My memories of growing up in France included learning, when we sat down to dinner, what was expected—otherwise known as manners. Manners were not optional; my mother insisted that I know the rules that everyone lived by. She explained that life was so much easier when you understood what was expected of you; not knowing meant that you’d feel like an outsider trying to fit in.
With more than four hundred types of cheese produced throughout the different regions of France, it is an understatement to say that cheese is a very important part of the French culture.
Like everything else in France, the pleasure of cheese comes with specific rules. They actually make sense because they are intended to maximize everyone’s enjoyment. Trust me, if you are invited to dinner in a traditional French home, you’ll be glad to know what is expected of you.
Unlike in the United States where cheese is served with drinks before your meal, in France cheese is served with your repas, your meal. A cheese platter is offered after the main course and before dessert. It comes with a green salad that is dressed with a simple vinaigrette.
The cheese platter will have a selection of three to six cheeses that includes a soft, hard, and a veined one like blue cheese. Also included are cheeses made with different types of animal milk such as cow, goat, and sheep. Their different flavors will dramatically change the taste of each cheese. Finally, your selection needs to include a range of intensities ranging from mild to stronger and more pungent flavors.
How the cheeses are arranged on your platter is also important. They must be placed by order of strength, starting with the mildest and circling around the platter to the most powerful. This is done so your taste buds can enjoy the subtle flavors of the mild cheese before you move on to the stronger flavors.
In order for your cheese to have its full flavor, it needs to be served at room temperature; cold cheese is almost tasteless. Make certain to take your cheeses out of the refrigerator two hours before you intend to serve. To prevent the cheese from drying out, serve it in the large pieces you purchased; cutting them into smaller pieces will cause the cheese to dry out and lose its texture.
If you are at a French dinner party, you need to know that there is an etiquette to cheese platter passing. It will be handed to the oldest woman guest first. (This should be taken as a compliment; the oldest woman is considered to have the highest status.) It will then be passed to the next oldest woman and on down to the youngest. The platter is then passed to the hostess who, after helping herself, offers it to the oldest man and on to the youngest. I realize that when you are not used to this hierarchy of age, it seems cumbersome, but in France this is always observed as a respectful gesture and it is done automatically.
To add to the enjoyment of the cheese course, we always pair it with wine. Selecting the type of wine that will be the perfect match to your assortment of cheese can change your experience and is an art in itself.
When the cheese platter is passed to you, you need to select the three you are going to try and cut off a piece of each. How you do that is illustrated below and is designed so that everyone is able to enjoy the best part of each cheese.
A bit more information about eating cheese:
The French love their food. They love growing, producing, and transforming everything they make into something that delights them every day—it is their greatest pleasure. Knowing this, it becomes understandable and forgivable that they have rules for everything. Their intention is to ensure a level of decorum both around the food they are eating and among the people with whom they are eating.
That being said, the French paradox is that they love to break their rules. But as my mother explained, you have to know the rules before you can break them and yes, that is a rule too.
What about you?
Do you feel more comfortable when you know what is expected of you or are you more of a laissez-faire type?
Let us know, I'd love to hear.
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I would like to thank the website Fromage de France for their images explaining how to cut cheese.
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