The history and significance of wine and cheese in France

Discover how cheese and wine leave their mark on a landscape carved from volcanoes.

26 June 2020
The history and significance of wine and cheese in France, explained.The history and significance of wine and cheese in France, explained.
By Sam Wydymus

Classic French staples

Cheese and wine has always been central to the tables of France. In one area, you will also find it on walls and floors. There are no gargoyles or saints on the walls of the 10th-century church in La Chaulme, Puy-de-Dôme. Instead, there are effigies of sausages, ham, eggs and local cheese Fourme D’Ambert.

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France's oldest cheese

Blue Fourme D’Ambert: arguably the country’s oldest cheese.
Blue Fourme D’Ambert: arguably the country’s oldest cheese.

Arguably the country’s oldest cheese, the blue Fourme D’Ambert takes its name from the cylindrical mould that forms its shape. With its delicate, earthy taste, it was and is vital to local life and was central to Druid celebrations, gracing tables long before the Roman invasion. Each spring, women and children would decamp to the mountain barns – or jasseries – constructed for cheese-making and the important maturation.

By the end of summer, the cheese was in prime condition and was used to pay rent on the jasserie where it was made. With its rough exterior, Fourme d’Ambert could be mistaken for the area’s grey volcanic rock, but cut it with a knife to taste the blue-stippled interior and it is transformed. Its shape is credited with inspiring Ambert mairie and the circular hall is said to be unique in Europe. 

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Auvergne's secret histories

Local legend claims it as the hiding place of an ancient alien civilisation. Former pop star Claude Vor­il­­hon, who is from Ambert, set up the UFO-based Raël­ism religion after he said aliens visited him in one of the area’s craters. Auvergne is famous for its range of extinct volcanoes and these, along with wine and cheese, are the reason why Clermont-Ferrand is said to be built on air. Deep under the capital of the Auvergne lies a secret, mysterious world: a vast labyrinth of interconnected tunnels, rooms and galleries dating back thousands of years and carved out of the volcanic tuff rock.

The Romans quickly took advantage of the cool basements, adding wine cellars, secret rooms, hot baths and aqueducts, while chapels, ice houses and warehouses were tunnelled in the Middle Ages. It is difficult to grasp the scale of this underground city that has housed everything from butchers to nightclubs, as well as a shelter from enemies.

Wine tunnels

Ambert Mairie.
Ambert Mairie.

To escape Allied bombing during World War Two, more than 500 rooms were found under central Clermont – enough to hold 17,000 people, with room for at least 200 more under Mont Ferrand. The hidden tunnels are still impossible to map, with networks going down five floors, and the older cellars do not align with the more modern buildings above. The city started a cave census in 2018 and although 700 were known, there may be double that.

It is possible to enter one building and reappear in another, and you can disappear through a hillside and cross the city undetected. Since the 10th century, the tunnels have been the perfect home for millions of bottles of wine. Auvergne was previously one of the biggest wine-producing regions but in 1900 the trade was destroyed by the vine disease phylloxera. Cellars that had, for centuries, stored wine were repurposed for cheese.

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Rooms up to 600m2 were lined with straw, and tonnes of cheese would be left to mature, a practice that continued until the last artisanal cheesemonger retired in 2016. Caves are not unusual homes for cheese and wine, but one French wine owes its fame to a small cheese barn more than 1,000m above sea level. Wine-maker Pierre Desprat took inspiration from his grandfather, who buried bottles of wine in the mountains over the winter.

These days, rather than digging the hard ground, 25,000 bottles of La Légendaire are stored in the cheese cellars of an ancient buron, where the temperature and the atmosphere improve the ageing process of the sought-after tipple. Come spring, a human chain of enthusiasts passes the bottles down the hillside to the cave.

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