What does cheese mean to you? For most of us on this planet, cheese is tasty – maybe even downright delicious. It might be something you add to a meal, or a snack on its own. You may put out a fancy cheese plate if you have guests over. But for the French, cheese is more than any of that.
The French love of cheese is legendary, and absolutely real. Recent surveys show that 96% of French people eat cheese, often daily.
But for the French, cheese is more than something you eat (or don’t; after all, not every French person loves cheese). Le fromage (cheese in French) has transcended the role of food and is a cultural touchstone.
Let’s look at some French cheeses and the role they play in French culture.
How many French cheeses are there?
Some countries have a few varieties of cheese they’re proud of (or that simply exist and are tasty to us, like my own native American cheese). But the French have an unbelievable amount.
Some low estimates of the number of French cheeses hover around 200-400. Charles de Gaulle himself famously asked, Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage? (How can you govern a country that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?).
But like I said, even that impressive amount is actually a low estimate. According to the CNIEL (Centre National Interprofessionnel de l’Economie Laitière), there are 1200 varieties of French cheeses!
The reason for this staggering amount is that, in addition to some fundamental differences that clearly reflect a cheese’s taste (for example, you can’t really confuse camembert and roquefort), dairies, industrial production lines, and artisanal cheesemakers will often tweak a basic recipe to create a slight variation.
Why is cheese so important in France?
Cheese is so important in France, both culinarily and culturally, that you’d think it had been invented there. In fact, cheese was first made in prehistoric times, probably in the Fertile Crescent – not, as far as we know, in the region that would become France.
Cheese -making and -eating had certainly spread (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) into Europe by the time of the Roman Empire. By 77 AD, Pliny the Elder claimed that the best cheese (to the Romans, at least) was from places like the city of NÎmes and the Lozère region, both located in Gaul – in other words, modern-day France.
Still, despite its relatively long presence in France, exactly why cheese is so important in French cuisine and culture is a bit of a mystery. One interesting study suggests that there could be several reasons, including the French obsession with rules when it comes to classifying and eating food, a desire to hold onto a product and associated traditions that are distinctly French in the face of globalization, and resistance to fast food culture.
The authors of the study admit that their research is only based on contemporary subjects, as opposed to, say, an examination of the evolving role of cheese in French culture over the centuries (which, if you’re looking for a thesis paper topic, I’d urge you to consider), so these probably aren’t the only reasons why the French consider cheese so important and such a quintessential part of their culture. But it’s a start.
How do the French eat cheese?
There are a lot of different cheeses in France, and different types are cut and packaged in different ways. For example, soft cheeses like camembert and brie are encased in a rind and sold as a small wheel (usually packaged in a round cardboard or wooden box). Chèvre (goat cheese) is usually sold in a log shape, or, for higher-end varieties, a neat cylinder under a clear plastic dome. Hard cheeses like gruyère and gouda are often sold in a prepackaged wedge, cut from a larger wheel, and encased in wax instead of a rind.
This website features an excellent illustration that shows the most common forms of cheeses in France, and also gives a very detailed description of just what categorizes various types.
In general, the French eat cheese just like people in many other cultures do. That is, either on its own, sliced or spread onto something (most often a piece of baguette), or in a recipe (traditional French cheese-based meals include la soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup), la tartiflette, la quiche, le croque monsieur/croque madame, la fondue, and l’aligot, among many others ).
Unlike the way it’s eaten in some countries, French people never put cheese on crackers. Funny enough, though, there are some cheese-flavored crackers here (my half-French son is a big fan).
Most of the time, cheese is eaten on its own, although some people may add a bit of butter to make the taste less strong, or eat cheese along with fruit, wine, or nuts. Some industrial French cheese spreads also include seasonings and herbs, most commonly garlic (l’ail).
Generally, French cheeses are paired with red or dry white wine, but as this site points out, there are no hard and fast rules. And of course, not all of us French-cheese- eaters drink wine anyway!
