It’s all about the history, terroir, quality and flavor imparted in France.
In 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle famously mused, “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” While the point holds true, de Gaulle’s estimate was a lowball—France boasts closer to 1,600 varieties of cheese, which is a whole lot of cheese for a country roughly the size of Texas.
Nothing says joie de vivre français like an oozing triple crème or a tangy log of chèvre. The French enjoy a lot of cheese. Their culture is deeply connected to, and proud of, the buttons, wheels, rounds and logs of cheese that make up an integral part of French cuisine.
A Controlled System
France takes its cheese so seriously that they have a whole system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This means “controlled designation of origin,” and serves to protect the authenticity of cheese. AOC is not just for cheese—butter, wine and even products like lavender and lentils fall under the auspices of the government bureau Institut national des appellations d’origine, now called Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO).
These organizations closely govern and protect the production and authenticity of the food they oversee. For example, for a cheese to be awarded the AOC-protected name “Cantal,” it must come from the Cantal mountains in Auvergne from the winter milk of Salers cows, made according to specific methodology and aged a minimum of one month.
There are other official designations to protect cheese. Under the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, certain established cheeses, including many French varieties, are covered by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Other countries have their own versions of the French AOC, like the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system, and the Spanish Denominación de Origen system.
The AOC system was developed in the 19th century for wine. In 1925, Roquefort became the first cheese to be awarded an AOC label, and since then over 40 cheeses have been assigned AOC status. Representatives from each label inspect the cheese and its production in order to ensure that it follows their strict guidelines. As cheese shoppers, these labels help guarantee consistency and quality in the French cheese we select.
“AOC cheeses are special because they are part of the French traditional gastronomic and cultural heritage,” says Jean-Louis Carbonnier, founder of Carbonnier Communications, a group that works with French cheeses. “With an AOC cheese, the consumer is guaranteed that the cheese was produced in a traditional way and has a history linked to both a specific place and local population.” Many AOC’s are also concerned with the protection of the environment and fair trade practices.
A Clear Identity
For cheesemakers and sellers, AOC status provides a support network and clear identity for the cheese. “They will strive to produce or sell the best of its kind,” Carbonnier explains. “They are proud to be part of the AOC organization and the values they represent.”
Cara Warren is the East Coast sales manager for Isigny, a French dairy cooperative with more than a century of history. “People who have food knowledge definitely look for the AOC symbol,” she says. “They immediately gravitate towards that and understand it means a higher quality.” Many cheese lovers, though, “might need a cheesemonger or signage to explain what AOC means.”
Only a small percentage of AOC cheeses get imported to the U.S., and some of them are made specifically for the American market. Still, seeking out the AOC label means choosing a cheese that has been made for many generations, according to high standards that are still closely upheld today. It means you’ll taste a specific terroir, a sense of place, as these cheeses are exclusively made in a single place in the world.
Here are some AOC cheeses to seek out, although this list is only the tip of a (delicious) iceberg:
St Nectaire is a semi-soft washed rind cheese from central France’s Auvergne region, in Monts-Dore. Monts-Dore is known as “montagres à vaches,” or “mountains for cows,” as it’s full of green pasture for herds raised primarily for milk and the production of cheese. “The cheese is made twice a day, with milk still warm from the cows,” recounts Susan Sturman, founder of Makers & Mongers, which connects cheese professionals. “The milk is not allowed to be chilled and must be transformed immediately after milking. Of course, the milk is raw. The cheese, when ripened, is unctuous, creamy and earthy. The rind, at least when done the way I prefer it, has a well-developed mucor coat that offers an earthy, mineral set of flavors. I love to eat the rind with the cheese.”
The cheese is carefully matured on rye straw mats, which helps impart a unique grassy, fruity flavor. It pairs extremely well with fruits, raw vegetables, olives, bread and salami.
According to the legend of Roquefort, the cheese was born when a young boy saw a beautiful girl in the distance. He abandoned his lunch of bread and cheese in a cave, running to soak in her luster. When he returned a few months later, Penicillium roqueforti (the famous Roquefort mold) had transformed his plain cheese into Roquefort. The first cheese to receive AOC status, Roquefort earns its nickname “The King of Blues.” It’s been around for at least 1,000 years.
