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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
The variety in a French cheese shop can be overwhelming. Photo: 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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CULTURE

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?

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