Cheese Etiquette

Cheese in Villefranche market

“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.

Cheesy minefield

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.

The remnants of our cheeseboard after a dinner party: Maroilles coated in paprika, Laguiole and Bleu d’Auvergne

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.

Roquefort cheese

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 this helpful image of 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…

Charcuterie, cheese and pain d’épices in Villefranche market

You might also like:

A Brief History of Cheese

French Flavours: A is for Aligot

Roquefort

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2020. All rights reserved.

10 comments

    • Some of this was a revelation to me. Certain cheeses are obvious – there’s no other way to cut a cylindrical goat’s cheese than into coin-shaped rounds, for example. But knowing about the Brie and the blue cheeses is extremely valuable! I also thought you shouldn’t cut the point off a Brie, but obviously you do. Thinking about it, cutting down the long side would make a rather large serving.

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  1. Wonderfully instructive – thank you for sharing this!! I adore cheese and enjoy lots of different ones, so I have several favourites, the list being headed by farmhouse cheddar (heresy, I know!!). Brie de Meaux, Gorgonzola, and Beaufort are also part of a longer list… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love cheese, too, but have to take it in moderation for waistline and cholesterol. I also like a farmhouse cheddar – there are some very good British cheeses. I don’t think I’ve ever tried Beaufort. Now on my list!

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  2. Vanessa says “the stronger the better”. I once came home with a German Limburger Käse and I had to keep it in the garage.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This information is invaluable as I have not yet fully grasped l’art de la découpe when it comes to eating some French cheeses, which can make me nervous when eating out in France.
    After years of holidaying there, we are still discovering “new” French cheeses. Our favourite depends on a variety of factors – terroir, food being consumed, time of day and even our mood! As lovers of cheese, we have been blessed to have a traditional fromagerie at the foot of the stairs of our French garden, which also sells locally made ice-cream; arguably the best I cream ever made!

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    • I decided after 23 years of dithering and feeling nervous that I really ought to find out the correct way to do it. I think I will print off the diagram and surreptitiously consult it when out to dinner.
      You’re right that many factors go into the enjoyment of cheese. My experience is that it’s best in the pays of production, but that doesn’t always follow. How lucky you are to have a fromagerie on the doorstep! The nearest we have to that is a cheese van that comes to our local market. The queue is longer for that than for any other stall.

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  4. Interesting and makes a lot of sense. I knew there was a lot of etiquette around cheese, but I didn’t know what the rules were. Thanks for this. Hope to be able to get back to France soon x

    Liked by 1 person

    • You would think that after 23 years here, I would know how to cut cheese. At least I do now. I made a mistake in the earlier version of the post you saw – my brain was disengaged when I wrote that the French serve cheese after the dessert. It is, of course, the other way around…

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