For many New Zealanders their first step beyond a slice of cheddar is to dive into a wedge of camembert or brie. These first forays into French cheese are how many of us begin the lifelong journey into the smelly, enthralling and ever satisfying world of fromage.

Of course other countries, including our own, produce some fine specimens too but for the French, cheese is an essential part of everyday life. Give us another few hundred years and I'd be surprised if we aren't feeling the same way, such is the momentum gathering for cheese in this country.

Cheese-making is the new black. Everywhere you look there's a class being advertised to make your own cheese at home and cheese tastings have never been more popular. I've even got a friend who has had to re-jig his holiday plans to fit in with his camembert, which needs turning.

Adding to the excitement is an imminent rule change to be announced any day now by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) that will see the importation restrictions on unpasteurised cheese ease up.

What does this mean to us cheese lovers? I wasn't too sure until I visited the Fine Food Show in Auckland recently where the New Zealand Europe Business Council had set up shop to showcase 15 raw milk cheeses imported from Europe for the event.

These were available for tasting and taste I did, under the expert guidance of Ludovic Avril from Wellington-based Le Marche Francais, importers of fine European cheeses. It was a journey of the most exquisitely pungent nature.

But first some background to the raw milk versus treated milk status here in New Zealand. Until recently we've erred on the side of caution allowing, in the main, only products made from heat-treated, or pasteurised, milk to be available for public consumption.

The rationale for this is that those made with raw milk, either imported or made here, could potentially put vulnerable groups of the population (pregnant woman, elderly, those with reduced immune systems, and so on) at risk due to the increased chance of microbiological hazards being present. Heat gets rid of these nasty little bugs. Unfortunately, and this is where the debate rages for foodies, the heat treatment also kills off some of the bugs that are good for flavour and responsible for the ripening process in cheese. If you've ever been to France and tasted the cheeses there you'll know what I mean. There's a complexity about some of them that is indescribable.

A well-known example of this is Roquefort, sometimes referred to as the "King of Cheeses". This pungent blue cheese is made in the south of France from the untreated milk of specially bred sheep and is ripened in limestone caverns. I can still remember when it hit the news in 2007 that Roquefort was going to be imported into New Zealand directly from France (prior to this is had to come through Australia). My father went down to his local deli to put in his order to make sure he didn't miss out. It's produced under strict processing criteria set out by European Community legislation and imports of Roquefort are still monitored closely by the NZFSA here to ensure its safety.

So, back to my tasting of some of the raw milk cheeses that, thanks to these law changes will soon be available to purchase in selected food stores. Across the board they tasted incredible. The Saint-Nectaire from Auvergne (central France), a semi-hard cow's milk cheese, was nutty and fruity, and far more delicate than I'd expected. The Brie de Meaux was the opposite. It was so smelly I was afraid to try it, but I was delighted to discover it was much milder than it presented itself to the nose, and so creamy. The Comte, an ancient cheese from the Jura Mountains, had a hint of caramel. After that I lost track, what with the smooth Bleu d'Auvergne, the alpine Reblochon and the sharp Tome de Chevre and more. What I can report is that all of the raw milk cheeses I tried were sophisticated and impressive.

More exciting still is that under the new standards, New Zealand cheese-makers will be able to start making products with unpasteurised milk.

Meanwhile, from the end of July I'll be keeping an eye out for imported raw milk cheeses from some of the suppliers specialising in French cheeses below:

* C'est Fromage, Auckland,
* Pyrenees, Auckland
* La Cigale, Auckland
* Le Marche Francais, Wellington,
* Eiffel en Eden, Auckland, (09) 624 0660.

For more information on the legislation: