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Monday, October 1, 2012

Buying Cheese in France. Bringing French Cheese Home and a Lexicon for buying French Cheese.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated October 2016

Inside a Parisian Fromagerie.
Photograph by courtesy of Sheffieldhammer.

The  cheese buying lexicon is one-third 
of the way down this post

Buying cheese in France to take home.
When I am flying home from France, with enough time for a last stop in Paris or another city, I will go to a good French cheese shop; their signs will note fromagerie or crèmerie. There, in a specialized cheese shop, I can buy cheeses that are rarely sold at home.  Soft yellow French cheeses will be selected with care, one  cheese for the day after my trip and others for various intervals up to two weeks ahead in winter and a few days ahead in summer. Hard and semi-hard French cheeses will be bought after I have tasted and chosen a few; at least one will be a new cheese for me, one that I may consider adding to my regular favorites.  All the cheeses will be vacuum packed for traveling. All the larger French cheese shops offer vacuum packing, and that is essential for anyone traveling with soft cheeses and the only way to travel with certain rather odorous cheeses. Cheese should never be frozen for storage or for travel; with one or two exceptions freezing destroys the taste of a cheese.

Choose your cheese.
Photograph courtesy of nguyenduong.
Where to buy French cheese to take home.
Large French supermarkets have serviced cheese departments with knowledgeable staff behind the counter; however, specialist cheese shops, fromageries or crèmeries are where you are most likely to find well-trained English speaking staff.  You do need expert advice on buying French cheese to take home on a first visit; you may also need that advice in English.  France has nearly 400 registered kinds of cheeses, and some cheeses may be produced in tens of dairies and hundreds of farms.  It can be similar to buying a wine with a name that you know, but from an unknown winery; then a knowledgeable sales assistant’s advice is essential. In the specialized cheese shops, they know their cheeses' and the producers, and they will explain not only the difference in price but the differences in taste. In many cases if you seem like a serious customer you may be offered a taste of two seemingly similar cheeses. Of all the cheeses 46 have the AOP label,
Buying soft white cheeses
Fresh white cheeses are sold by cheese shops within 48 hours from the day they are received; however, these you are not advised to take home.  In most countries, the personal import of fresh soft cheeses is forbidden. As a rule of thumb soft cheeses and cheeses packed in brine, etc. are prohibited imports.
Buying soft yellow cheeses
Soft yellow cheeses,  and by that I mean ripe yellow cheeses like Camembert and Brie, will have been matured by the farmer or dairy to a stage where a cheese shop may buy them. The cheese shop will then allow these cheeses to continue to mature until needed in their cool, temperature controlled, cellar. In France, soft yellow cheeses are sold by the day the customer plans to eat them; you will need the advice of the shop's sales assistant to know when a soft and nearly ripe yellow cheese will be ready. If you want a cheese for this evening or a cheese to be ready in three days, ten days or three weeks, and request it, then in France, that is what you will receive. 
The 60 day requirement for importing unpasteurized cheeses into the USA.
These cheeses, when made with unpasteurized milk, and the best are, are not allowed into the USA.  Only cheeses made with unpasteurized milk that have been aged for more than 60 days may be imported into the USA.   The UK, being part of the European Union,  allows the entry of all French cheeses made with unpasteurized milk without age requirements. However, all is not lost; French cheese shops in the larger cities do offer a number of the same cheeses made with pasteurized milk especially for export. N. B. If you buying a cheese made with unpasteurized milk that meets the 60 day age requirement for the USA  make 100% sure that the box or label clearly notes the dates.  No clear date, do not buy.

A ripe soft-yellow cheese.
Photograph courtesy of Unspeakably Awesome.
Checking what cheeses you may take home.

Always check your home country’s customs website before buying cheeses to take home.   Keep a copy of those regulations handy when you buy cheese to take home. 
Hard and semi-hard cheeses are commonly allowed as are soft yellow cheeses like camembert and pre-packed spreadable cheeses if they are made with pasteurized milk.