There are official cheese knives and other tools for cutting cheese, but the average French person uses a sharp knife to cut a small wedge from a cheese wheel or a slice from a slab or portion of hard cheese.
One issue that can be a bit divisive is whether you should eat a cheese’s rind or not. Some French people, especially those of older generations or those who are really into cheese, will eat the rind (la croûte) of any cheese that has one. This means that even if the rind looks moldy or was touched by other people’s hands, etc., they don’t care.
The rind is full of different kinds of bacteria (the cheese-making kind, not the disease kind) and some people consider it even a bit nutritionally beneficial, like eating the skin of an apple (which, interestingly enough, seems more unusual to many French people I know, than eating the rind of a cheese). I’d say that it’s up to you – especially if you’re a foreigner. In that case, the fact that you’re even eating local cheese is impressive enough for most French people.
Some French people, especially older ones, will also sometimes cut away hard or moldy pieces of cheese, and eat the good part that’s still left. Again, this is your call.
When do the French eat cheese?
Cheese is often a part of multiple-course meals. The French don’t eat cheese with the other courses or as an appetizer (although some meals or salads may of course include cheese in them). Instead, the cheese plate comes at the end.
The Word Reference page for « le fromage » includes two expressions, le fromage ou le dessert and le fromage et le dessert. The first means you have to make a difficult choice. The second meals “the whole kit and caboodle” (in other words, all of the good stuff). Both expressions refer to the idea that the cheese plate comes at the end of a meal in France, and often replaces dessert.
That’s one of the most surprising things I discovered when I came to live here. This country has some amazing pastries, but the French generally prefer the salé (savory) to the sucré (sweet). And so, to my jaw-dropping disbelief, at many French dinners, cheese is what you’ll get – not a pastry or ice cream or any other sweet treat at the end.
Cheese isn’t only served at the end of French meals. On the rare occasions when a French person snacks, they will sometimes cut a bit of cheese and put it on a baguette. Cheese and bread (or sometimes just cheese, depending on the person) is also a popular part of French picnics.
One place you’ll probably never see a French person eat cheese is at the breakfast table. As a rule, French breakfasts tend to be light and sweet, not savory.
The main categories of French cheeses
There are many ways French cheeses can be categorized and classified. Let’s take a deep breath (you can imagine it smells like stinky cheese, if you want) and look at a few of them.
Cow milk is the most common, and to me, this isn’t surprising, since it has a softer taste than the other two, which makes it more versatile.
Hard or soft. A second way French cheeses are categorized is whether they’re hard (sometimes called pressed) or soft. For example, cantal, one of my favorites, is a hard, sort of salty-tasting cheese that’s usually sold as a hard slab you take slices from. On the other hand, camembert and the very internationally popular brie are soft cheeses – that is, when you cut their rind, you’ll discover a thick liquid or paste.
There are some exceptions to these two categories. One of the most notable is a cheese called cancoillote. In grocery stores, this cheese is purchased in a little cup, a bit like yogurt, and is a thick liquid with no rind.
Pasteurized (Fromage au lait pasteurisé) or Unpasteurized (Fromage au lait cru). Another way of classifying French cheeses is especially important to know if you’re pregnant, sick, have an infant or very young child, or another health issue: pasteurized (fromage au lait pasteurisé) and unpasteurized (fromage au lait cru).
Pasteurization is a process of removing bacteria from milk to make it healthier to drink. But many French people claim that unpasteurized milk gives cheese more flavor. For the general adult population, eating unpasteurized cheese seems to be fine. But if you have one of the issues I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you should avoid it.
This is usually pretty easy, since a cheese’s label or packaging will usually say whether or not it’s made with pasteurized milk. But that’s not always the case with artisanal and farm-made cheeses. So, be careful.
