For the dairy lover, strolling through any French market’s cheese aisle is a thing of beauty. Well-known standards such as brie, camembert, and chèvre reign supreme; found in many varieties and dishes around the country, this trifecta has rightly earned their place of prominence. For those looking for something different, though, there are thousands of other, lesser-known types of cheese and varieties available. Thus we present five off-beat French cheeses, curated by Paris docent Preston Mohr of Paris by the Glass, and which he often shares on our Baguette to Bistro: Culinary Traditions of Paris walk.
- Morbier: This widely-available semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the Franche-Comté region is recognizable by a thin layer of ash running through its middle. Often mistaken for a vein of mold, the ash was used historically to preserve a fresh layer of cheese before the second layer was added. This is true of Morbier. Preston shares that, because of a tax related to volume of production, cheese makers would milk their cows in the morning, form the cheese, add the ash layer and call this their production for the day. However, they were also milking cows in the evening as well and would use that milk to make the second layer of cheese, on top of the ash layer.
- St Nicolas de la Dalmerie: Produced at a monastery in Dalmerie, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, this iconic brick of semi-soft goat cheese is Preston’s favorite. It is notable for its distinctive herb flavor due to the goats’ grazing on wild thyme, which perfumes the milk.
- Banon: Also known as Banon à la feuille, this circular goat’s cheese comes from the town of Banon in Provence, just north of Aix. Its pungent, intense flavor comes from the chestnut leaves in which the cheese is wrapped (“à la feuille”) before being aged.
- Maroilles: Found in the Picardy region of northern France, this rectangular cow’s milk cheese gets its unique and strong flavor from the ageing process, in which the rind is washed with brine and local alcohol – including beer, wine, and in some cases, champagne.
- Brillat-Savarin: Invented in the 1930s by Androuet – a famous cheese shop which we visit on our Baguette to Bistro walk – this buttery, creamy cheese is produced in the Ile-de-France region and named after 18th-century lawyer/politician-turned-gastronome, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. His book, The Physiology of Taste, contains observations and meditations on everything from drinking, sleeping, fasting, dealing with a sweet tooth, and more; it elevated the importance of choosing pleasing food and influenced a new era of restaurant-goers at the beginning of the 19th century. If you’re wondering what to pair with this cheese, Preston says, “Most automatically associate French cheeses with red wine. However, in the case of Brillat-Savarin (or any other creamy, soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert), I would always opt for a white wine. More specifically, the refreshing sparkle of a champagne or a more affordable sparkling Crémant d’Alsace would be a perfect match. Most sparkling wines have a naturally high level of acidity which offers palate cleansing when eating foods that are rich, salty, creamy or fried. Bubbles and most cheeses go remarkably well together and are often overlooked when it comes to cheese and wine pairing!”
Next time you find yourself debating between a traditional chèvre or a Banon, a brie or a Brillat-Savarin, we encourage you to try the road less traveled. Do you have a favorite off-beat cheese not listed here? Share with us in the comments below.