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FOOD & DRINK

7 tips for buying French cheese

Charles de Gaulle famously said of France 'how can anyone govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?'. But the General had underestimated - France actually has closer to 1,000 different types of cheese, which can feel a bit overwhelming.

A French cheese shop
A woman wearing a protective face mask buys cheese at a store.(Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP)

Here are our tips for cheese-buying in France.

Ask for help

France has thousands of fromageries and even small towns will usually have at least one. As well as obviously having lots of cheese, they also have staff who are generally knowledgeable and helpful.

While you can of course just pick whatever you like the look of, if you feel spoiled for choice don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

Most staff are delighted to help and will steer you towards a good selection and highlight cheeses that are local, in season or just particularly good – and almost all fromageries offer free samples to taste.

They can be pretty passionate about their product – as The Local’s Europe editor Ben McPartland found out when he tried to buy the ‘wrong’ type of cheese to make a fondue.

READ ALSO The 8 ‘cheese families’ of France

Supermarkets

Although fromageries are great, that doesn’t mean that French supermarkets don’t have a good cheese selection too.

Most of the bigger supermarkets have a deli counter with a wide selection of cheeses, often with an emphasis on local products.

Although the deli counter assistants are not specialists, some are also happy to offer advice. Free samples, however, are not standard practice. 

Eat cheese every day

While almost all French people eat at least some cheese (veganism is still relatively rare in the country, especially outside Paris), 46 percent of them eat cheese every day.

This is especially important to you as a newcomer – if there are 1,000 French cheeses it will only take you two-and-a-half years to try them all if you eat a different one every day.

OK, that might be a slightly ambitious goal. But you might make more new discoveries if you eat a small amount of cheese regularly and differentiate the varieties that you buy.

If you’re having lunch or dinner in a café or restaurant, remember that most places offer an assiette de fromage (or a chariot de fromage if you’re somewhere fancy) to round off your meal.

READ ALSO Your guide to French cheese etiquette

Keep your cheeseboards simple

It might be tempting to buy all the cheeses at once, but if you’re putting together an after-dinner cheeseboard, you wouldn’t normally have more than 5 varieties – some say 3 – otherwise all the flavours get lost.

You would normally try to mix the types of cheese, and have one hard, one soft, one goat’s cheese and one blue cheese – and then eat them in the order mildest to strongest, so that the Roquefort doesn’t drown out the more delicate flavour of the brie.

It’s really down to what you like though, so there’s no law about having a goat’s cheese on the board if you don’t like it.

Serve warm (with wine)

You don’t have to drink wine with cheese, of course, but a good wine pairing can really enhance the flavour of your cheese.

You generally serve red wine with cheese, although sometimes dessert wines can pair with strong cheeses.

But the best thing you can do for your cheese is to take it out of the fridge well in advance of serving it – room-temperature cheese has bags more flavour than one cold from the fridge, and it will also allow the soft cheeses to ooze and flow correctly.

READ ALSO 8 tips for buying wine in a French supermarket

Not just after-dinner

Cheese has many more applications than simply a cheeseboard and it’s good to ring the changes with how you serve.

Unlike German and Scandinavian countries, cheese for breakfast is rare in France (although you sometimes see fromage blanc, which is more like yoghurt, with fruit), but every other meal can and does involve cheese. Some meals (like fondue) are basically entirely cheese.

Some cheeses are specific to a dish, such as Raclette (which is usually melted and poured over potatoes, cured meats and pickled vegetables) or Reblochon (the traditional cheese for making Tartiflette).

For a more casual cheese option ordering a planche with a couple of drinks in a French bar is a great option – it’s a platter of cheese or charcuterie (or both in the case of a planche mixte) with bread.

READ ALSO The 6 best French cheese dishes

Babybel is for kids

You can buy the individual soft Babybel cheeses, in their distinctive red wax wrappers, in French supermarkets, but they’re generally understood to be for children. The same goes for La Vache qui Rit

In fact, French supermarkets tend to segregate all non-French cheese into a separate section – or even a separate aisle – so if you’re hunting for Parmesan to go on your pasta or feta to go in a salad, it might not be next to the French cheeses.

Member comments

  1. I always ask for help in choosing. I mention what I already like, and we take it from there. But never feel guilty about eating the same cheese all the time. I love 18 month Comte. I can eat it everyday easily. As a yearly tourist I always try some blue cheeses. You have so many different ones. And some are spectacular for me! Another thing I have learned is to only buy what you personally like. For me that means no goat cheese. Do not feel embarassed by this, I always say that the french have so many different cheeses I can eat what I love. And I eat a lot of cheese. :))

  2. It’s not true that red wine is always best for cheese – many cheese experts recommend white for at least half of them, and for some – goat in particular – white is always recommended.

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FOOD & DRINK

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit: www.economie.gouv.fr

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”. 

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