Organic (bio) or not. You might see that a cheese is described as bio – organic. This usually means that the animals that produce it are given all-natural foods, with no growth hormones, etc. Unfortunately, it doesn’t guarantee that the animals are treated well (if this is important to you, see if any other labels or details on the packaging indicate anything about the treatment of the cows/goats/sheep).
AOC stands for Appellation d’origine contrôlée. This means that everything from the cows/goats/sheep, to the method of making the cheese, is from a specific region associated with that cheese (for example, camembert officially comes from Normandy).
AOP, Appellation d’origine protégée, is essentially the same thing but on a European scale. In other words, you could make camembert cheese in Italy if you wanted to, but that’s not its official region of origin, with its traditional production methods, so Italian camembert cheese (which I believe only exists hypothetically) would not have an AOP label.
The AOC and AOP labels are marks of prestige and may also be important to groups like locavores. But just because a cheese doesn’t have one or both of these labels doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good or is of subpar quality.
Fromage de ferme, artisanal or industriel. Another way you could classify French cheeses is whether they’re made on a farm (fromage de ferme or fromage fermier), with the milk that comes directly from the animals there; artisanal (fromage artisanal) – made on a small scale with traditional processes, by someone with extensive knowledge of cheesemaking; or mass-produced (fromage industriel).
Although it would seem that French people who are proud of their cheeses and natural cheese connoisseurs would shun mass-produced cheeses, I’ve actually found that both are accepted by most French people. They just serve different roles.
Farm and artisanal cheeses are usually fairly pricey and tend to be eaten at the end of special meals or brought out for company. A French person might also buy one as a little treat to savor on their own.
Mass-produced cheeses, on the other hand, are easily accessible (any grocery store in France, even a small corner shop (épicerie) will have a fairly decent cheese selection) and usually pretty inexpensive. That makes them perfect for taking along on a picnic, giving to kids as part of their snack, serving at the end of school lunches, and enjoying in everyday life.
Some mass-produced cheeses also don’t necessarily have an artisanal equivalent. For example, many companies, most famously Boursin, make a cheese and garlic spread that is absolutely delicious and appreciated by many French people. This is used not only on its own, but in some recipes, sandwiches, etc.
With all of these different ways to classify and categorize French cheeses, it might be a little easier to understand how there are so many varieties in France!
What are the most commonly eaten cheeses in France?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. You don’t have to know a thousand or so cheeses in order to fit in in France. But there are a few cheeses that you should be familiar with, whether you want to eat them or not. These are the classics, the standbys, the one every French person – and person living in France – knows and has probably tasted at least once (and likely a lot more than that).
Many of these cheeses are more than just something to eat; they have a certain connotation and cultural significance. That’s why they’re worth knowing, regardless of how much or little you like dairy products.
According to this news segment from French TV station France 2, the most commonly consumed cheeses in France are: emmental (often called “Swiss cheese” in America), camembert, chèvre (goat cheese), fromages fondus/fromages à tartiner (spreadable cheeses), coulommiers, and comté.
Other sources like this one and this one will list these cheeses in a different order, or sometimes not include them at all. I chose to use France 2’s list because, based on the years I’ve lived in France, it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. Most of the French people I’ve met and/or have eaten with have either ordered or bought one or more of these cheeses, and probably have at least one in their refrigerator (or on their countertop, under a cloche, as I write these lines).
Most of the cheeses on this list also have cultural connotations. Let’s talk a little about those.
This cheese is a pillar of everyday French cuisine. One of the hardest things I had to adjust to when I first started living in France is that the general French taste palette seems to be based on emmental cheese, as opposed to the American or cheddar or even mozzarella cheese palette I grew up with in the US.
For example, in the US, if you order a cheese pizza (usually called a pizza margherita in France), it will have mozzarella cheese on it or possibly a blend of mozzarella and cheddar. Although pizzerias in France usually make margherita pizza with mozzarella, when you buy frozen pizza in a French grocery store, you have to check if the mozzarella is mixed with emmental. To me, that’s a horrible taste combination for pizza, but it’s what the French know and like.
