Who Cut the Cheese?

Are you planning to visit France? Eat in a French restaurant? Meet your future French in-laws? There is a certain cheese etiquette that must be followed.

Let’s say you’re going to host a dinner with French cuisine; you’ll want to make sure you start with the proper bread. In the absence of baguettes available, go for the crustiest bread you can find. There should be copious amounts as it is eaten throughout the meal, with the salad and along with the cheese.

It is fine to put it directly on the table. And if you’re amongst close friends and family, you can rip off chunks from the main loaf like this.

If you’re entire being revolts at the thought, cut it in small slices, diagonally like this.

Next the wine. No matter what wine you’ve had with your meal, you need red with the cheese. In our house the only choice is Bonne Nouvelle (as it’s the only wine readily available without alcohol). But it does help to cut the palate in between bites of cheese (and it contains as much lycophene and a fraction of the calories that normal wine has).  I’m afraid I cannot advocate for its superior taste.

Okay, on to the cheese. If you are hosting, a proper cheese platter should contain three cheeses minimum: a soft like camembert or brie, a hard like cantal, comté or gruyère, and a chèvre (goat). If you’re going to throw a couple extra in, you can include a pungent blue or roquefort (not quite the same thing – blue is less sharp) or a surprise, like Saint Nectaire or Reblochon or Tomme de Savoie or Morbier or … well, if you’re in France you have literally hundreds to choose from.

I should add here that the cheese platter is to follow the main meal, not precede it.  It is not an appetizer.  It also follows the salad course if you have one, and is to be eaten right before dessert.  Although restaurants offer the choice between cheese and dessert, a guest at your home will expect both cheese and dessert.  Cheeky, huh?

If there was one cheese that had to represent France, it would be the camembert. It smells like your baby’s diaper needs to be changed; nevertheless it is here to stay.

Americans tend to eat the milder brie, but camembert is the proper size to serve at the table, whereas rounds of brie are much larger so you have to buy pie-type slices (or serve huge rounds of brie at wedding feasts). It’s interesting to note that most cheeses are named after a region. And although there is a Camembert in Normandy, they didn’t get their act together to protect their cheese so now a camembert can be made anywhere. However, people tend to buy the ones labeled, “made in Normandy.”

See that it’s marked “lait cru?” It means that it’s non-pasteurized and therefore tastes much better (unless you’re pregnant, in which case it tastes just as good, but puts you at risk for lysteria poisoning). Anyway, if you eat non-pasteurized cheese, you won’t get that ammonia taste from the white crust when the cheese starts to get old. It just tastes … better.

Okay, I bought a brebis cheese instead of a chèvre – (sheep instead of goat). It’s milder, but will fill my chèvre quota for the cheese platter.

Off to the side, I have brie and Reblochon to show you. They actually don’t fit on my cheese platter so will have to wait for another dinner. However, I did want to show you how to properly cut brie.

And here is my cheese platter.

First, A Tomme Grise des Monts.

Gris(e) means grey, and you can see the grey crust here. “Des Monts” means from the mountains. You can eat the grey crust on chèvre, which is just ashes, but you can’t eat this hard crust. Tomme is pronounced like tome, and not tome-ay or tommy. There are lots of different types of Tommes, by the way.

You can see the blue, which is St Agur. The hard cheese is Comté, which is pronounced “con-tay” with a tight little “o” as if it were pronounced by a disapproving old lady.

I put the brebis, the camembert and the Tomme next to the blue and the Comté.

Now when the cheese is shaped in a round, it’s fairly logical. You cut pie pieces (not too large) and put them on your plate.

Okay this slice is a little large.

When it’s shaped like a book – rectangular – you cut the bottom edge off, all the way across. Unless, I should mention, it’s a huge slice of cheese and is too much to cut across. In that case you would cut a triangle off each edge.

When you get towards the back of the cheese with a crust, you want to start cutting it this way

to avoid the last person being left with …

all rind and no cheese.  In fact, the whole cheese etiquette comes down to leaving the platter as pretty as you got it.

(And not being a glutton).

So when it comes time to take the cheese, pick only 2 or 3 types. Don’t take something of everything. But if you’re really being a gourmand, make sure the pieces are as small as you can make them, like this.

