France has been known for its cheese since ancient times, when its Roquefort and Cantal were shipped to Rome for the tables of the rich. The best way to explore this bounty is to visit the fromageries of Paris, many of them operated by merchants who take pride in stocking only the finest cheeses available.
France's famous blue cheese is unique in taste, texture and smell. Made from raw sheep's milk, Roquefort is veined with a distinctive blue mold. A buttery, salty cheese, Roquefort gets more pungent as it ripens, reaching peak maturity at around six months. It is delicious with a glass of Sauternes or a plate of fresh figs.
Brie comes in two main varieties, Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun. Both are buttery, soft cheeses with velvety, white, firm rinds. Made from raw cow's milk, true Bries have a pungent aroma as well as a strong nutty flavor.
Camembert is produced in enormous quantities in France and elsewhere. The industrial versions can be flavorless, however, while a handmade, traditional Camembert, made from the raw milk of Norman cows and covered in a snowy white rind, is a creamy, rich treat.
Made in the Jura Mountains from raw cow's milk, Comte, also known as Gruyere de Comte, is among France's most beloved firm cheeses. During aging, the ring hardens, and the golden cheese becomes firm and chewy.
The raw milk chevre, a mild, mellow cheese, is covered with ash and shaped like a truncated pyramid. Aged in a damp room for a month, Valencay is moist and soft, with an almost powdery finish.
Crottin comes in many varieties, but is always made of goat's milk. Eaten immediately after it sets, it is soft and spreadable. Aged up to six weeks, it develops a harder rind and a crumbly texture.
A semihard, creamy cheese with a washed rind, Reblochon is made in the mountains of the Savoy from cow's milk. During the month-long aging process, the round Reblochon cheeses are turned every two days and washed with whey, giving the rind a firm texture and orange hue.
A sweet, salty and pungent cheese from Burgundy, Epoisses is aged for at least a month. It is a soft, runny cow's milk cheese. The rind is washed in marc, a strong grape spirit, or white wine, which gives the cheese its distinctive taste and red-orange hue.
Made from cow's milk, Saint-Nectaire is a rich, semifirm cheese with a mushroomy smell and a lingering taste of hazelnuts. Its rind is marked by yellow and red mold, which coats the cheese during its six-week aging on rye straw. True Saint-Nectaire always includes a small, green label on its rind that attests to its authenticity.
This slightly sweet goat's milk cheese is recognizable by its tall, cylindrical shape and wrinkled rind. Aged for one to two months, it is eaten either young, when firm and creamy, or ripe, when it begins to crumble and takes on an earthy, buttery taste.
Named for its resemblance to lingot, or gold bar, this light, fresh goat cheese is aged for a minimum of three weeks. It has a soft rind, subtle flavor and exceptionally creamy texture and is best eaten before its stronger counterparts on a cheese platter.
Tomme de Savoie
Relatively low in fat, tomme de Savoie is a semifirm cheese made from the partially skimmed cow's milk left over after making butter. Aged for several months, the cheese has a thick rind with a strong smell. The interior is smooth and almost spongy.