“Un repas sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un oeil.” (A meal without cheese is like a beauty with an eye missing). Thus pronounced the politician, epicure and social commentator, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. There is even a cheese named in his honour. The cheese course is indispensable in any French meal. But the etiquette associated with it can be difficult to grasp.
First, the French always serve a cheeseboard before the dessert. In the UK, where I grew up, it is the opposite, i.e. after the dessert. In past times in the UK, a savoury, such as cheese on toast, was often served after the dessert.
That isn’t so difficult to get your head around. The fun starts when it comes to the proper way to cut individual portions of different types of cheese. And there is a right way – and a wrong way. This was brought home to me yet again recently, so I resolved to plug this gap in my knowledge.
By the way, there is a purpose to all this, and it’s not just some recondite point of etiquette. It’s important that everyone gets a taste of the best part of the cheese. For example, the thin end of a wedge of blue cheese comes from the core and is the bluest and tastiest section. So you shouldn’t cut off the whole of that end by slicing straight across the cheese.
By some quirk of fate (or protocol), French hosts always offer me the cheeseboard first. There I am, faced not only with three or four pristine cheeses of different shapes and several different knives to cut them, but also with the undivided scrutiny of the whole table.
To avoid committing a faux pas, I usually content myself with slicing a circle of goat’s cheese from the log-shaped variety or cutting a triangular wedge from the round version. At least I know that this is the correct way to deal with those. I restrain myself from taking any blue cheese (my favourite), which, as I described above, is a cheesy minefield.
In French restaurants, where cheese is served, either it’s already plated or the waiter/waitress will cut it for you. In a few restaurants, though, a tray of cheeses might still be plonked on the table for you to serve yourself.
The art of cutting cheese
So how should you cut cheese? Here, I’m grateful to Graham Welch, who moved recently with his partner from Lille to Belvès in the Dordogne to open a cheese and wine bar, Planches et Plonk. He posted on his blog about the correct method to cut cheese. (He may not continue the blog, but he does have a Planches et Plonk Facebook page, and I’m sure he would welcome a visit if you are ever in his neighbourhood.)
And I found a helpful diagram showing how to cut different kinds of cheese, from French cheese purveyor, Androuet.
You shouldn’t take more than two or three morsels of cheese or ask for second helpings. This might imply the hosts did not serve enough food. In any case, you’ve still got the dessert to come after the cheese. Some visitors once demolished the cheese plateau in a restaurant where it is still served like that, much to the consternation of the owner when he came to remove it.
If it’s any consolation, some of our French friends admit that they don’t always know how to cut cheese. But you will certainly rise in their estimation if you show that you do.
Do you have a favourite cheese? I like them all, the stronger the better, although I’m not a huge fan of Brie or Camembert. A nice, ripe Livarot, on the other hand…
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