The secret to a perfect French cheese board isn’t your shopping ability to find a wooden board or platter of the right dimensions. French gastronomic experts may say that presentation is key when serving food, but in this case, it is the cheese that is the star. (And plus, I will help you with the perfect cheese board later!)
Living in Paris, I have to admit that making the perfect French cheese board is quickly solved by walking over to the fromagerie (cheese shop) and asking the store assistant for help.
But if you don’t live near a fromagerie, and are navigating the cheese aisle yourself at your local grocery store, a few quick tips will help you combine the perfect cheeses for your get-together. You can choose to combine the cheeses with a charcuterie board and crudités platter, or serve the cheeses by themselves.
☞ READ MORE: Cheese Etiquette Guide: 14 tips à la française
1. Stay away from Industrial Cheeses
There are over 1600 types of cheeses in France. French cheeses are typically made from the milk of cows, goat, and sheep (no yak cheeses here!)
World War II hero (and later President) Charles de Gaulle famously asked how he was expected to preside over a people that had so many cheeses. Since there are so many varieties of French cheeses, we can break them down into categories to determine quality:
- Fermier (farmhouse): which is produced on the farm where the milk is produced.
- Artisanal: small producers using milk from their own farm, or nearby local farms.
- Coopérative: local milk producers in an area that have joined to produce cheese.
- Industriel: factory-made cheese
Obviously, if you are putting together an elegant cheese platter, try to stay away from the industrial emmentals and the like. If possible, look for cheeses that have the following letters on their packaging:
- AOC – Appellations d’origine contrôlée
- AOP – Appellations d’origine protégée
These are designations given by the French government to producers who are following established standards of quality and production. With international trade agreements, the designations apply and protect French cheeses which are exported all over the world. So you should be able to find this at finer grocery stores near you.
2. Pick a variety of cheese flavors
In terms of the actual cheeses to pick, you should aim to get at least 1 variety of each type of cheese, with a minimum of 3 cheeses from the following:
- Soft cheeses – Camembert, Brie, Reblochon, Vieux Boulogne
- Hard cheeses – Comté, Etorki, Gruyère, Mimolette, Beaufort
- Goat cheeses – Tomme de chèvre, Sainte-Maure, Crottin de Chavignol, Valençay
- Blue cheeses – Roquefort, Bleu d’Auvergne
You don’t have to go for the obscure cheeses, the trick is to get a good mix of the basics, and then add one or two more interesting varieties. You can read more about the most popular types of cheeses in France here.
3. Vary the shape and colors
In addition, go for cheeses that present in different shapes, such as square, rounds, or triangles. For example, the camembert and brie are white and round while the Valençay has a dark grey rind and looks like a truncated pyramid.
Avoid sliced cheeses as these usually indicate industrial or processed cheeses, rather than finer artisanal ones. (Unless you are going to slice them yourself, but really there is no need!
4. Get an odd number of cheeses
For presentation purposes, your cheese board should have an odd number of cheeses, rather than even so that it looks artfully uncoordinated. The secret is going for that casual “je ne sais quoi“, even if you spent a lot of time putting the cheese board together!
By the same token, if the cheese comes in a wooden box like the camembert, serve it with the wooden box. (If you want a warm dish, you can even prepare a baked camembert.)
5. Types of bread
You can’t have French cheeses without baguette, or can you? If fresh baguettes are not easy to find where you are (and who has time to go to the boulangerie every day!), sourdough bread is a great substitute.
If you are serving your cheese platter at the end of the meal, you don’t need multiple types of bread. Just one will do.
But if you are serving it as an appetizer at an apéro, you can vary the flavors. Get at least 2 types of bread such as rye bread, multigrain bread, or any other type of bread with a little bit of crust.
6. Add something sweet
When nibbling on a cheese plate, proper etiquette is to start with the mildest cheese first and work your way to the strongest. Nevertheless, your cheese plate needs a sweetish palate cleanser, which also looks great in the presentation.
Fruit such as grapes or sliced apples adds a pop of color that you can arrange on a tray, while tasting great as well.
A few raisins or my personal favorite fig jam, is also excellent. For those with a sweet tooth, a little serving cup of honey could be just the thing. Add a small condiment dish with several varieties to give your guests plenty of choice.
7. Don’t forget the salty
Finally, to counteract the sweet, you need something salty. If you are adding an array of charcuterie to your cheese platter, your problem is solved. Even if you are, you can still add a few olives, peanuts or even some boursin herbed cheese.
☞ READ MORE: ABC of French Cuisine (the Food Dictionary)
When to serve the cheese board?
In France, a full cheese board with all the whistles is not so much an appetizer, as it is an apéro. Friends gathering in bars in Paris will just order a cheese and charcuterie platter and nibble on that all evening long. A casual apéro dinatoire where no main meal afterwards, starts early and ends late and so the cheese plate can be served whenever you wish.
If you are serving a full meal, the cheese board is usually served after the main course, but before dessert. This presumes that people have already eaten enough during the main meal, and are using it as a bit of a palate cleanser before the dessert. In this case, you should stick to the 4 basic types of cheeses rather than getting too creative.
If you are serving your cheese plate after dinner, do not add anything salty since your cheese plate is going to be followed by dessert. A few grapes, on the other hand, are perfect.
What drinks should you serve with it?
There are many wines that go well with a cheese plate. You can create a theme by sticking to wines from the same French region as the cheeses you have selected. Select a stronger tasting wine, such as one of the following:
- White wines: Sancerre, Alsace Pinot Blanc, Chablis, Pouilly Fumé
- Red wines: Alsace Pinot Noir, Médoc, Bordeaux, Brouilly, Chinon
If you are serving the cheese platter as an apéro, you can also serve it with a classic French aperitif such as Pineau de Charentes (from Cognac), or a Dubonnet. You can read more about wine and cheese pairings here.
How to make a French cheese board
- 1 soft cheese (camembert, brie, reblochon, vieux boulogne, époisses de bourgogne)
- 1 hard cheese (comté, etorki, gruyère, mimolette, beaufort)
- 1 goat cheese (tomme de chèvre, sainte-maure, crottin de chavignol, valençay)
- 1 blue cheese (roquefort, bleu d’auvergne)
Bread (pick any 2)
- Sliced sourdough bread
- Sliced rye bread
- Sliced multi-grain bread
Sweet (pick any 2)
- Apple slices
- Small serving cup of fig jam
Salty (Pick any 1)*
- Nuts (peanuts, almonds, or pistachios)
- Salted butter
- Small serving cup of extra virgin olive oil
- Pick a minimum of 3 cheeses, varying in shapes and shades of yellow.
- Remove from the fridge and the plastic wrapping about 15 minutes before serving.
- Arrange the cheeses in the center of the board, surrounded by the sweet and salty accompaniments.
- Serve with wine.
Please note: We are not certified nutritionists and these estimates are approximate. Each individual’s dietary needs and restrictions are unique to the individual.
You are ultimately responsible for all decisions pertaining to your health. This website is written and produced for entertainment purposes only.
☞ READ MORE: Do you know how to cut the cheese?
If you enjoyed that, check out how to put together a classic French charcuterie board, the easy way. Bon appétit and à bientôt!