One of the most well-known French cheeses internationally is sure to be Roquefort, a salty blue cheese made from sheep’s milk. I live in Roquefort. But not that one. I live in Roquefort les Pins – Roquefort the Pines, named after the abundance of majestic pine trees in the forest around us – situated in the Alpes-Maritimes on the Côte d’Azur near Nice. The Roquefort town, of the cheese fame, is in the Aveyron département near Millau and is actually called Roquefort sur Soulzon. Only cheese produced there, aged in the Combalou caves can be called Roquefort. It has what’s called AOC status (more on that later) and is nothing to do with my little Roquefort. So just as I get called “Lou” a lot I also get plenty of comments on my Facebook page about how much people love “my” cheese! Now you know the difference, I’m glad I’ve cleared that up!
My area of France is actually one of the least cheesey areas in the country. We have no dairy around here, just goats and some sheep higher up in the mountains. So it’s these animals who provide the milk for the nearest local cheeses. There are a couple of farms in the vacinity that produce delicious fresh creamy chèvre, (goat’s cheese) which comes in a variety of ways, such as covered in pepper, herbs or even petals. They are all generically called “chèvre”, no distinguishing names here.
Perhaps the most well-known cheese in the area comes from the mountains North-West of Roquefort les Pins in the Alpes of Haute Provence, though its fame is relative and I doubt many people outside France have heard of it. It’s called Banon, and is, not surprisingly, a goat’s cheese. Its particularity is that it is wrapped in chestnut leaves tied with a piece of natural raffia. It also has AOC status, just like Roquefort cheese.
So what is AOC? AOC (Appellation d’origine côntrolée – controlled designation of origin) is the certification of a geographical denomination used to refer to a product which comes from a particular place and whose qualities and nature are exclusively due to this place. It is most commonly used for wines and cheese though it also applies to some meat, butter and honey, and even lavender and lentils! It ensures a strict quality control and that copies can’t be made. Roquefort was the first cheese to receive the AOC label in 1925.
Getting back to my part of France, another cheese found in Provence is Brousse, a soft, grainy cheese a little like ricotta. Originally from Marseille and originally made from goat’s milk, it is now produced in various parts of Provence and Corsica and can be made from ewe, cow or goat’s milk. It is in the process of applying for AOC status but doesn’t have it yet. Brousse is relatively uncommon and I think I could go as far as to say that most French haven’t even heard of it. If you do come across it, try it stuffed in courgette flowers or drizzled with honey. It is delicious served sweet or savoury.
Have you heard of or eaten any of these cheeses? Do you have a favourite cheese or does your area produce a special one? Do tell!