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Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

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.

Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette
Cheese is a serious business in France. Photo: AFP

“A meal without cheese is like a day without sunshine,” goes one French proverb, while French gastronome and writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin managed to combine two clichés about the French in one when he declared “a meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye”.

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.

QUIZ How well do you know your French food?

And as with many other things in France, there’s a certain etiquette that should be observed when serving and eating cheese.

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 a snack

First of all, serving cheese 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, a tomato or a chunk of pineapple. 

You will sometimes see it on a planche, which is a board of cheese, charcuterie or both that you can order in French bars as an accompaniment to drinks. It can be eaten with apéro or as a meal as portions are usually generous.

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.

READ ALSO The six best French dishes made with cheese

Not a cracker in sight

The French will think you’re crackers if you serve the cheese with anything other than bread.

It doesn’t always have to be baguette, but it needs to be bread. The French believe that crackers take away from the taste of the cheese, 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.

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.

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

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’s 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.

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

Member comments

  1. Is it really necessary to play the one-minute Olympic advert FOUR times during this short video? I understand advertising, but if you are a member you already pay, and this is just excessive!

  2. The reason why cheese is not eaten after dessert is not to do with its possible effect on your breath but
    simply that sweet is expected to follow savoury

    1. And also to keep drinking the red wine that you’re half way through. You can’t come back to it after the pudding.

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Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit:

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”.