don’t confuse it with Sainte-Maure – this industrial cheese is not nearly as delicious as true Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine.
Roquefort — Photo courtesy of Emily Monaco
The very first cheese to gain protected status in France in the 1920s, Roquefort is an assertive blue cheese made with sheep’s milk and penicillium mold. The village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is home to several producers, including the Carles family, one of the oldest and most illustrious in the region.
Comté — Photo courtesy of © Studio Vision/Jura Tourisme
Regularly dubbed France’s favorite cheese, Comté is a pressed cheese from Franche-Comté, near the French border with Switzerland. Produced in giant, 100-plus-pound wheels and aged for between a handful of months and up to nearly four years, Comté can range from fruity and flexible to nutty and hard.
The Alpine region where it’s produced is home to over 100 small cooperatives known as fruitières that manufacture these massive wheels of cheese.
Epoisses — Photo courtesy of Images&Associés
Burgundy may be best known for its wine, but its local cheese, Epoisses, should not be overlooked. This soft cheese is washed in Marc de Bourgogne, the local pomace brandy, as it ages. The resulting cheese boasts a pungent aroma, but paired with a sweet Sauternes wine, it’s a local delight.
The very last raw-milk Epoisses is produced by Gaugry, 12 kilometers from Dijon; a visit to the fromagerie allows visitors to explore the Burgundian countryside and sample this local specialty.
Corsican brocciu — Photo courtesy of Fromagerie Baldovini Xavier
One of the best-known cheeses from Napoleon’s home island of Corsica, brocciu is a soft, creamy, sheep’s milk cheese similar to ricotta. In the late 19th century, writer Emile Bergerat wrote that someone who hadn’t tasted it “didn’t know the island,” which is well worth a visit for its gorgeous landscapes as well as for its local produce.
The cheese is mild enough to be enjoyed in either savory or sweet preparations; a brocciu cheesecake is a true delight.
Tradition Salers — Photo courtesy of Comité interprofessionnel de l’AOP Salers Tradition
This cheese, similar in texture to cheddar with vegetal, nutty flavors, stands out from other Auvergnat cheeses like Cantal or Salers by having a very strict set of rules concerning its production, including using only the milk of local Salers cattle. As a result of these rules, only five producers remain in the region, grazing their cattle on the rich soil of this gorgeous, volcanic region.
Mimolette vieille — Photo courtesy of Emily Monaco
This bright orange cheese with a lunar surface hails from the North of France, where legend has it that it was invented to spite the Dutch. The reality is a bit more complicated, but it’s still a delicious emblem of the region, with a nutty flavor that only gets more intense as the cheese ages.