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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.

READ ALSO: 

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

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Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

READ MORE: Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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