What cheeses may you take on the plane?

Do not pack any type of soft cheese in your carry-on; soft cheeses are treated like creams and pastes with only small quantities allowed in a carry-on. Make sure that the packaging is clearly marked.
How to store your cheese when you get home.
Cheeses that are not entirely ripe and still need a few days to mature when taken home may be kept in the refrigerator for a few days; there they will keep but not mature. To mature a nearly ripe cheese choose a cool cellar, that is all that is required. However, cool cellars are rarely available in apartment blocks, and even homes with cellars can have cooling problems in the summer.  Those who, like me, have no access to a cool cellar will always have a problem.  In the winter, when the temperature is still far above freezing then soft-yellow cheeses will mature on the window ledge.  Any cool place that is not freezing or warm will allow your cheese to mature slowly over a week or two. In the summer, I buy cheeses that will be ready in two or three days and store them in the refrigerator; there I know they will not mature; but  I  do take them out one or two days before serving,  allowing  them to rest and mature in as cool a place as I can find.

For those who have wine refrigerators.

 Acquaintances with wine refrigerators have shown that these are an excellent alternative to a cool cellar and most soft cheeses will mature at anywhere from 12 – 14 degrees Celsius, (53 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit).  The books will tell you that certain cheeses need temperatures and different degrees of humidity to mature perfectly. However, unless your cheese purchases are a  professional dairy project a degree or two off the optimum  will not matter. In the wine refrigerator, set a small bowl of water and refill it from time to time. That is all that is required for maturing cheeses for a period of up to one month. We are not professional cheese producers, but we can still mature cheeses for short periods and enjoy them. When I have found a place for a wine refrigerator that will not be in our living room or entrance hall I will buy one.

Buying hard or medium to hard cheeses.
The buying and storing of hard or medium-to-hard cheeses are much less demanding. Nevertheless, choosing a hard to medium-to-hard cheese that you wish to take home requires your prior knowledge, or a cheesemonger's experience, when you buy. A hard cheese may be mature and ready to eat, but there are significant differences in taste between the same hard and or medium hard cheese bought when it was young and aged for three months and the same cheese matured for six months or a year.  This is where you ask you can request a taste of two identically named cheeses with different ages to make your choice. Most French cheese shops are used to their customers asking for slivers of cheese to taste.  When you reached home these cheeses,  if well-wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in a sealed container, will keep well in an ordinary refrigerator, but never a freezer, for one or two months or longer.
About the cheese lexicon below.
Included in the lexicon are the words you may see on a French restaurant menu or hear when the server offers you a choice of cheese from a cheese trolley.  You will hear, or use, more of these words in a French cheese shop.  I have included only the words that are necessary for choosing and buying cheese along with some suggestions that are based on my own experiences. With the words in this lexicon, 99% of all French cheeses may be purchased.

Connected posts
After the lexicon, there is a list of connected posts with a number of popular French cheeses that give more in-depth detail.
N.B. Cheeses with the same name may be made with different kinds of milk.
Many French cheeses are available with more than one type of milk. Even at home, there will be locally made cow’s milk and goat’s milk Camembert cheese on supermarket shelves.  In France, many named cheeses are available with a variety of milks, and that will create different tastes; reading the labels carefully and asking for more information will ensure your correct personal choice.
The Cheese Lexicon.

Brebis – Sheep’s milk cheeses.
Bufflonne – European buffalo’s milk cheeses.
Chèvre – Goat’s milk cheeses.
Vache – Cow’s milk cheeses.
Affinage -  The time taken for maturing a cheese; anywhere from ten days to six months or more.

