A Cheese Lover's Guide to France
When Charles de Gaulle famously asked how one could ever hope to govern a nation that has 246 varieties of cheese, he was actually understating the case. By a lot. France is home to at least 1,000 varieties, say some experts. And though we'd love to send you on a grand tour of all the fromage, we'll assume you don't have the spare lifetimes or arteries. Hence our top seven list.
In the mountainous region of Aveyron lies Roquefort sur Soulzon. Like many of history's greatest discoveries, the iconic local cheese—with its distinctive veins of blue mold—was a happy accident. Or so the story goes. According to lore, a young shepherd abandoned his lunch of bread and ewe's milk cheese in cave to chase a beautiful woman. Returning a month later (just go with it), he found his cheese had molded—et voilà, Roquefort, aka The King of Cheeses was born. In fairness to the story, the mold that colors Roquefort is found in the soil of the local caves, where the cheese is placed for maturation under the careful watch of maîtres-affineurs, or master "maturers." To see the process first-hand, visit the Roquefort Société Caves then drop in on any of several cheesemakers as you stroll through the village (two of note: Papillion and Vierneres Freres). Also peruse the daily outdoor market to assemble a picnic lunch: You're in prime go-outside territory: The Grand Causses Regional Nature Park is right there, as is the three-mile Roquefort Scales Loop, complete with selfie-certified vistas.
More than two centuries ago, in a town called Camembert (population just under 200), this venerated, slightly stinky cheese was born in a round wooden box. To get the “Camembert de Normandie” AOC seal (a French certification granted to certain geographic-specific wines, cheeses and butters) now, the cheese must still be made with unpasteurized milk, just as the Norman farmer, Marie Harel, reputedly first did in 1791. Sample the raw-milk farmhouse version on a tour with Le 5 Frères. And for a meal that's, well, pure cheese, book a breakfast table at the Restaurant Jean Luc Tartarin: This Michelin-starred Le Havre eatery offers a cheese plate alongside your morning cafe au lait. Of course, we wouldn’t turn down a dinner reservation here either, with fromage as the requisite final course—all washed down with another local favorite, calvados.
Comté: Gruyère de Comté
Eggy, rich, meltable and straight-up buttery, this dense cheese is made with summer milk from alpine pasture-fed cows (the French do love a hyper-specific food production rule). Known as one of the best pairing cheeses—it never says no to a cornichon, French cider or the also-regional Jura wine—Comté also lands you squarely in fondue territory. For the most immersive version, visit La Petite Echelle, a three-century-old inn in Rochejean that serves traditional dishes by candlelight (there’s no electricity). The house fondue combines Comté with local Jura wine, foraged wild mushrooms and mountain herbs for a true taste of the terroir. And now that you're head-over-heels in love, visit the Maison du Comte to see how the magic and maturation process happen, and, bien sur, score some samples. But in case you're planning to take any home, pack a spare suitcase: Some wheels weigh in the neighborhood of 120 pounds.
Just because brie has become the default for every holiday spread ever doesn't mean you should skip the home turf of Camembert's milder cousin. For starters, you'll get comfortable with the local practice of eating the rind—there's some complex flavor living in that velvety-soft layer of white mold. You may even adopt the custom of dunking a wedge of brie into black coffee. Either way, you'll meet the OGs of brie-dom—triple-cream Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun—and life will never be the same. One must-visit is Jouarre's La Fromagerie Ganot, a generations-old family cheese shop and affineur (cheese ager) that also houses a small museum. You should also visit La Ferme des Trente Arpents, a farm owned by Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, and producer of some of the region's finest cheeses. Call at least a day before to order and pick up an edible souvenir of the Brie de Meaux, Coulommiers or tomme fermière. Bonus: The farm also makes its own honey, olive oil and jam.
Munster, or Munster Géromé, comes courtesy of cows in the hilly region between Alsace, Lorraine and Franche-Comté. To thank them in person, arrange a tour of the Versant du Soleil farm in winter, when they're happily ensconced in a giant barn—as opposed to spring and summer, when they're happily MIA, meandering and snacking in the highlands. But whenever you show up, be hungry: This corner of France is also home to quiche Lorraine, blood sausage, Mirabelle plum tarts and beaucoup plus. Nancy's Le Capucin Gourmand, which has fed everyone from the Queen of England to Jean Cocteau, is a good starting point to your tasting tour.
Loire Valley: Buche du Chèvre
With its orchards, vineyards and goat farms (like a thousand Youtube baby goat videos come to life), this central region is known as the Garden of France. And you'll find the lion’s (or goat’s?) share of the nation's chèvre varieties here in this valley. One of the most famous is the Saint-Maure-du-Touraine, a small log with a signature rye straw running through it. In fact, Les Passerelles Touraine is a whole museum dedicated to the delicacy. And when you're ready to dig in, try the intimate La Maison Tourangelle, where chèvre is paired with—among other things—an amazing popcorn ice cream. Back to actual goats, you’ll often see homemade roadside signs in the region that direct you to any number of farms—and by all means, stop in. Caprine cuteness aside, there's chèvre on offer with every imaginable topping, from red pepper flakes and garlic to vegetable ash. Most of these hyperlocal cheesemakers have no web presence, but one researchable and bookable spot is Ferme du Cabri au Lait, an organic farm and petting zoo with cheesemaking workshops.
Burgundy: Epoisses de Bourgignon
A creamy cow’s milk cheese washed in a mix of salt water and local brandy? Yes please. Especially a version described as stinky but incredibly lovable (no wonder Napoleon is rumored to have loved Époisses). After almost disappearing during World War II, the cheese was resurrected in the 50s by farmers Robert and Simone Berthaut, whose son Jean continues to produce it. To try some, as well as other local goodness, snag a table at the three Michelin star Maison Lameloise, where the “chariot des fromages” sounds so much more impressive than “cheese cart,” n’est-ce pas?