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French Soft-ripened cheese

Detalle del Puesto de Embutidos del Mercado de Saint Jean de Luz
Creative Commons License photo credit: jlastras

By Bill Anderson, Apprentice Wisconsin Cheesemaker

From the plains of Normandy, to the mountains of Champagne and Alsace, to the Loire Valley, there are many traditional French cheeses characterized by their soft, runny, creamy texture.  They fall into two main categories: bloomy-rind and washed-rind.


French Camembert cheese

Camembert de Normandie and Brie de Meaux are bloomy-rinded, with the white “bloom” or mold on the surface that creates hay and cauliflower aromas.  On the other hand, Munster (made in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, along the French-German border) is a washed-rind cheese, with a reddish-orange “schmear” that creates yeasty and pungent aromas.  Also included in this category are various types of ripened chevre — soft goat cheeses with a bloomy rind of geotrichum candidum, a yeast which compliments the “goaty” character of the cheese.

The purpose of the bloom or schmear, in these soft-ripened cheese, is to ripen the cheese.  When young they have a crumbly texture and acidic taste, but as they ripen, the body of the cheese becomes soft and gooey, as the cultures on the rind break down the proteins in the cheese into flavor and aromatic compounds.  The cheeses are essentially “pre-digested” by these cultures, which are also good pro-biotics.


French Munster, much different than its bland American counterpart

Unlike the alpine cheese made in the mountains, these cheeses do not need to last for a long time.  They were peasant cheeses, made as a way to temporarily preserve milk and efficiently bring it to local farmers markets where the cheese would be consumed quickly.  Soft-ripened cheeses have a window of “peak” flavor and aroma which is relatively short.  Knowing when each type of cheese reaches its peak is a refined artform in itself, which experienced cheesemongers (cheese sales person) learn to master.

Unfortunately, most these types of cheeses are aged less than 60 days, so we can’t readily get them in the United States.  There are many pasteurized imitators available at higher-end grocery stores and specialty shops in America, but they pale in comparison to the raw milk equivalents.

I am a firm believer that one of the goals of the raw milk movement must be to also legalize fresh and soft-ripened raw milk cheeses in the U.S.  These represent some of the best cheeses, and an opportunity for farmers to produce an artisanal vaue-added product which can be quickly turned around and sold to eager local consumers.  From a food safety perspective, these cheeses are inherently safer than just plain fluid raw mik (so long as they are produced and aged in a clean and sanitary way), because the process of acidifying, draining, and salting the curd all select against bad bacteria in favor of the good ones.

These cheeses are usually served with a nice white wine or lighter red wine, to compliment the flavor of the cheese.  Usually French Bread goes nicely with them.  Personally, I like a Belgian-style beer with these kinds of cheeses.

Tomorrow we will close the series with English Territorial Cheeses.

See yesterday’s post on Switzerland: Gruyere and other Alpine Cheeses

Bill Anderson is 25 year old apprentice cheese maker living in Madison, WI.  Born in Wisconsin, and raised on lots of Wisconsin cheese, he became interested in raw milk and artisan dairy in his early 20’s, at local farmer’s markets and local food functions.  Bill worked for a number of years as a cheese monger, and is now poised to begin producing his own brand of artisan raw milk cheese with milk from some of the best organic and sustainable Wisconsin dairy farms.


  1. Emily Gonyer says:

    I’m just now reading through your mini-series on aritsan european cheeses… and your making me homesick for Spain! I lived there for 9 months in 2005/2006 and one of the things I miss the most is the small shops everywhere selling dozens apon dozens of different kinds of cheese and aged meats…. Jamon Iberico, Jamon Serano… mmm… My mouth waters just thinking of them!

    Anyhow, on a side note, welcome to Ohio! 🙂 We live up in Carroll County, but went to school down in Athens… its a great county & community with lots to do!!


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