Maturing French Gruyere Cheeses.
Photograph by courtesy of Simon Bonaventure.
Assiette de Fromage – A cheese plate; a plate, in a restaurant with a selected group of two to four cheeses; they will have been chosen for you. 
Beurre  -  Butter. For the different types of butter sold in France see the post:  Beurre - Butter in French. Butter in French Cuisine.
Brebis - A sheep, a female, an ewe.  Brebis will also be the name on the packaging, or on a French restaurant menu for any sheep’s cheese. Worry not, when lamb is on the menu the word used will be agneaux.
Buche - A log. Quite a number of cheeses, especially goat’s cheeses are shaped like small logs, and so the word buche will often be part of a log-shaped cheese’s name.
Bufflonne – A water buffalo; in France, this indicates the European water buffalo. Water buffalo milk with its high-fat content and is a favorite for some special cheeses including the original Italian mozzarella cheese. Today buffalo milk cheeses are both made in France and imported from Italy. 
Caillebotte – A fresh, creamy, traditional, farm-produced goat’s cheese; made with pasteurized milk and with a fat content that may vary from 30% - 60%.  Most Caillebotte cheeses come from the région of Poitou-Charentes; I have included this cheese by name as there are similar cheeses produced elsewhere, some with unpasteurized milk and under different names.  There is also a cow’s milk farm cheese with the same name made in Bretagne, Brittany. These are not cheeses you are likely to take home, but one of these cheeses may well be on the menu in a country restaurant.
Caillé  - Cheese curds. Curds are part of the cheese making process and may be sold as such before they are used to make cheese; curds have their own followers.
Camembert  - Camembert is included here as an example of how to buy soft yellow cheeses.
In the few cases where your home country custom's website explicitly forbids the import of semi-hard or soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, then the  Normandie Camembert AOC cheeses and the best Bries you may need to omit from your shopping list.  Despite that, French Camembert cheeses and other soft yellow cheeses, made with pasteurized milk are available in France.

Camembert de Normandie AOC
Photograph courtesy of gcorrin.
 Camembert au Lait Cru – Camembert made with unpasteurized milk. If the shop or supermarket making this claim were selling the very very best, then that would be a Normandie Camembert AOC.
 Camembert au Lait Cru Moulé à la Louche – This is just supermarket or cheese shop advertising!  This advert describes a Camembert cheese made with unpasteurized milk and prepared on the ladle. Those extra words moulé à la louche, molded on the ladle, may make you feel that you are being offered something special.  Do not pay more for this; all unpasteurized Camembert cheeses are made this way in any case!
Carré  - A square; used in some cheese names.
Chèvre – A goat. Goat’s cheeses include many cheeses where the taste and texture change noticeably over time, and to buy correctly you will need a professional’s advice.  A young goat’s cheese may be smooth and mild if matured for only ten or fourteen days; the same cheese matured for three months will have a completely different taste and texture, many will have a bite.  Matured goat's cheeses include some of France's best cheeses. However, the uninitiated may be surprised that they have that bite, so be prepared and enjoy. To read more about one of France's most famous goat's cheese read the post on Rocamadour.
Croûte, (La) - The rind of the cheese itself, most cheese rinds though not all, are edible; under the rind is la pâte, the pate, the cheese itself.
Crémerie  - A cheese shop, also called a Fromagerie.
Dégustation A  tasting.
Double-crème - Double-cream cheeses; these cheeses have 60% or more fat. The fat in a French cheese in French is called the matière grasse, and that word with its percentage will be on the label. When the cheese has over 75% fat, it becomes, in France, a triple crème. 
 Many visitors to France are shocked by the high-fat contents on many of France’s most beloved cheeses. Despite those numbers, consider, for a moment, how the French eat cheese. A serving of a cheese course in a restaurant with three or possibly four small servings will usually weigh less than 30 grams (1 ounce) altogether. At a private home, a cheese course may be two kinds of cheese, and they will probably weigh less than 20 grams each.
Eat cheese like a French man or French woman, once or twice a week and 20 grams ( 2/3 of an ounce). Then you may enjoy high-fat cheeses and hardly make a dent in your total calorie or saturated fat count.   
Eau-de-vie  -  Fruit or wine alcohol.  Many French cheeses are washed with fruit or wine alcohol while they mature. Alcohol keeps mold away while a cheese matures, and certain alcohols, young fruit and wine brandies, are chosen for the slight taste or aroma they may add to a cheese.
Entre Deux – A description used for cow’s milk cheeses and meaning between the two. The description indicates cheeses matured for 3 to 6 months.
Étuvé MatureMatured.
Faisselle -   A perforated draining mold used for soft cheeses.  Also the name, or part of the name, for some soft white cheeses.
Fait -   A  well aged cheese.
Farandole de Fromage – The cheese trolley in a restaurant.
Fermier – A  farmer.  A fromage fermier is a farm-made cheese.
Feuille  - A Leaf.  Cheeses sold á la feuille are wrapped in leaves.
Fourme – The mold or form in which the cheese is made. Fourme is also part of the name a number of French cheeses.  An example is the Fourme d'Ambert AOC, a light-tasting blue cheese from the area around the town of Ambert in the Auvergne. See my post: The Fourme d'Ambert; More on France's Very Special cheeses.
Fort  – A strong tasting, and a strong smelling cheese.
Frais or Fraiche  - Fresh.
Fromage à Pâte Dure – A very hard cheese; hard like a Parmesan.
 Fromage à Pâte Demi dure or Fromage à Pâte Mi-dure– A semi-hard cheese;  similar to a young cheddar.
Fromage à Pâte Molle – A description for soft yellow-centered yellow cheeses like  Camembert and Brie.

