Learn all about these cheeses and what makes them unique.
France has delicious cheese around every corner, but only the most special and historically significant ones can earn the AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation. The highly regulated status is used to protect agricultural products that are tied to a particular region and made in a traditional way. In the case of cheese, producers may have to raise their animals in a small geographic area, use the milk from only certain breeds of cows or sheep, and follow long-established protocols for how they’re made. The designation helps safeguard the food’s reputation and ensure consumers know what they’re getting when they make a purchase.
Currently, there are more than 50 AOC in France. Sadly, most aren’t available in the U.S. because they’re made with raw milk cheeses and can’t legally be sold here. Even those that are may only be available seasonally or in small quantities. Whet your appetite before your next visit to the cheesemonger in search of these or other protected wedges and wheels.
Camembert de Normandie
Camembert de Normandie has a storied beginning. According to local legend, a clergy member running away from potential captors during the French Revolution was hidden by a woman and her husband in Normandy. He was so grateful that he provided them with a recipe from the Brie-producing village where he grew up. The woman made a cheese that was a mix of Brie and one of the traditional cheeses of Normandy, and Camembert was born.
Despite being centuries old, Camembert took a long time to gain widespread acclaim, says Anais Saint-Andre Loughran of Chantal’s Cheese Shop in Pittsburgh, PA. When railroads were built in France in the 1800s, more Parisians started vacationing in Normandy and discovered the cheese. “There was also a big marketing campaign for it during World War I because it became part of the soldier’s ration, so everyone got to know about it,” she added. It became an AOC cheese in 1983.
Camembert is a mold-ripened cheese with a paste-like texture. It must be made with milk from cows pastured in the Calvados, Orne, Manche and Eure regions of Normandy. At least half of the milk must come from Normande cows. Traditionally, it is hand ladled into molds before being left to rest. It must be individually aged and sold in a wooden box.
The flavor of young Camembert is fruity, milky and slightly salty, with a distinct mushroom smell that comes from the rind. Bread or crackers, jam, honey, nuts and dry sparkling wine are all ideal pairings.
Chabichou du Poitou
Chabichou du Poitou comes from the area near Poitiers in western France and received its AOC designation in 1990. “The history of the cheese goes back over a thousand years,” says David Robinson, cheese buyer and imports manager for Formaggio Kitchen in the Boston area. “Arabs brought goats into the region by the 800s, but after they were defeated, the French took over the raising of these goats. Cheesemaking soon followed.”
Robinson describes the cheese as having a soft, cakey texture with a delicate tang and flavor that is “a little grassy, a little lemony, but all balance.” It is typically aged between 10 and 25 days, which gives it time to grow a wrinkly, off-white rind.
“While it is mostly consumed on a cheese plate, it does make appearances on salads now and again,” he says. “But really, it is best enjoyed with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or light rosé wine from the Loire Valley.”
Comté (traditionally called Gruyere de Comté) is a raw milk cheese that is sold in large wheels. It comes from the mountainous Jura region of eastern France and is made with dairy drawn from Montbéliarde or French Simmental cows.
While it has been produced since the 13th century, “it really came into its own in the last 70 years,” says Robinson. For most of its history, it had large eyes and was only allowed to age for three to six months after being made. After it achieved AOC status in 1958, affineurs (the people responsible for the care and ripening of cheese) began to age the cheese longer and at a lower temperature. “The eyes began to disappear and the complexities of Comté began to come through even more.”
Comté can be sold young or aged. Even in its youth, the cheese is rich and fruity and filled with complex flavors. Loughran teaches a class on cheese and likes to show her students that comté has 83 different aromatic descriptors on a flavor wheel. “When it’s aged, salt crystals start to show up, and there’s a nuttiness that adds to the fruitiness,” she says.
Loughran’s favorite pairings with Comté include mustard and spicy pineapple jam. It makes fantastic fondue and is great melted on toast.
The cheese also goes well with red and white wine, “but the best combination to me would still be the Savagnin wines from the Jura, particularly the Vin Jaune, an oxidized white wine that plays well with the firm yet creamy texture,” says Robinson.
Époisses de Bourgogne
Rich Rogers, proprietor and cheesemonger at Scardello Artisan Cheese in Dallas, called époisses his “desert island cheese.” This washed-rind cheese with a red-orange outside and buttery yellow interior has an ooey, gooey texture that makes it perfect to smear on a baguette or consume with fresh grapes and apples.
