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Fonduegate: Why customer service is different in France

The Local France
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Fonduegate: Why customer service is different in France
A couple enjoy a fondue in Bern, Switzerland (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP)

An argument in a Paris cheese shop over a fondue taught The Local's Europe editor Ben McPartland that the phrase "the customer is always right" just doesn't apply in France.

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As a veteran of fondues I know what I want in there: Comté, Beaufort and Appenzel. Forget Emmental, it's not strong enough.

But a few years ago, my usual Paris cheesemonger put a spanner in the works of my fondue plan.

When I asked him for some Beaufort he just looked at me and shook his head. The conversation went roughly like this.

Monsieur fromage: "The Beaufort is just too good."

Me: "Ah great. I'll have 200 grams please".

Monsieur: "No it's too good for a fondue. It's so tasty. It would pain me (faire mal au coeur) to see it melted."

Me: "Ha ha, OK that sounds amazing. I'll have 400 grams please."

Monsieur: "No, no. It would be a waste. This is a 2015 Beaufort. And at €39 a kilo. It's too expensive for a fondue."

Me: "Ah that's OK I don't mind paying."

Monsieur: "No, No. I'll give you some Abondance. It's a similar cheese and cheaper."

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Me: "Errrr. OK, but can I have some Beaufort too."

Monsieur: "Are you going to put it in the fondue?

Me: "Errrrrr (I can't lie), oui." 

Monsieur: "Sorry can't do it."

Me: "Wait, you are meant to be a cheese-eating surrender monger."

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Monsieur: "What?" 

OK that last bit was made up. But in my head I was thinking "Cheeses Christ. Is he for real or is he totally Emmental. Does he not want my money?"

Isn't the customer meant to always be right? What would have happened if I had insisted? Would he have thrown me out for his principles and told me to go and spend my €44.53 in another cheese shop?

Could he report me to the préfecture and scupper my future attempts to get French nationality? I feared I would be banished to cheese hell (Holland) if I pushed it too far. I was left in shock but also awe of the man who protected the welfare of his cheese.

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In the end we reached a kind of compromise. He gave me Abondance for my fondue and agreed to sell me 200g of his special Beaufort as long as I signed a "compromise de vente" (sales agreement) that it wouldn't be grated or melted and would only be used to be put on display on the mantelpiece.

Well not quite, but almost.

He did also take the time to explain to me why a 2015 Beaufort is just too good for fondue - good Beaufort aged for two years are becoming harder to find these days, apparently, because they are expensive to make and store.

Producers are under pressure to earn money and they know the name Beaufort will sell anyway, so they are not bothering to keep them and age them. The ageing process can be risky and it can go wrong and lead to the cheese being ruined.

He invited me to pop to a supermarket and buy a 6-month-old Beaufort for a fondue, but not his 2015 vintage. The taste would be lost forever in that melting pot.

Because this happened in the social media heyday of 2017, the story of 'fonduegate' spilled over onto Twitter where many sided with the shopkeeper and some even felt sympathy with my position.

 

Even France's Ambassador to Sweden got involved and as you'd expect he was very diplomatic.

Anyway I might not have come away with the cheese I was after but I certainly learnt a thing or two.

The reaction of the French shopkeeper was not of course a total surprise. Most people who have lived in France will have a story of having been corrected or even told off by shopkeepers, waiters or chefs after trying to order something.

FACTCHECK Do French waiters really tell you what you can order?

There are the chefs who refuse to do a steak well done. A waste of good meat, they say. There are wine sellers who refuse to sell you a bottle of Bordeaux if they find out you are cooking Boeuf Bourguignon and the clothes store staff who simply tell you: "Sorry you are just too big to fit in that size".

While everyone who has been to France has probably had the experience of a moody waiter or a shopkeeper who seems affronted you entered his/her store to spend money, they do have an unfair reputation of being impolite and snooty.

They generally know their stuff, especially when it comes to food and are a lot more passionate about what they are selling than we perhaps are used to in stores in "Anglo-Saxon" countries where might get the works in terms of politeness, but do we always get the expertise?

 

So respect to the Paris cheesemonger. A man who puts fromage above fric.

READ ALSO: Best Briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette

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