Many basic French meals include emmental, from a ham and cheese sandwich (usually called a jambon-beurre, since the French usually butter the inside of the bread before adding the other ingredients), to cheesy dishes like endives wrapped in ham and covered in emmental cheese. And let’s not forget the croque monsieur, the iconic French hot sandwich.
Strangely enough, despite its ubiquity in France, emmental doesn’t have a particular connotation. It’s just sort of there, like the sun in the sky or a boulangerie in your town. I wonder if this is because it’s a multicultural cheese, with origins in Switzerland, even though it’s produced in the Savoie and Franche-Comté regions of France, as well. But it may simply be that emmental doesn’t have an extremely pungent, strong flavor, which is what French people respect most in a cheese.
On the other hand, camembert, the second cheese on the list, is what I think most French people – maybe even all French people – would say if you asked for a single cheese that represents France. This cheese, which is sold in small wheels, is so common and iconic here that teachers often instruct their students to make a circle that’s rond comme un camembert (round like a camembert cheese wheel).
The fact that chèvre (short for fromage de chèvre – goat cheese) is third on the list of the most popular French cheeses surprises me a little, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Chèvre can be found in any grocery store and is an alternative to the less pungent cow milk cheeses that are on the list. My French husband will eat just about any cheese, but he really savors chèvre. On the other hand, like many people I know from cultures where strong, musky cheeses aren’t a thing, I can’t bear it.
This makes French people I know laugh. No matter how integrated you might be into the culture, if you can’t easily and appreciatively eat aromatic, strong French cheese, you’ll always be a foreigner. I’ve experienced this firsthand, many times. And if you can handle most mainstream chèvre, you’ll meet your match one day or another, with a variety that is unbelievably strong. Trust me.
On the other hand, spreadable cheeses tend not to be strong at all. Some look like a standard French cheese, with a rind, but their taste is fairly bland (perfect for an American like me!), while others come in a small carton and are similar to butter or cream cheese in texture. Because they’re not as pungent as other cheeses, these are not meant to “stand alone,” hence the built-in idea that they should be spread on some baguette.
Most French people I know may eat spreadable cheeses, but they’re sort of in their own category. They’re industrial, and the cheapest versions usually contain a lot of artificial flavoring (which doesn’t stop them from being delicious).
French people love a good tartine (toast or bread with a spread), but that, and possibly including them on a sandwich or in an unusual recipe, is really all these cheeses are considered good for.
That being said, don’t shy away from bringing a spreadable cheese and baguette with you if you and some French friends are having a picnic – I promise that everyone will enjoy it.
Coulommiers, the next cheese on the list, surprised me, because it’s just another soft cheese, somewhat similar to camembert. It doesn’t have a particularly distinctive taste, to me, and I don’t personally know many French people who go out of their way to buy it. When I told my French husband about its inclusion on the list, he was as puzzled as I was. For him, coulommiers has no particular cultural connotation; it’s just a different version of camembert that he likes less and that’s slightly more expensive.
The last cheese on the list, comté, on the other hand, is among the most high-end cheeses you’ll find even in prepackaged form at the local grocery store. It’s a hard, cheese that tastes a bit sour. Because it’s got a different, arguably more refined taste than common cheeses like camembert and emmental, and since it’s a bit pricier, bringing it along to a picnic or serving it after a simple meal with French friends might impress them a little, especially if you choose an artisanal variety.
If you’re inspired to try all of these cheeses, you can easily find them in most French grocery stores, not to mention specialty cheese shops, of course. And remember, as I mentioned previously, each one of these may come in a few varieties – for example, bio (organic), pasteurized(au lait pasteurisé) and unpasteurized (au lait cru), etc.