It is rindless and fudgy, with green and blue veining and a punchy, spicy-sweet, and incredible flavor. Only sheep’s milk cheeses aged in the natural Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon may bear the name Roquefort. Roquefort is wonderful in a salad with walnuts and beets, or melted on a juicy steak, or paired with Sauternes after dinner for an elegant dessert.
Valençay is easy to spot with its unique flat top pyramid shape. Legend has it that Talleyrand had a pyramid-shaped goat cheese made for Napoleon. But when Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt failed, Talleyrand cut off the point so as not to remind the military genius of the embarrassing debacle. This distinctive ashed chèvre is soft and creamy with a citrussy tang. The original Valençay, AOC labeled, is crafted from raw milk and, therefore, not imported to the U.S., but a pasteurized version (non-AOC) is available here. It pairs very well with crisp, dry white wines such as sauvignon blanc and makes a striking addition to any cheese platter.
Époisses de Bourgogne
One taste of the intensely creamy paste of this French classic, and you’ll know why this unctuous cow’s milk round, made in Burgundy, is so delightfully decadent. It’s made from the milk of French Simmenthal, Montbeliarde and Brune cows and washed in brine and Marc de Bourgogne, the local brandy. Époisses was said to be a favorite of Napoleon. Its bark is bigger than its bite; its pungent aroma yields to a more nuanced flavor.
After near extinction in France during the World Wars, Époisses de Bourgogne was resurrected in the 1950s by the beloved M. Berthaut. After being carefully hand-ladled into forms and dry-salted, each wheel gets impeccably cave-aged and packaged into a clever wooden box meant to ease transport to the U.S. Serving Époisses isn’t nearly as difficult as aging it—slice a crusty baguette and dunk away into the ooey goodness, adding a glass of Burgundian white wine for terroir-driven perfection.
Ossau-Iraty is made in two regions in the southwest of France along the Spanish border—in the northern Basque country’s Irati beech forest and in Bearn’s neighboring Ossau Valley in the rolling foothills of the Western Pyrenees. It’s said to be one of the world’s most ancient cheeses.
This pressed, uncooked, raw sheep cheese has layers upon layers of lush flavor. It’s one of two sheep’s milk cheeses with AOC designation (the other is Roquefort), and you can really taste the rich sheepy funk. The flavor is mild yet hauntingly complex. Ossau-Iraty is firm, smooth, sweet and a little nutty. Grate over soup or pasta; it melts gorgeously. Or enjoy it just as it is alongside a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc or Madiran. It’s sometimes called the “farmer’s dessert” for its creamy and buttery texture and fruity flavor.
One of the world’s greatest cheeses, Comté has been made from the unpasteurized milk of Montbéliarde cows high in the Jura Mountains for centuries. They graze on abundant pastures, and in the summer the cheese takes on floral notes. The cheese is aged on spruce boards, the same way it’s been done since the Middle Ages. The hard yet pliable cheese has hints of hazelnuts, toffee and ripe, succulent fruit.
“Since I have been working with the Comté PDO, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with a successful economic model whose values are widely admired, in particular with respect to rural development, attachment to the land, solidarity, protection of the ecosystem and fair practices,” says Carbonnier.
Comté is perfect for melting. The cheese is excellent for fondue, and a welcome addition to grilled cheese. It’s also great on a cheese plate, with a fruity red wine like Beaujolais.
Langres is a washed-rind cheese crafted near the town of the same name in the Champagne Ardenne region in the northeast of France. It is dense, oozy and creamy, perfect for poking at and scooping up with a crusty baguette. Stinky, but not hit-you-over-the-head stinky, the cheese was granted AOC status in 1975 and is made in a few different sizes. After production, Langres is coated in annatto, a natural red dye derived from the seed of the South American annatto shrub, that turns the cheese its pretty golden-orange color, and matured in cellar conditions for a period of between four and five weeks. Funky, milky and show-stopping, all you need is some good bread and you’ve got a great treat. Serve with Champagne or brandy and prunes for a lovely dessert.