Époisses was originally the creation of monks but was made by many farmers in the Auxois and Terre Plaine regions of Burgundy. “Then World War II happened, and the cheese disappeared,” Rogers says, largely because the women left to tend the farms had no time to make it. Around 1955, Burgundian farmers Robert and Simone Berthaut did extensive research on the recipe and resurrected it. It became an AOC cheese in 1991.
The cheese can be quite pungent, “and for someone who’s new to cheese, which can be challenging,” Rogers says. “But because it’s so creamy and doesn’t taste the same way it smells, we’ve found in classes that once people taste it, they really fall in love with it.” Pairings beyond bread and fruit can be difficult, but a good vermouth can sometimes cut through the pungency.
Blue-veined Fourme d’Ambert has the same creamy texture and nutty flavor as many similar cheeses but is also milder. “If you don’t want your blue cheese to be too spicy, this one is a perfect choice,” says Patrick Quillec, owner of the specialty shop French Market and several restaurants in Kansas City.
Fourme d’Ambert hails from the ancient Auvergne region of France, which today is made up of several smaller departments (similar to American counties) including Puy-de-Dôme, Cantal and Haute-Loire. It is one of France’s oldest cheeses; there are records of druids in the area using it in their ceremonies. The milk source is grassfed cows. The blue comes from inoculating the cheese with Penicillium roqueforti, the same bacteria that goes into Roquefort. To create marbling throughout the formed cheese, each piece is pierced with long needles on its fourth day to allow oxygen into the interior. It’s been protected with AOC status since 1972.
Quillec loves crumbles of Fourme d’Ambert ever-so-slightly melted on top of a steak. It is also delicious with a fresh baguette, fruit or on top of salad. Sweet wines such as Sauternes hold up well to the cheese, as do red wines such as Pinot Noir, Syrah and Rhône blends.
Reblochon de Savoie
Loughran’s family is from Alpine France, and she retains a deep fondness for Reblochon de Savoie, which has been made since at least the 13th century. Before the French Revolution, farmers were taxed based on the amount of milk and other products they produced. They would only partially milk their cows before reporting the day’s milking to the landowners they worked for. After that, they would quickly finish drawing milk from the animals. That second milking often became Reblochon. In fact, the name comes from the verb “rebloucher,” which translates roughly as “to pinch the udder again.”
Reblochon is a small-format, washed-rind, smear-ripened cheese that has a light and fruity flavor when it is young. “As it ages, it’s going to get bigger and bigger and have more a nuttiness coming through,” Loughran says. Thanks to its AOC designation, which was granted in 1958, it can only be labeled as Reblochon if the milk comes from abondance, tarine and/or montbéliarde that subsist on grass and hay from Savoie.
The cheese melts very well, making it perfect for pizza, grilled cheese and fondue, Loughran says. It’s traditional to serve it with Tartiflette, a regional dish made with potatoes, white wine and bacon.
Roquefort also has a mythical beginning. According to local legend, a young shepherd was distracted by a beautiful woman and wandered away from his lunch of sheep’s milk and bread. When he returned days later, he found the milk curded and shot through with blue veins. He ate the semi-soft substance and found it quite tasty.
Roquefort is one of France’s oldest AOC cheeses, having earned its designation in 1925. It is made in the Aveyron region of southern France, which falls between Auvergne and Languedoc. Lacaune, Manech and Basco-Bearnaise sheep provide the milk for the cheese, which must be aged in the limestone caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. “The sheep’s milk gives it a sweetness to temper the blue,” says Rogers, noting that the mold can lend a counterbalancing peppery flavor.
Most people serve Roquefort at room temperature, although it is also delicious warmed on top of a steak. Quillec likes to serve fillet mignon on a bed of confit tomatoes with Roquefort on top. (He’s also spooned the tomatoes on fresh bread and added Roquefort for a divine appetizer.)
“Anything sweet is spectacular with Roquefort,” says Rogers. Honey is a classic pairing; try a darker version like chestnut or buckwheat for something different. Sweet fruits such as pears and apricots, crisp vegetables like celery or endive, walnuts and sweet wines (think Sauternes or Port) will also make this classic French cheese even more enjoyable.