Who cut the cheese??!!?? @!%*&#
For the French, nothing stinks more than someone who hasn’t cut the cheese properly (read: the French way). But as in most rules of etiquette, what is second nature in one’s own culture can be a series of land mines to an outsider. During their first week of orientation, AUCP students got a jump-start on « How-to » during a three-hour session on French etiquette, or Savoir Vivre, that included differences in table manners. Here are seven ways (and a bit of background) to help you avoid embarrassment when cutting the cheese in France.
1. Cheese is served after the main course and before dessert in France. The French DO NOT serve cheese as an appetizer with drinks before dinner. This is an Anglo-Saxon custom.
2. A traditional French cheese platter contains a minimum of three cheeses: a soft cheese like camembert or brie, a hard cheese like cantal, comté or gruyère, and a chèvre (goat). Additional cheeses vary according to tastes and the season. The platter may include a roquefort or another blue-veined cheese, a Saint Nectaire, a Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie or Morbier. Napoleon’s favorite cheese was l’Epoisse – a strong smelling (when referring to cheese the French never say stinky!) but relatively mild cheese with orange rind (it’s washed in local brandy 1-3 times a week during the aging process). France counts over 500 different types of cheese, so there are numerous possibilities.
3. The cheese platter (as all dishes passed at the table in France) should be passed first from the oldest to the youngest female guest. The hostess, being the last female to serve herself, will then pass the platter to the oldest male guest, who passes it to his younger counterparts. The male host will be the last to get the platter. This serving “ritual” can sound over the top, but it is second nature and common practice in France.
4. The cheese platter is traditionally passed only once – seconds are a no-no, so be sure you serve yourself well. A slice of 2-3 cheeses is the norm. Take only as much as you will eat, and don’t cut ridiculously tiny portions – or you’ll look like a sissy!
5. Cheese is cut according to its shape, but there are two guiding principles: Share the Rind! And Geometry Rules!
- Small cheeses, round or square: cut in halves, thirds or quarter
- Round cheeses like Camembert: cut like a piece of pie starting in the center.
- Long triangles, like Brie: cut diagonally from the tip, to obtain an obtuse triangle or long thin wedges.
- Cylindrical or log cheeses: cut in rounds
- Squares & pyramids: cut in triangles, in wedges, starting at the center.
- Firm cheeses, laid flat: cut slices lengthwise if rind is only on one end, crosswise if rind runs along parallel edges
- Roquefort or blue-veined cheeses: cut in triangles radiating from center of the lower end of the wedge, the first cut will be a corner
6. Green salad with a light vinaigrette dressing is often served with the cheese – it may be enjoyed at the same time, or after. Contrary to common belief, it is not a French tradition to eat fruit with the cheese course.
7. Cheese is eaten on a small piece of bread, or with your fork and knife. DO NOT spread the cheese on the bread like peanut butter! Start with the mildest cheese on your plate. Cut off a portion with your knife and place it on top of a small bite-size piece of bread that you have torn (not cut!) from your bread roll or larger piece of baguette. Follow it down with a sip of Bordeaux or a Cuvée Prestive Saint-Ser, a masculine red wine with leathery aromas produced in the Aix region.
Conclusion: ENJOY, and when in doubt: watch your host; rules may vary depending on the family and the setting (formal or informal).