The cheeses of Southern France are notable not only for their distinctive flavors, but also for being among the most ancient cheeses in the world. From the rocky plateaus of the Rouergue to the soaring heights of the Pyrenees, this region has been a cheesemaking powerhouse for, well, over a thousand years.
In the western part of the country, on the border of Spain is the ancient homeland of the Basque people. This fiercely independent culture has inhabited this remote mountainous region since before the era of written history.
Basque cheeses are made primarily of sheep’s milk in the western part of the region, in the area around Béarn. When it comes to the world’s oldest cheeses, the Basques proudly proclaim theirs have been made using the same recipes for over 4,000 years. They refer to their cheeses as Ardi-Gasna (AR-dee GAHZ-nah), meaning “our local cheese.” The French refer to them as “Brebis,” the French word for sheep.
Perhaps the regions’ most famous cheese, Ossau Iraty (OH-soh ear-ah-TEE), is made during the relatively short late-winter to mid-summer milking season. The pressed curd cheeses are aged four to six months, resulting in a firm, dense texture with a flavor that is the epitome of savory, simultaneously showing notes of nuts, olives and fruity overtones. Another notable regional sheep’s milk cheese is P’tit Basque. Easily available and quite delicious, this is a great alternative when Ossau Iraty is not in stock.
Brebis (BRAY-bee) is perhaps the perfect picnic cheese, pairing well with other savory items like salami or ham along with fresh or pickled vegetables and olives. Red wine makes a lovely accompaniment to the richness of the cheese. Choose smooth, fruity varieties like Rhone- or Bordeaux-style blends.
Looking north-eastward to the Auvergne and Rouergue regions, we arrive at the epicenter of the fine French blue cheeses. The remoteness, mountainous rocky terrain and natural caves of the area make this the undisputed blue cheese capital of the world, home to a bevy of famous blues: Fourme d’Ambert, Bleu d’Auvergne and the king of French blues, Roquefort.
Fourme d’Ambert (FOORM-dom-BARE) is a drum-shaped cow’s milk cheese with a natural rind, an earthy, mellow flavor and an ancient recipe, which pre-dates English Stilton, a similar cheese with a more crumbly texture. Fourme d’Ambert is particularly moist and almost fudge-like, with a palate-coating, melting quality that is quite memorable. It is one of the lesser-known French blues, but should be on every aficionado’s short list.
Bleu d’Auverne (BLUH-doh-VAIRN) is a more recent creation, developed in the 1850s by French cheesemaker Antoine Roussel; he is credited with the development of using natural blue molds occurring on rye bread to inoculate cheeses. This technique, in addition to piercing wheels to introduce oxygen to the interior, led to a renaissance in blue cheesemaking craft which, prior to the discovery, had been a less scientific process with blue veining appearing, or not, as the cheese gods willed.
The flavor of cow’s milk Bleu d’Auvergne is assertive and bold, with a creamy, buttery texture and a straightforward, uncomplicated flavor. It is a relative deal in the cheese case and makes fine dressings and toppings for salad as well as an accompaniment for pasta.
Perhaps the most well-known blue in the world hails from just south of the Auvergne in the Rouergue region from the famous caves of Cambalou in the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. In 1411, the people of the village were granted exclusive right by King Charles VI to make and age the cheese.
All Roquefort (ROKE-uh-furt) must be made using milk from the Lacaune, Manech or Basco-Béarnaise breeds of sheep from 2,100 local farms. Sheep are grazed on the Larzac Plain and in the surrounding hills and produce famously rich milk, ideal for Roquefort production.
Roquefort cultures have traditionally been produced from a special, local rye grain grown on the plains of Lévézou. The rye is baked into large loaves, which are left to produce the famous blue-green mold that is then dried and used to inoculate the cheese.
Today, this ancient cheese has only seven producers, who share space in the multi-level caves where all aging, packaging and business occurs. The caves are well known for their air currents, or fleurines, which keep a constant moisture and temperature levels that encourage the growth of blue veining and perfect the cheese during its minimum three-month aging.
Roquefort is arguably the strongest, most intensely flavored of the blue cheeses. It is high in moisture with an ivory-colored paste that produces an explosion of flavor progression, ranging from piquant and earthy, to salty, savory and somewhat smoky, and finishing buttery and sweet. There are few foods that have such a powerful set of flavors and complexity.
Due to their intensity and salty overtones, blue cheeses pair well with sweet foods and beverages. Accompaniments like figs, pears, dried apricots and honey make worthy pairing partners.
One of the most well-known of all cheese and wine pairings is Roquefort with Sauternes, but any late harvest vintage will work well as a foil to the intensity of a variety of blue cheeses. The pairing makes a fabulous dessert course. Red wines can be fantastic with bold, intense flavors in the wine going toe to toe with the bold cheese flavors. Wines with an abundance of tannins can make the cheese taste metallic or bitter and should be avoided.
In a country just slightly smaller than the state of Texas, the sheer variety and complexity of the cheeses of France is unparalleled throughout the world. Those seeking unsurpassed quality and the cheesemaking know-how of the ages need look no further than the French section of the cheese case to be wowed by the best the cheese world has to offer.
Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. She currently serves as the Vice President of the American Cheese Society and welcomes cheesy questions at email@example.com .
Savor French Brebis with a wedge of Ossau Iraty or P’tit Basque. Contrast the smooth, savory flavor of the Basque cheese with the powerful punch of a selection of blues from south-central France. Be sure to have a selection of big, fruity reds and at least one sweet white wine on hand for your pairing party along with sweet seasonal fruits and some savory items as well.