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July 31, 2019 1 Comment

If in France - there are rules to eating cheese

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 rind of the cheese is edible. Originally the rind protected the cheese as it aged. It ensured that the cheese protected by the rind was clean. The rind was removed in order to cut off the contaminated part of the cheese. Cheese is now made under sanitary conditions so it is no longer necessary to remove the rind; whether you do so is entirely up to you.
  • Combining cheese with butter is another way to blend flavors. A strong cheese like blue cheese eaten on a piece of bread that has been buttered is delicious. Butter adds another flavor to the cheese and is worth trying to see if you like it.

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.

The diagram below explains why soft cheeses like Camenbert and Brie need to be cut in pie shapes.

The next two diagrams show you how to cut the many different shapes of cheese so everyone can enjoy the best the cheese has to offer. 


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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Want more:
Here is a blog post you might also enjoy reading. What's for Dinner? Let the Farmer Decide
Here is the link to the post Click Here

I would like to thank the website Fromage de France for their images explaining how to cut cheese. 

1 Response

cheryl holz
cheryl holz

August 06, 2019

yummy! I LOVE cheese, and knew many of the ’rules" but learned more today! thank you! the 18 month old gouda I just bought will now be sliced differently….

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