Fromages à Pâte Molle in a French cheese shop.
This photograph shows just a few of the many cheeses in the shop.
Photograph courtesy of Marc Kjerland
Fromage au Choix Your choice of cheeses.
Fromage au Lait Biologique Cheese made with organically produced milk.  These cheeses must have a label clearly showing the mark AB, the initials for France’s government supervised, trusted, and approved green organic farm products; Agriculture Biologique. See the post: Organic Food in France.
Fromage Blanc – A name used for many soft white cheeses. Most of these cheeses are made from skim milk which has no fat.  In a restaurant or a French home, these cheeses are often served as a dessert usually with added fruit, honey or sugar.  These are somewhat bland cheeses, and if the same cheese is available with goat’s or sheep’s milk rather than with cows’ milk, you will have a tastier cheese. N.B. Soft white cheeses do not travel well.

Soft white cheese and strawberries.
Photograph courtesy of MaxLeMans
Fromage de Brebis – Sheep's cheese.
 Fromage de Chèvre – Goat's cheese.
Fromage de Lait Cru – Cheese made with unpasteurized milk. Many traditional French cheeses are only made with unpasteurized milk; however, many well-known French cheeses are also made with pasteurized milk. You will find  many excellent pasteurized cheeses that you will rarely see at home. See the post: Coulommiers is it Really a Brie ? It Tastes Like an Excellent Brie.  

 In France, the absence of health problems from cheeses made with unpasteurized milk shows the high standard of cleanliness, inspection, and control over the herds of animals that produce this important product. The milk used in French cheeses and the inspection of the herds is expensive and specialized. No other country will budget the sums required or invest in a nationwide inspection system as France has done. 
 Slowly,  and internationally,  the unpasteurized cheeses' of France are being recognized for their very high health standards, and hard cheeses are usually already accepted and may be imported, but check your customs web site anyway.
Fromage de Lait Entière – Cow’s milk cheese made with full cream milk. To be called a full-cream milk in the European Union that requires at least 3.5% fat in the milk.
Fromage de Vache – A cow’s milk cheese.
Fromage de Vache et Brebis - A cheese made with the mixed milk of sheep and cows.
Fromage de Tête (Le)This is not a cheese; this is a traditional slightly spiced meat product and in the UK called brawn.  This a traditional product with similar products made in many countries including the USA. Fromage de Tête is the French version and, as in the UK, uses up all the less popular parts of meat and creates an edible and tasty product. Fromage de Tête is a French comfort food and will be on many bistro menus.
Fromage DouxA mild cheese.
Fromage Fermiers– Farm made cheeses. 

