How many French cheeses are there?
There are about 400 different types of French cheeses. The exact number varies depending on how one counts them (e.g. all types of cheese, or only those that meet the AOC standard).
However, one also needs to consider that much of the cheese in France is made by small independents or co-operatives. For a single type of cheese, there may be several hundred different producers. The cheese from these different producers will be somewhat different due to variations in the milk, yeast, and production approach used. Some producers will take milk from only a single farm, while others will use milk from several selected farms. Individual cheese makers may have different quality standards (for example, some will insist that the milk is 100% bio). Some will produce cheese in a highly controlled and technically advanced environment, while others will use more traditional means. All these differences can result in a given type of cheese having many different versions in terms of texture, taste, quality and price.
Furthermore, cheeses can be aged for different periods of time, changing the taste, texture and aroma. Each producer may provide mild (young), medium and strong (well-aged) versions of their cheese. This is of course relative, a young Roquefort will have a stronger taste and smell than an old Compté.
Consequently, if one considers the differences resulting from individual producers and aging, it is more accurate to say that there are many thousands of types of cheese in France.
A good overview is provided by French Cheese Map (small) and French Cheese Map (big), which list the various cheeses of France, where each comes from, the milk used to produce them, the taste strength of each cheese, and so on.
Buying and storing French cheese
Cheese purchased in a supermarket is normally from a large commercial producer. The quality is generally average, with the more up-market stores tending to have better quality than the discount stores. Cheese in specialist stores and gourmet stores is typically of better quality than supermarkets, but correspondingly more expensive. In marketplaces the quality can range from the very best to very poor; price is a fairly good indicator. One can also buy cheese direct from the smaller producers and co-operatives, many of whom will allow you to taste before buying (in much the same way as the smaller wine houses encourage wine tasting); quality and price both vary but one can often get an excellent cheese at a reasonable price.
Cheese should be stored in a cool, dry location (e.g. the fridge). It can also be stored in a wine cellar (provided it is not too humid), but this should be done only in small quantities and with mild-smelling cheese; otherwise the smell of the cheese will eventually affect the wine. Pieces of cheese should be wrapped in paper rather than plastic, as the paper allows it to breath.
If the cheese is stored in a fridge, consider taking it out an hour before serving. This will allow it to warm slightly, so the natural aromas and taste can be better appreciated.
You may also be interested in French Food and Recipes.