France, the land of wine, cheese, oh-so-soft, buttery pastries. The country is hailed for its gastronomic delights and it’s easy to understand why. Pass through any region or town – however small – and you’ll find that it has a speciality. Foie gras comes from southwest France, cuisses de grenouilles (frogs’ legs) from the Dombes. In Strasbourg, you’ll find the best choucroute (dressed sauerkraut), and in Lyon, you’ll find sweet praline tarts.
When it comes to cheese, however, the offerings are overwhelming. And if you’ve got just your holiday to sample some of the country’s 300-odd cheese varieties, choosing can be a tricky affair. Thus, our list. It is by no means comprehensive, but it will serve you well when you next step into a fromagerie for your aperitif or after-dinner platter.
Quintessentially French (with a variety manufactured in South Africa), Camembert is a soft, creamy, surface-ripened cow’s milk cheese originally made in Normandy. A ripe Camembert should be soft on the inside, but not too runny. To test a Camembert, open the box (not the protective wrapping) and press gently. The cheese should be soft, but not spongy.
Another cow’s milk cheese made locally is Brie. Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, from the Île de France region, have a creamy texture and soft, white crust, which is also eaten. However, as Brie is usually produced in large wheels, the smaller wedges you’ll buy at a fromagerie won’t be covered by rind.
Also try: Brillat-Savarin, Munster, Saint-Nectaire
Tomme de Savoie, from Savoie in the French Alps, is a mild, semi-firm cow’s milk cheese. Like most Tommes, this type is usually made from the skimmed milk, left over after the cream is used to make butter or richer cheeses. As a result, it has a relatively low fat content. Its thick, crusty, brownish-grey rind with splotches of yellow or red mould may not seem appealing, but don’t let that put you off. Its character depends on what the cows have fed on, and is a pleasant everyday type of cheese.
A hard cheese similar to Swiss Gruyère, Comté is produced from the milk of cows grazing at altitude in an area of eastern France, along the Swiss border. This cooked cheese is manufactured collectively village by village using methods which have changed little over centuries. Comté comes in fruité (fruity) or salé (salty) varieties, with a texture that is hard and flexible, and a strong and slightly sweet taste. This is a versatile cheese that is as good in a fondue or raclette as it is on a sandwich.
Also try: Cantal, Emmental, Reblochon
For those who love the strong aroma and taste of blue cheese, Roquefort is a must-try. Made since the Middle Ages from the milk of a single breed of sheep, this is also one of France’s most famous varieties. This cheese is crumbly and moist, with distinctive veins of green mould. It has a rich, creamy and sharp, tangy, salty flavour.
Also try: Bleu d’Auvergne, Bleu de Causses, Bleu de Bresse
Another must-try is chèvre, goat’s milk cheese. There are dozens of different varieties, sold either young (frais), when they are soft and spreadable, medium-matured (soft, but not spreadable) or fully matured (when they are hard).
Sample the offerings of local cheesemakers at the South African Cheese Festival this weekend in Stellenbosch. 27-29 April. cheesefestival.co.za