Charles de Gaulle famously commented “How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?” For serious cheese-lovers, France is the ultimate paradise. Other countries may produce individual cheeses which are as good as, or even better than, the best of the French, but no country offers a range that comes anywhere near them in terms of sheer inventiveness. In fact, there are officially over 350 types of French cheese, and the methods used to make them are jealously guarded secrets. Many cheese-makers have successfully protected their products by gaining the right to label their produce AOP (appellation d’origine protégée), covered by laws similar to those for wines, which – among other things – controls the amount of cheese that a particular area can produce. As a result, the subtle differences between French local cheeses have not been overwhelmed by the industrialized uniformity that has plagued other countries.
The best, or most traditional, restaurants offer a well-stocked plateau de fromages (cheeseboard), served at room temperature with bread, but not butter. Apart from the ubiquitous Brie, Camembert and numerous varieties of goat’s cheese (chèvre), there will usually be one or two local cheeses on offer – these are the ones to go for. If you want to buy cheese, local markets are always the best bet, while in larger towns you’ll generally find a fromagerie, a shop with dozens of varieties to choose from. We’ve indicated the best regional cheeses throughout the book.