Fromages Frais Soft fresh cheeses; these are white cheeses. They do not travel well.
Fromage Gras –  A cheese with 50% to 60% fat. The fat in a cheese will be on the label as a percentage marked Matières Grasse. With over 60% fat, the cheese becomes a Double Crème. (see Double Crème in this lexicon).
Fromage Jeune –  A young cheese. The term is generally used for cow’s milk cheeses that are matured from just one to two months,  and these young will be quite mild.
Fromage MaigreA low fat cheese with less than 20% fat.
Fromage  Mi- chèvre –  A mixed goat’s milk and cow’s milk cheese.

Fromage Persillé – see Fromages à Pâte Persillée in this lexicon.
Fromage Râpée - Grated cheese.
Fromagerie - A cheese shop, also called a Crémerie.  

 A fromagerie.
Photograph courtesy of pietroizzo.
Fromages à Pâte Pressée Non Cuite – A pressed, but not cooked cheese.  This describes the way a particular cheese is made.  Cheeses prepared in this manner include the cow’s milk Saint-Nectaire AOC from the Auvergne and the sheep’s milk cheese the Ossau-Iraty AOC from Ossau valley near Béarn and the Iraty valley in France’s Basque country.
Fromages à Pâte Pressée Cuite – These are hard cheeses such as Gruyère, the Comté AOC the Abondance, AOC and the Abondance de Savoie, AOC. These cheeses go through a relatively robust cooking process followed by pressing. See my post: Great Cheeses of the Savoie I and II, Abondance, AOC and Abondance de Savoie, AOC.
Fromages à Pâte Persillée Blue-veined cheeses. Many of the blue-veined cheeses from the région of Savoie, Savoy, have the word persillé in their name.  Famous cheeses such as the cow’s milk cheese the Bleu d’Auvergne AOC from the Auvergne and the sheep’s cheese Roquefort AOC from the Midi Pyrénées are described, in French as fromages à pâte persillé, blue-veined cheeses.

Fromages Affinés – On your menu for the cheese course. Here a restaurant is offering matured cheeses. This may make the menu sound better, but it is unlikely that immature cheeses would be offered in any case, this is just more menuise!
 Lait Cru - Unpasteurized milk.
Lait de Mélange -  Cheeses made from a mixture of milks.
Louche  - The traditional ladle used to put cheese curds into molds.
Matières Grasse  -  Fat. On a cheese package label, the words matières grasse will be followed by a number indicating the percentage of fat in the cheese.
Mi- chèvre  - A cheese made with at least 50 percent goat's milk, usually the balance will be cow's milk.
Pâte  -   The inside of the cheese, the part inside the rind that we eat. The rind may also be edible.
Persillé -  see Fromage Persillé.

Petit Lait  -  The whey.  The whey is the liquid left after cheese has been curdled and strained.  Other low-fat cheeses will be made with the whey.   The most famous French cheeses made with the whey are the Tomme cheeses, (with two mms). Farm made tommes are available all over France. The most famous Tomme is the Tomme de Savoie AOC.
Tomme de Savoie.
Photograph courtesy of Silverman68. 
Triple crème -Triple cream cheeses. Triple-cream cheeses have 75% or more fat. The fat in a French cheese in French is called the  matière grasse.
Vache - A cow.
Vieux - Old. A description mostly used for cow’s milk cheeses matured from six to twenty-four months. A Vieux Cantal AOC cheese begins with a taste somewhat similar to the taste of mature cheddar. After one year or even older, it becomes unique and difficult to compare. If I must indicate a taste then, I would  place it somewhere between a mature Cheddar and a mature Parmesan.

Connected Posts:

Abondance, AOP andAbondance de Savoie AOP. Great Cheeses of the Savoie, France

Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menus
Copyright  2010, 2014, 2016  
For more information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman