Ask someone what French cheese is and you'll hear about Roquefort, Camembert, Brie and maybe Cantal or Epoisses. These are all excellent cheeses, but France has more than a hundred AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée, a governmental guarantee that the product came from the region that produces it) cheeses. Dive into these five cheeses next time you're at a good cheese shop, and vive la France!
1. Pont l'Évêque
Normandy is known for apples and dairy, so it should be no shock that les Normands produce some of the best cheese in France. The (to my mind) best of the Norman cheeses is Pont l'Évêque, made in a small and impossibly picturesque village (see above) just south of the expensive beach resort city of Deauville. It's square and its rind looks like Brie, but the interior is so rich it's nearly buttery, with only a faint smell. This, a glass of Quincy and some pain de campagne and you've got lunch.
Plus ça pue, plus c'est bon is the French motto for cheese: the more it stinks, the better it is. The Norman cheese known as Livarot smells awful, like a manure pile, but like durian, the taste is much milder than the scent. The rind is washed with annatto, which makes it orange, and the outside is tied with bulrush leaves (you know, like where Moses was found).
3. Brie de Melun
All real Brie--that is, French Brie, not American Brie-style cheese--comes from a region just 20 miles outside of Paris. Two cities have A.O.C. status, Meaux and Melun, but most of what we get in the United States is Brie de Meaux, very near Disneyland Paris. Brie de Melun, however, is made about 40 miles southwest of Meaux, on the other side of the Brie region, and is stronger, softer, yellower and much, much better with a glass of Côtes-du-Rhône.
4. Tomme de Savoie
The low-fat cheese of France is made in the French Alps, near the Swiss border, from skim milk. It's a semi-hard white cheese with a deceptively mild flavor that makes it not a wonderful candidate for a cheese plate; its reason for existence is to be melted, especially with mashed potatoes to make the thick, stick-to-your-ribs goop known in Auvergne as aligot.
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The outside is firm, orange-brown and looks dusty; the interior is very thin and creamy, with an appealing hazelnut flavor. While its traditional use is in tartiflette, a heart-stopping combination of cream, potatoes and country ham, it's the second most-popular cheese on pizza in France after mozzarella.