In the world of turophilia (that’s “love of cheese” for the neophytes out there), there may be no nation more afflicted than France. Cheese is omnipresent: Supermarkets often have not one but two whole aisles dedicated to the product, and cheese cloches are available in the local equivalent of Target. Traditional meals so automatically include it that when former President Nicolas Sarkozy elided the cheese course from official state lunches, citizens were outraged. It’s no wonder that France is often held up as the bastion of cheese excellence.
That said, there are some pervasive myths about French cheese that are ripe for debunking. Here are the most egregious among them.
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1. “There are 246 kinds of cheese in France.”
Charles de Gaulle “famously” said that it was impossible to govern a country with 246 kinds of cheese. In reality, the quote is anecdotal at best, and moreover, it severely underestimates the true number of cheeses produced in France. At last count, according to the Centre National Interprofessionnel de l’Économie Laitière, France is home to over 1,200 cheeses, 46 of which are protected by a strict Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) charter—a label that is less a mark of quality than an indicator of consistency, according to cheese educator Jennifer Greco, who offers cheese and wine tastings in Paris. “When I purchase a cheese with an AOP classification,” she says, “I am confident that it will have the flavors, textures and aromas that I associate with that particular cheese.”
2. “The older a cheese is, the smellier it is.”
It’s not a cheese’s age but rather its type that ups its stink factor. And in France, you’ve got five to choose from: fresh, blue, washed, bloomy, or pressed. This final category can be further split into pressed-and-uncooked or pressed-and-cooked—with the latter being the oldest specimens in any cheese shop (think: Alpine cheeses like Comté that can be aged up to five years). But it’s the washed rind cheeses, aged between three weeks and four months, that boast the most imposing aromas. Washed in a brine solution to promote the growth of healthy, umami-rich bacteria on the outside, these cheeses take on an aroma much akin to that of a long-forgotten gym bag—in the best way possible.
3. “Cheese belongs on a charcuterie board.”
French meals tend to follow a pretty specific format: aperitif, appetizer, main, cheese, dessert, digestif—a format that was even inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2010. But despite the protected presence of pre-dinner nibbles, neither the aperitif nor appetizer is all that cheese-focused. French tradition, on the contrary, places cheese securely at the end of the meal, usually served in small quantities of about an ounce or two per person. The honor of the pre-dinner nosh, meanwhile, usually falls to charcuterie, a category of cooked or cured meat like dry-aged ham, potted pâté, or rillettes. And contrary to what you might believe from Instagram, charcuterie boards do not traditionally feature any cheese at all.
Today, things have changed somewhat, and boards featuring both cheese and charcuterie have indeed become a common offering in brasseries and wine bars. But in France, when the two are paired, the board itself stops being called a “charcuterie” board and becomes a more aptly named planche mixte, or mixed board.
TL;DR: Cheese is not, nor has it ever been, charcuterie.
4. “French cheese is vegetarian.”
As with most cheeses around the world, French cheese is made with rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of young calves, kids, and lambs. The enzyme is what causes the curds of cheese to separate from the whey—and it cannot be harvested without killing the young animal.
Modern cheesemakers in countries other than France often use other sources of rennet, such as microbial rennet derived from fungi or vegetal rennet from thistles, to coagulate their cheeses. In France, explains Mons Formation cheese educator Susan Sturman, ACS CCP, CCSE, anything but animal rennet is forbidden for the 46 AOP cheeses. Meanwhile, for non-AOP cheeses, many of the veggie-friendly rennets permitted abroad are prohibited in France. Though there are some cheeses that, in France, would have traditionally been made via lactic fermentation, producers today usually add a touch of animal rennet to ensure that fermentation gets off to an excellent start. So, to put it simply: No, most french cheeses are not vegetarian.
5. “Cheese is best paired with red wine.”
Experts are divided as to how the tradition of drinking cheese with red wine came about. Some point to the fact that when cheese was served at the end of the meal, most would happily continue quaffing whatever bottle accompanied the main; others point to World War I, when soldiers were given a ration of 25 centiliters of red wine, which they ate with Camembert. Regardless of how the tradition took hold, experts agree that cheese is rarely happily paired with vin rouge. “Tannins in red wine can often exacerbate the salt in cheese and overwhelm its flavors,” explains Greco. “Light reds can work, however, I think white wine, generally, is an easier, more friendly choice.”
If you think outside the wine bubble, there are other cheese-friendly choices too. Beer and cider both make excellent pairings for a large variety of cheeses, while there is nothing that doesn’t pair with Champagne, it’s particularly well-suited for washed-rind delicacies.
6. “The French resist foreign cheeses.”
It’s easy to paint a portrait of the French as being too proud for imported fromage, but this is far from the case. Nathalie Quatrehomme—who, with her brother, owns their family’s eponymous cheese shops in Paris,—notes that their cheese case always boasts a selection of foreign cheeses, such as Wisconsin-made Bellavitano Espresso, a cheddar-Parmesan hybrid rubbed in coffee, or English blue Stichelton, a raw milk Stilton.
“It’s more foreigners who are attached to the idea of discovering French cheese, because they’re in France,” she says. “That’s understandable. But our clientele of Parisian regulars are very open to discoveries, no matter where they come from.”
7. “It’s illegal to bring French cheese back to the U.S. with you.”
American laws state that you can bring solid French dairy (aka cheese and butter) back for the purposes of personal consumption—with a handful of exceptions. Cheeses in brine like feta and mozzarella are not allowed, nor are any cheeses containing meat. (Though with the exception of bacon-wrapped goat cheeses, you’d be hard-pressed to find many examples of the latter in France.)
For ease of transport, you can always ask your cheesemonger to package your choices sous-vide (vacuum-sealed), which means they’re less likely to stink up your luggage on the way home.