There are a lot of ways to tour the world, but who doesn’t love the idea of eating their way around the globe? Let me take you on a tour of my favorite adopted country, France via one of my most beloved foods, cheese! The best thing is, you can invite friends and family to explore the delights of different French regions from your kitchens while we all await real travel again.
Every region in France has its terroir – the combination of climate, soil, geography, ecology, and artisan’s hand that crafts a cheese, sausage, recipe, or wine unique to its location. It’s part of what makes it so much fun to explore the many regions of France. There are 45 French cheese AOPs (Appellations d’Origine Protégées), and they carry the name of their region of origin with pride. When it comes to pairing wine with cheese, pairing regionally is usually your best bet. Here is a selection of cheeses (and wines) by region, as we fly to Paris in our minds.
Île de France
Two of the most well-known cheeses made from cow’s milk (lait de vache) – brie and camembert – are produced in many places but only three of these carry an AOP stamp: Le Brie de Meaux, Le Brie de Melun and Le Camembert de Normandie. The real deal Brie de Meaux hails from the town of Meaux in the Brie region of Île de France, not far from Paris. It’s creamy with mushroomy aromas, flavorful enough on its own, but lovely when eaten with fig or other fruity spreads. The equally creamy but saltier Brie de Melun hails from the town of Melun in Brie, which sounds like heaven to me.
Northwest of Paris you’ll find Le Camembert de Normandie, also carrying slight mushroom aromas. While you’re in Normandy, try Le Neufchâtel, similar to brie and camembert, but mild, drier, and usually made into a heart-shape. This shape was created originally during the Hundred Years’ War as a gift from French girls to English soldiers. The square-shaped, orange rind, and hay-scented, semi-soft Pont-L’Évêque is also among the AOP cheeses that proudly represent Normandy’s main agricultural product: dairy. Pair these cheeses and the bries with a cider from neighboring Brittany or with a dry white wine from the Loire Valley.
Alsace and Eastern France
Moving eastward to the Vosges mountainous area, you will discover Le Munster (sometimes called Munster-Géromé), a hard cow’s milk cheese that goes well with Alsatian wines. Just to the South you will find the Jura mountains of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of Eastern France where Le Comté is king and Le Mont d’Or is queen. Le Comté is a hard cow’s milk cheese aged in 99-pound (45 kg) wheels. With fruity, floral, nutty, and buttery aromas, it’s one of my favorites. But I am also partial to Le Mont d’Or, which is ultra creamy and is sometimes served warm with potatoes, oozing goodness. Eat it with a spoon! Le Bleu de Gex Haut-Jura may be a lesser known bleu cheese, but it does carry the AOP label and is used for raclette (served heated). Le Morbier is a pungent, semi-soft round cheese with a layer of ash in the middle to help with preservation. Pair these cheeses with a regionally white wine from the Jura, bien sûr!
Even further South, we head into the mountainous Savoie, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of Southeastern France, home of Le Reblochon de Savoie. This rich, semi-hard cheese is replete with strong, grassy and nutty aromas and is good for melting. The Savoie region also produces Le Beaufort, a hard cheese made of raw alpine cow’s milk that is melt-in-your-mouth creamy and a part of the flavorful gruyère family, typically appearing on traditional cheese platters. Pair Savoie cheeses with local white Savoie wines, toujours!
Ah, Provence! Heading further South of Savoie we arrive in garlic, olive oil, and lavender country, and where the goat cheese (chèvre) LeBanon is produced. Wrapped in chestnut tree leaves, this creamy and mild goat cheese can be enjoyed with a fruity bread (pain aux fruits) and Mediterranean white wines from Provence or Corsica. Speaking of Corsica, if you take a little side trip to the rocky island, you’ll find it’s a perfect environment for goats, sheep, and vines along its craggy hills. Pair the local custardy and slightly salty Brocciu cheese (made from goat or sheep milk) with a local Corsican red, white, or rosé.
