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From frogs to foie gras: Your guide to French dinner etiquette

Food etiquette breaches such as eating a croissant with cutlery or tackling the cheeseboard incorrectly can spark a strong reaction in France.

From frogs to foie gras: Your guide to French dinner etiquette
Going out for a meal in France? Here is what you need to know. All photos: AFP
In one of the more light-hearted moments of 2019, one French woman said she was “close to fainting” when she saw pictures of what tourists had done to French cheese. So to avoid making Frenchwomen faint, here's the A-Z of eating in France.
A is for andouillette – In a country famed (rightly) for its cuisine, the andouillette forms something of a low point. A type of sausage made from animal intestine. Some people love it though, and claim it doesn't taste as bad as it smells (which is of animal bowels and urine).
B is for beer – although France is of course synonymous with wine, beer is rapidly becoming the drink of choice, especially among younger people. There is a booming craft beer scene in France and une pinte (a pint, rather than the traditional French serving of un demi – 250cl)) is becoming more common, especially in the cities. Beer is not traditionally drunk with food, although this is becoming less of a hard-and-fast rule.
C is for cheese – of course. Served before dessert in France, rather than after, there are plenty of strict rules around cheese, from the etiquette of the cheese course to what type of cheese is permitted in a fondue.
There are a lot of rules around cheese in France, but it's worth respecting such an iconic product
D is for déjeuner – lunch time is rather more strictly observed in France, especially in smaller towns. Many places only serve lunch between 12 and 2, so if you're looking for a late lunch you may be disappointed. Any café or bar that has a sign saying service non-stop, means it serves food throughout the day.
E is for elbows – keep them off the table. French children are raised to keep their hands on the table, and elbows on the table are considered impolite. If you are dining in a city café there is likely to be quite limited space, so once you've shimmied past the other diners to your table, make sure you keep your elbows in to avoid hitting your neighbour. 
Get used to shimmying around the tables in a French café
F is for foie gras – considered a bit controversial by many Anglos, it is nonetheless widely served in France, especially in the south west Perigord region when something is barely considered a meal unless there's a slab of foie gras on it. The ethical considerations are of course a personal choice, but it is delicious. Just don't try and spread it like paté, its supposed to be served as a slice on top of some toast.
G is for grenouilles – considered a mainstay of French culture by 'les Anglos' in fact frogs legs are not a common sight on French menus at all. They are a north eastern French thing, so you'll virtually never see them in the south, but if you're a fan the town of Vittel has a festival of frogs legs every year. Due to a hunting ban in France, the vast majority of frog served in the country is actually imported from Indonesia.
H is for haché – if you see 'steak haché' on the menu, don't expect a slab of meat. This is actually a burger and in restaurants other than McDonald's you'll generally be asked how you want it cooked. They're much nicer when they're still pink in the middle.
I is for ice – if you want ice in your drink your need to ask for it. Unlike in the USA, where it's the norm for soft drinks to be served with ice, French waiters will not add ice to your Orangina unless you ask for it avec glaçons.
J is for les jeunes – Children are welcomed in pretty much all restaurants in France and French families consider it perfectly normal to take their children with them when they go out to dinner. They will be expected to sit up at the table though, French restaurants don't go in for kids play areas or having children running around the restaurant. And 'kids menus' are not particularly common in France, children usually eat what their parents eat, just in smaller portions. 
K is for ketchup – it goes with frites and frites only in France. Ask for ketchup with your steak, omelette or salmon and expect appalled looks.
L is for lawyer – Hopefully you won't need any of these to go out for dinner, but 'salad of lawyer' is a common mistranslation on English menus in France. This is because the French word for lawyer and avocado is the same – avocat.
Not all meat is served as rare as this steak tartare
M is for meat – French cuisine has a reputation as being meat heavy and certainly a lot of the traditional dishes are centred around meat, but the offering for vegetarians and vegans is slowly improving, especially in the big cities. Just make it clear that you don't eat meat at all, as some French people use vegetarian to describe someone who doesn't eat red meat but will have chicken or pork.
N is for noisettes – the French for nuts – as in tarte aux noisettes – and also a type of coffee. If you like an espresso with a dash of hot milk, this is what to order.
O is for offal – Many classic French dishes revolve around offal and it can be surprisingly delicious. From salade de gésiers (a salad topped with slow-cooked duck and goose innards) to the various different types of tripes (cow's stomach) on offer at French markets, they're all nicer than they sound and we would recommend trying them.
P is for pichet – If you just ask for d'eau in a French restaurant you will probably be brought mineral water, which can be pricier than wine. If you're happy with a jug of tap water to go with your dinner, ask for un pichet d'eau or une carafe d'eau. Wine can also be bought by the pichet if you want more than a glass but less than a bottle.
Q is for queuing – some restaurants you have to queue for, and some are worth the wait. Several of Paris' traditional bouillon restaurants do not take reservations, but in our opinion are worth the wait for very traditional French cuisine that's also extremely reasonably priced.
Raclette – melted cheese is a mainstay of French winter cooking
R is for raclette – Although the Swiss claim they invented this (and to be fair they almost certainly did) it's very popular in France in the winter, especially in the mountainous areas in the east. Winter in France in generally brings forth several delicious ways to melt cheese for dinner from raclette to fondue to tartiflette.
S is for steak – it's not quite true that French chefs refuse to cook steaks 'well done' but it won't make you many friends. Meat in general is served pinker than many Anglos are used to, but it tastes better that way, so why not go with the flow and order your steak medium rare?
T is for tea – one for the Brits, unless you specify carefully what you want when ordering tea you are unlikely to be brought a powerful builder's brew with milk. Tea is often served with lemon in France, so you need to specify thé au lait if you want milk.
W is for wine – whole books have been written on this, but suffice to say it's the traditional choice to go with food and also an apéro if you're talking rosé. Don't hurl it back, in France wine is something to be sipped, tasted and enjoyed.
Z is for za'atar – spices generally, including the Middle-Eastern spice blend za'atar, are not a big part of French cooking. Even if you go to an Indian or Chinese restaurant you are likely to find the spice count has been dialled down to account for the rather delicate French palates. If you want a really hot curry you'd probably be better off making your own. (OK, we admit it, we were struggling to think of a French dish that begins with a Z).

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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!