Other must-know French cheeses
There are a few other French cheeses that aren’t on this list but that also have certain connotations for French people. These include:
Gruyère: Gruyère is a hard cheese that tastes similar to emmental, which isn’t too surprising since it’s also a Franco-Swiss cheese. It’s considered another one of those classic, comforting base cheeses and is used in many French recipes, but is sort of weak and tasteless on its own (although, as an American who grew up on very mild cheeses, it’s got plenty of taste to me!).
There are countless varieties of bleu cheese in France. In case you’ve never seen bleu cheese, these are usually semi-hard slabs that have veins of bluish-green in them. That’s the special (perfectly safe to eat) bacteria that give them their distinctive, pungent taste.
Whatever type of bleu cheese you may come across, keep in mind that none of them are like blue cheese salad dressing you might have in some countries (like the US). Bleu cheeses in France are incredibly stinky and strong-tasting. That’s why they’re generally respected by French people as the real deal. Anyone regularly eating bleu cheese really, really likes strong, aromatic fromage. It’s like the difference between someone drinking a light beer and straight vodka.
Maroilles is a cheese from the north of France. It’s not particularly common outside that region, but the 2008 movie Bienvenue chez les ch’tis, which is currently the top-grossing domestic film of all time in France, made people curious about it, since the movie plays on the fact that it smells really bad (even, apparently, to French people!), so you may hear this cheese talked about in France and people may want to try it. Personally, I haven’t had the nerve to do it yet.
Raclette is an industrial cheese sold in thick slices to be used in a dish that’s also called raclette. Raclette is more than just a meal, though – it’s considered a fun, convivial experience. The person who invites guests to their house for raclette has a special raclette grill that consists of a sort of hot plate and little shovel-like spoons. You put the chees slices into these, to melt them over the hot plate. Once your cheese is melted, you dribble it over hot potatoes or cold cuts (charcuterie).
The meal is cheap and sort of like having an indoor campfire. Lots of French people enjoy having a good raclette with friends and family now and then – but like many French meals, this one comes with rules. You can only eat raclette in chilly or cold weather, since it’s very heavy.
There are many variations on raclette, including fancy melting methods and presentation in restaurants, especially in Switzerland, where raclette actually comes from. You can learn more about those here, if you want. For most French people, though, raclette and the whole meal associated with it are supposed to be simple and informal.
Why do French people like stinky cheese?
French people do know that lots of cheeses stink, but that doesn’t stop them from eating them. As I said earlier, the more pungent a cheese is, the more French people seem to respect it.
While many other cultures see cheese as a compliment to food or drink, or a light, almost palette-cleansing snack, the French want it to stand out in its own right. That’s why for them, the best cheeses have presence!
They’re not necessarily alone. As this fascinating article explains, the human brain seems to sort of like the contrast between some cheeses’ stink and their creamy nature.
That said, as the list of the most popular French cheeses shows, not every French person actually likes super-strong cheese – or at least, they only consume it from time to time. Part of that is because the strongest cheeses are usually from a farm or artisanal, often unpasteurized, and frequently a bit pricey. It’s a lot easier to just go buy some camembert at the grocery store.
And then, there are the sacrifices you have to make if you do splurge on stinky cheese. As much as French people enjoy cheese with a strong taste, they don’t like the smell. It’s basically considered a necessary evil – and one that doesn’t always go away very easily.
For example, many French people’s refrigerators emit a hideous odor when you open them. It’s not because they’re dirty or something is rotting in them; it’s because there’s a portion of delicious-but-stinky cheese in there!
And this isn’t even limited to the most pungent kinds. The other day, for example, I bought a different brand of camembert than usual. Even though it was pasteurized and mass-produced, I got a strong whiff of it every time I opened our refrigerator.
Another issue with stinky cheese is , of course, that it makes your breath smell. French people generally accept this as another unfortunate side effect of enjoying excellent cheese. So if you’re with a group of French people and you also indulge in a stinky slice, don’t worry – no one will judge you for your smelly breath. On the other hand, if you don’t like smelling your own stinky breath, that can be a problem. I know it is for me.