Heading West from Provence we arrive in the Midi-Pyrénées, at the southernmost tip of the Massif Central region. This is the home of the famed Roquefort, the strong bleu, cave-aged sheep cheese (brebis) made using a mold that gives it its marbled blue color and distinct flavor. Le Roquefort melts in your mouth, with fresh, strong mushroom and buttery aromas. Pair with a red wine from Languedoc-Roussillon or a sweet wine from the French Southwest, and enjoy the cheese crumbled into a fresh green or beet and orange salad. Neighboring AOP cheeses are Le Bleu des Causses, a bleu cheese made from cow’s milk – eat this one with fig bread (pain aux figues) or warmed in an omelet – and Le Pélardon, an unctuous chèvre.
Just to the North, on the easternmost edges of the French Southwest we find Le Laguiole, a hard cow’s milk cheese with aromas of hazelnuts, aged in a round, hard-crusted wheel. Pair it with red wines from the Southwest, such as a Bergerac or Gaillac. The town of Laguiole also happens to be the home of the Laguiole forge that has crafted beautiful knives with sculpted handles of wood, horn, and other materials for almost two centuries – a collector’s dream. Further North in the Massif Central region, we find the hard cow’s milk cheeses of Le Saint-Nectaire and Le Cantal, an aged (affiné) hard cow cheese with butter and vegetal aromas that is good for grating. Pair the earthy Saint-Nectaire with full-bodied and fruity regional red or white wines from Burgundy or the Rhône Valley. Pair Le Cantal according to age – the older the Cantal, the bolder the wine.
The French Southwest
As we head into the French Southwest, we come to the Medieval town of Rocamadour, hewn into a rocky hillside, along the pilgrims’ route Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. Le Rocamadour is a very small circle of goat cheese brimming with flavor and creaminess, with slightly buttery and nutty aromas. Pair with a sweet or dry white or light-bodied red from the Southwest or the Rhône Valley. North and South of the border between France and Spain is Basque country, a region largely spared from the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, perhaps because of the isolation provided by the Pyrénées mountains and the hardiness of the people (and their food!) Here gastronomic traditions run long and deep, from Bayonne ham (jambon de Bayonne) to Basque wines, to the sheep cheese L’Ossau-Iraty. Lanolin-scented, with a thick rind, this hard cheese is often served for dessert alongside local dark cherry marmalade. Pair according to age with regional wines, a sweet Southwest Jurançon or white Basque Irouléguy for a younger Ossau-Iraty, or a red Irouléguy for an aged Ossau-Iraty.
Aquitaine and The Loire Valley
Heading back North toward Paris, we meander through countryside we missed on the way down, namely Northern Aquitaine and the Loire Valley, where we find several AOP cheeses.
Le Chabichou du Poitou of Aquitaine is a slightly sweet, floral, herbal, creamy goat cheese made in a cylindrical shape with a squiggly, edible rind. Eaten fresh (moister) or aged (drier), Le Chabichou du Poitou is right up there among my favorites. As we enter the Loire Valley, we must taste the Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, a cylinder of raw chèvre rolled in ash and pierced through the middle with a piece of straw. Eat this unctuous chèvre fresh, semi-dry (mi-sec) or aged (smooth and tender) with dried fruits and nuts, and pair it with a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, such as a Pouilly-Fumé or a Sancerre. Another favorite chèvre of mine is Le Chavignol or Crottin de Chavignol from the Loire Valley. Pair a young, soft, fresh Chavignol that has light goat aromas with a Loire Valley dry white, such as a crisp Sancerre. Pair an aged, chalkier Chavignol that has stronger goat aromas with a dry, not tannic Loire Valley red, such as a Sancerre Rouge.
As we wrap up our tour back in Paris, you can explore the Parisian fromageries that sell these delicacies from around France in almost every rue. Cheese in France is most often served after dinner, either before dessert or as dessert. If I had my choice, I’d eat cheese at every meal. In my mind, cheese is one of the top ingredients in a healthy, satisfying French diet and an emblem of how the French live in harmony with Nature.