Fonduegate and why the customer is not always right in France

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

Fonduegate and why the customer is not always right in France
Photo: The Local

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

But my usual Paris cheese monger put a spanner in the works this week.

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.”

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.”

Monsieur: “What?” 

OK that last bit was made up. But in my head I'm 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 prefecture 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.

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's aged two years are becoming harder to find these days, apparently, because they are expensive to make and to store.

Producers are under pressure to make money and they know the name Beaufort will sell anyway, so they are not bothering to keep them and age them. The aging 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.

The story of fonduegate spilled over into 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.

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 to 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 cheese monger. A man who puts fromage above fric. But this Beaufort better be bloody good, or it's going in the pot.


Best Briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette Photo: Thomas Liasne/Les Filles à Fromage

For members


Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!