Paul Taylor, a British comedian who lives in France, has a very funny serious of videos called “What the Fuck, France?” This one about cheese doesn’t always ring true to me, but his comment on not being able to kiss after you eat particularly smelly cheese shows how many of us Anglo-Saxons are still a bit taken aback by the whole experience.
Some French cheese myths
Naturally, when a country is so closely associated with cheese, some misconceptions are bound to arise. Here are a few French cheese myths I’d like to clear up.
1. All French cheese is unpasteurized
Not so! In fact, most of the French cheese you’ll find in a grocery store (and thus, the kinds most frequently consumed by a majority of the population) is pasteurized. That being said, if you can’t have unpasteurized cheese for health reasons, make sure to read the label. If it says au lait cru somewhere, that means it’s unpasteurized and you should avoid it.
2. Say “Fromage!”
when you want people to smile in a photo in France. Strangely enough, the French love cheese but unlike many Anglo-Saxons, they don’t say “Cheese” when taking photos. They usually opt for Ouistiti, which is a type of cute little monkey (and, like “cheese”, a silly word that will hopefully make people smile and laugh).
3. All French cheese is stinky
Although many kinds of French cheeses do have a distinct and sometimes extremely pungent smell, there are several kinds that don’t. These include industrial cheese spreads, and hard cheeses like emmental, gruyère, and edam, among others. This helpful article explains how cheese is made and why some varieties stink and others don’t.
4. Cheese should be refrigerated
French grocery stores keep cheeses in a refrigerated section, and many French people store cheese in their fridge, but traditionalists will often keep cheese inside une cloche, a special glass dome. This keeps it away from bugs, dust, etc., and keeps the smell locked inside, too, while allowing the cheese to remain soft and more flavorful.
5. French cheese is expensive
In France, many kinds of cheeses can be quite affordable, especially if you buy them in a grocery store. If you buy cheese at a cheese shop (fromagerie), farm, or market, on the other hand, they can get a lot pricier.
6. The French love all kinds of cheese.
Another interesting part of the “What the Fuck, France?” video that I mentioned earlier is when Paul Taylor observes (around the 2:27 mark) that French people won’t judge you for your choice of cheese – unless you say you like cheddar! I agree 100% with his statement. You’ll get an even worse reaction if you say you like American cheese (assuming the French people you’re talking to know what that is).
The French generally dislike cheese that’s flavorless (well, at least to them) or filled with chemicals. That’s why you will never see a French person tucking into a bowl of bright-orange-colored cheese found in American products like instant macaroni and cheese or Cheez-Whiz. I was actually afraid to show my husband Cheez-Whiz the first time he came to the US with me. I knew it would horrify him and add another level to his conception of man’s capacity for evil.
Even cheeses that have a good reputation internationally don’t seem to measure up. I’m not speaking for every individual in the country, but as a whole, the French look down on most other culture’s cheeses, even cheeses from places like Italy. I think it has as much to do with their tastes and preferences, as national pride.
Our favorite cheese expression in French
I’ve mentioned a few quotations and expressions related to cheese, but I can’t finish this article without including another one. Like, I literally don’t think Benjamin will publish this if I don’t include it. It’s one of his favorite French idiomatic expressions: En faire tout un fromage.
That literally translates to, “to make all of a cheese out of it.” But what it really means is “ to make a big fuss about something.”
It’s an odd expression, but very fitting, as well; after all, when it comes to cheese, les Français en font tout un fromage!
If you come to France, don’t be afraid to try as many different cheeses as you can. Even if you’re not a huge cheese fan, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find at least one kind that you like. If you’re not near a farm or market, stop by a grocery store and choose a few varieties from the shelves. Pair them with a good baguette, and voila – a delicious, genuine French cultural experience!