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Best Briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette

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Best Briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette
Photo: Thomas Liasne/Les Filles à Fromage
10:57 CEST+02:00
Eating cheese in France might sound pretty straightforward, but the world of French cheese can be a minefield of unwritten, unspoken rules. Here’s a lowdown on French cheese etiquette, from Katie Warren.

“A meal without cheese is like a day without sunshine,” goes one French proverb, perfectly conveying the essence of the French.

They might be both laughed at or envied by the rest of the world for their consumption of cheese, but for the French, le fromage is serious business.

The average French person eats an impressive 25.9 kg of cheese per year, according to a 2013 report by International Dairy Federation. This comes out to nearly half a kilogram per week. 

In comparison, Americans consume a measly 15.4 kg per year and the British a mere 11.6 kg.

It’s not unusual for a French family to come home from the weekend market with a sack overflowing with 10-12 varieties of cheese… which may or may not last the week. 

("I think we've got enough for this week Jacques." Photo: AFP)

In line with French culinary pride, there’s a certain etiquette that should be observed when serving and eating cheese in France.

Of course these rules are often relaxed if you’re eating with close friends and family. 

But if you really want to impress your French friends, here’s how to be on your best Briehaviour while eating cheese in France. 

Cheese is not an appetizer

First of all, serving cheese as an appetizer before dinner like Americans often do is unheard of in France. And you won't see it on a cocktail stick with a pickled onion and tomato. In fact serving cheese at any time of the day or night is a non non. Just stick to its allotted slot in a meal which is....

...Before dessert

In the UK, finishing a meal with cheese and grapes is quite common, but in France they wouldn't finish a meal with cheese and their reasoning is sound. just think how smelly some of their most famous fromages are. Imagine all your dinner guests continuing to debate the invasion of English into the French language with deathly Camembert breath. They'd be laid out on the floor.

Which is why the French always follow cheese with some kind of dessert, which could even be grapes. So don't serve them together.

(Photo: Jeremy Keith/Flickr)

Not a cracker in sight

The French will think you're crackers, if you serve the cheese with anything other than bread. Although it doesn't always have to be baguette. They believe that crackers take away from the taste of the cheese you see. So keep your selection box well hidden for when you're on your own.

Save a bottle of red...

It would be a major faux pas if you had gone through all your vin rouge and had no red left for the cheese course. In general red wine is served with cheese in France, though not always.

What wine to pair with what cheese is a whole new subject that can be saved for another rainy day, but often pairing a wine with a cheese from the same region is one way to do it. Another is just to experiment, though the French tend to stick to what they know, which is red.

(Photo: Sophie/Flickr)

Never say it stinks!

That would be impolite. You just say a cheese is strong, which is "fort" in French.

Like wine, cheese needs to breathe

Cheese that has been cooped up in its wrapping in the fridge is not immediately ready to be eaten. Instead, take out the cheese and prepare it on a plate at least an hour before it’s meant to be eaten. Room temperature is where those delicious aromas and flavours really thrive. 

Odd is better than even

If you’re the one putting together the cheese plate, keep in mind that there should always be an odd number of cheeses, for aesthetic purposes. And in order to maintain balance in the universe, there should be a minimum of three varieties: a soft cheese, a hard, and one blue or goat cheese.

(Photo: Marc Kjerland/Flickr)

Cutting the cheese

Cutting French cheese, one of the most crucial aspects of Briehaviour, is a matter of geometry and manners. There is a right way and a wrong way, and it all depends on the shape. 

For round cheeses, it’s pretty straightforward. It should be cut in the form of thin triangular cake slices, about the thickness of a pencil. For log-shaped goat cheese, go for parallel slices. For square cheeses, triangles are the way to go.

For a rectangular cheese like Comté, just cut slices parallel to the rind.

Those pyramid-shaped cheeses should be cut into one slice and then halved again. 

For wedges of Brie, don’t cut off “the nose” — the tip of the cheese closest to the center that holds the most flavor. Instead cut along the side of the wedge so that others can have a taste of the most flavorful part. 

The same goes for Roquefort. If you take all the flavoursome mold in the middle, it will bring a swift end to the entente cordiale. Cut in a diagonal shape, so you get a lot of the side  and just a little of the middle.

You might wonder why your host wouldn’t pre-slice the cheese to save foreign guests the headache and panic of wondering how to do it, but that would be compromising the moisture and flavour of the cheese, an obvious faux pas

Small piece of bread, small piece of cheese

Don’t go plopping a whole wedge of cheese on a hunk of bread like some kind of savage. Think small piece of bread, small piece of cheese. Just gently place the morsel of cheese on the bite-sized morsel of baguette. And resist the urge to spread the cheese — it’s not Nutella.

Mildest to strongest

(Photo: Campus France/Flickr)

When eating your cheese, start with a milder one and work your way up to the smelliest of the bunch. For example: start with Brie, move on to the goat cheese, then the blue, then the Camembert. That way your taste buds will still be able to appreciate the mild Brie as well as the stinky Camembert.

Don’t mix the cheeses

For the love of all things cheesy, if there’s no designated knife for each fromage, wipe the knife off on a piece of bread when you’re moving from cheese to cheese. Nobody likes cheese cross-contamination.

"Les Filles à Fromages" - Photographer sexes up smelly French cheeses

To rind or not to rind?

Actually, even French people can’t seem to agree on whether or not to consume the croûte, so you (probably) won’t embarrass yourself either way. If you want to eat the rind, go ahead and eat it. And if you don’t, that’s fine too. Follow your heart or your stomach.

Don’t you dare store cheese in plastic wrap

Storing it in plastic wrap will suffocate that poor cheese. The best way to keep cheese fresh is to keep it in a cheese bag (what, you don’t have any cheese bags?) which allows the cheese to breathe and regular humidity. If you don’t have any cheese bags around, you can resort to wrapping the leftover cheese in wax paper and then loosely in plastic wrap.  

So there you have it, the rules of fromage. Of course, as a foreigner you’ll likely be given a little slack.

So next time you’re invited to a French dinner party, make sure to be on your best Briehavior.

by Katie Warren

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