France is famous for its incredible cheeses; with a huge array of distinctive flavours, textures, shapes, and appearances. Each region of France produces its own particular cheeses.

Interestingly, sheep and goats milk were the earliest cheeses because cows did not become domesticated until quite a lot later.

Europe went through a succession of attacks over the years, and ancient cheese making techniques were forgotten in the mainland surviving only in the mountains. That is where the oldest cheese making methods are still used today.

We can sometimes recognise cheese by the milk used ie. cow, goat or sheep (or a combination) and also by the way it is produced. The characteristics of the cheese and the rind are affected in the different processes, and make the cheese an original.

Affinage is the act or process of ageing cheese. It comes from the French, affiner to refine. During this process cheese is cured and matured. This can be done for different lengths of time, or not at all.

In France there are typically two origins of cheese: from the farmhouse (fromages fermiers), or industrially manufactured cheeses.

An introduction to French cheeses

France has its own system for categorising cheese known as les huit familles de fromage, or eight families of cheese.

Fromages frais
Fresh cheeses

These cheeses are white and usually have the consistency of yoghurt. They can be made from curdled cows, goats, or sheeps milk and are not aged. Fromage frais are sometimes eaten in the same manner as a yoghurt. Or they can be eaten with flavouring like sugar, salt or pepper. They are often used in recipes.

Examples: Brocciu, Petit Suisse and Brousse.

Fromages à pâte molle et à croûte fleurie
Soft cheeses with natural rind

These are soft unpressed cows milk cheeses, recognised by a white, floury looking surface. Usually aged about a month. They are often served after the main course in France.

Examples: Brie, Camembert, Neufchatel Cheese and Chaource.

Fromages à pâte molle et à croûte lavée
Soft cheeses with washed rind

Again these are soft unpressed cows milk cheeses, but the rind is washed during the ageing process, preventing the formation of surface molds, producing a supple and colourful rind. Often found on French cheese plates.

Examples: Reblochon and Epoisses.

Fromages à pâte pressée
Pressed cheeses

These cheese are pressed during the process, draining the cheese of part of its moisture.The cheeses are than put in controlled conditions and aged for several months. During the ageing, these cheeses are washed, brushed and turned so that the rind forms all over the cheese, equally.

Examples: Cantal and Ossau-Iraty.

Fromages à pâte pressée et cuite
Pressed and cooked cheeses

These cheeses are also pressed, but the curd is heated before pressing. Formed in large cylinders, the cheeses are ripened for a long time. Fromages à pâte pressée et cuite are commonly manufactured in the mountainous regions, using traditional processes.

Examples: Beaufort and Gruyère.

Fromages de chèvre
Goats cheese

There are various goats cheeses, which could be listed under the above categories. However there are over a hundred varieties of goat cheese in France so it warrants it’s own category. Pur chèvre contains only goat’s milk. A mi-chèvre is mixed with cows milk.

Examples: Crottin de Chavignol, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre and Selles-sur-Cher.

Fromages à pâte persillées
Blue cheeses

These are soft cheeses which have penicillin spores added to them to encourage the development of mould. They are placed in hâloirs (drying rooms) or in cellars and are pierced with long needles which encourages air circulation essential for the development of mould. They can be recognised by the blue or greenish-blue veins that run through them.

Mostly made from cow’s milk, Roquefort is an exception as it is made from sheep’s milk. Blue cheeses have a strong flavour and smell; as they are ripened for a long time.

Examples: Bleu de Bresse and Roquefort.

Fromages à pâte fondue
Processed cheeses

These spreadable cheese are made from other cheeses blended together. Sold in small portions and some times flavoured with herbs or spices such as garlic, pepper or chilli.

Example: Boursin and La Vache Qui Rit (laughing cow)