As a country, France easily dominates cheese making throughout the world. Some estimate that French artisan cheese makers produce over 700 different cheeses. By taking advantage of different geographies and climates, they have perfected cheese-making techniques. Interestingly though, many Swiss, German, Italian, and Spanish cheeses are made with the same techniques used in France because the techniques have developed along geographical, rather than political, boundaries.
In talking about central European cheeses then, it makes some sense to speak in terms of geographical regions, such as the Jura region, which spans parts of eastern France and western Switzerland. So, in true tyrophile mode, take a look at central Europe from the point of view of cheese.
The Alsace region is in the northeast corner of France, along the Rhine River, and the cheese-making techniques of this region spread across the Rhine River into Germany, where the geography is made up of floodplains, low hills, forests, and rivers. Cows are the most common dairy herd, and Alsace is where the monks developed Muenster, a washed-rind cheese. Today Alsacian Muenster is a French name-controlled cheese (A.O.C.), although it is also made in Germany, where it is called German Muenster.
What is cheese called in Germany?
Even with its geographical ties to France, the German language developed along Germanic, rather than Latin roots, and because of this cheese is called kase in Germany. In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, cheese is kaase.
The Jura, just south of the Alsace region, runs lengthwise north to south along the southwest edge of Germany, the eastern side of France, and the western side of Switzerland. It is quite mountainous, and dairy herds of cows annually trek from the lowlands to Alpine meadows in summer, then back to the lowlands in the fall.
Cheese making goes back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries of the Jura, and this is where some of the world's largest cheeses are made: 220-pound wheels of Emmental, and 80- to 90-pound wheels of Gruyere and Comte. French cheeses of this type are Beaufort, Comte, and Emmental. Swiss cheeses are Gruyere and Emmental, and the Germans also make an Emmental. Tomme de Savoie, reblechon, and Morbier are made just west of the Jura.
South of the Jura, the Alps border France, Switzerland, and Italy. In Switzerland, this geography mimics the mountainous alpine meadows of the Jura (up to a certain elevation), and along the slopes, you'll find Appen-zellers, raclettes, Tete de Moine, and several Vacherins made with cow's milk. The same geography has produced Italian fontina, Asiago, and Gorgonzola, also made with alpine-meadow-fed cow's milk.
No cheese lover should miss tasting different wheels of Saint Nectaire, a cheese made throughout the Auvergne region west of the Alps. Handmade by dozens of cheese makers who age the wheels on straw beds in caves, each cave produces a unique strain of the same mold, thereby giving each wheel a slightly different aroma and taste.
Brittany and Normandy
The geography of northwestern France (Brittany, Normandy, and Picardi) is defined by the sea, low hills, and rich farmland supporting large herds of cows and sheep able to graze most of the year. As a result, cheese can be made for quick consumption, and some of the most famous bloomy-and washed-rind cheeses originated here. Camembert originated in Normandy, as did Pont l'Eveque and Livarot. Port Salud originated in Brittany, and throughout this region dairy farms and creameries continue to produce a wide assortment of fresh, soft, and semisoft cheeses.
The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is dotted with castles, rivers, and rolling farmland. Though there are many herds of dairy cows, the cheese-making terrain has been given over mostly to goats, and from their milk, the famous French chèvres are made in two dozen named shapes. The most common shapes exported to the United States are Besace (beggar's purse), Bouchon (cork), crottin (horse's turd), Coeur (heart), Fleur (petals of a flower), Lingot (bar), and Pyramide (pyramid). These shapes were probably influenced by royalty enamored of gastronomy and the culinary arts. The flaky texture of goat's-milk curd lends itself more easily to being shaped than does cow's-milk curd.
You can have so much more fun in a country when you know a little of the language. When traveling in France, be sure to know what each milk-producing animal is called. Cows are vache, goats are chèvre, and sheep are brebis. And, most importantly, the French word for cheese is fromage.
The Basque Country
What better place to find hundreds of thousands of sheep than high rugged mountains flanked by miles and miles of sloping foothills? People on both the French and Spanish sides of the Basque country have been raising sheep and making cheese for thousands of years, and some say the sheep have nibbled most of the sharp edges off the rugged terrain.
Certainly the cheeses are beautifully round in flavor, with tones of nuts, fruits, and olives, and clean, buttery mouthfeels. Basque cheeses are often made with 4,000-year-old recipes. In the United States you are most likely to find Petit Basque, Ossau Iraty, Idiazabal, Pyrenees with Peppercorns (a modern cheese), and French Brebis from the Basque Country.