Because each piece of cheese has to be eaten on a bite-size piece of bread, and once you cut all your pieces of cheese small enough, that makes a lot of bites. You basically rip a small piece of bread off,

and put your piece of cheese on before popping the whole thing into your mouth (the same way you’re supposed to eat sushi).  Here are some examples:

You can see how you might start to fill up quickly.

My brother was at an expensive restaurant for New Year’s Eve in France one year (with his own friends, not with us) and he shocked a woman by spreading his foie gras on a piece of bread. She spluttered, “It’s not peanut butter!”

So no spreading the cheese either, okay?

Now this bit is relevant everywhere. The brie.  You should cut the slice from either side equally, like this:

You should never cut it straight across, taking the good stuff all the way up until the last person, who ends up with the crust:

And you should certainly never dig out the soft inside, leaving only the mutilated white crust for the next person,

unless you want that person to look around in disgust and exclaim, “Who cut the cheese?

I am the daughter of a symphony musician who was raised in upstate New York, and I simply breathe all things classical, be it music or 19th century literature (English and Russian). I married Sir Renaissance in New York City, and before I knew it, he had swept me up and brought me back home to his own country. So here we are. Three children, a rather ordinary life in a rather exceptional place. I am now ‘A Lady in France.’

Posted in Culture, Food, France, La Cuisine (The Kitchen), Les Français (The Frenchies), Tout le Reste (Everything else), Tutorials
30 comments on “Who Cut the Cheese?
  1. Andi says:

    Wonderful post! Fabulous! I love the cheese service, best part of the meal and when you travel around France you get to try so many regional specialties, I can never get enough!

  2. Barbara says:

    Living in Auvergne the best part is the cheese! The Cantal, St. Nectaire, Blue d’Auvergne…oh I love cheese! When I go back to the states and have to fork out $10 for a piece of camembert that I can buy for 2 euros, I might take back that statement.

    • ladyjennie says:

      My husband’s family is from Auvergne and whenever anyone goes they bring him back some Saint Nectaire – yum yum! His grandparents used to keep large rounds of it in the cellar.

  3. Radha says:

    OMG I want to have a bite of it all. A sip of wine! Yes! Your blog transports me to the best of life. Merci!

  4. Melissa E. says:

    Yummy! I’ve been having bad pregnancy cheese cravings lately, and this post made me want to go out and buy some new cheeses. My husband always digs out the good part and leaves me with the white outside part. Sigh.

    I go through about two large packages of goat cheese per week. We put it on salads, chicken, and yes, on baguettes. But how can you eat cheese AFTER dinner? Oh yes, I forget, the French eat their dinner in very small portions so they have room for bread and cheese.

    • ladyjennie says:

      Oh no! Have your husband read this post so he knows not to leave you with mangled cheese. ;-)

      I was the opposite – couldn’t eat cheese during pregnancy. I remember once my husband saying, “I think I’ll have a little cheese” and I covered my mouth and said, “You shouldn’t have said that!” as I ran to the bathroom. And yes, the French eat small portions. It’s easier to eat small portions when you know there are a couple of courses that still await you.

  5. Kate says:

    I just want to eat it all!!!

  6. HOPPER says:

    One of the best parts of going to France is the cheese. There is a cheese etiquette! :-) I had to teach my hubby how to eat cheese properly when we went to France. Otherwise, he would have made a sandwich. Your friend Barbara from L’ Auvergne forgot La Forme d’Ambert…the town where my Mom is from…that’s a great cheese too!

  7. Stacia says:

    I do love a good Camembert, dirty-diaper smell and all!

  8. The last wording was brilliant!LOL … Now I’m hungry! I’ve never heard of a wine without alcohol. Is is like Near Beer where it just has a tiny bit??? Please explain.

  9. Yum, I want some cheese, bread, wine now. I love this post b/c I’ve always wondered the proper way to serve these cheeses. Honestly, this is a great reference…thank you.
    Gorgeous pictures too.

  10. Zee says:

    That was interesting Jennie,
    I always think of you and your post about Le Rustique whenever I go to the supermarket and lay eyes on it…
    Z

  11. Pat says:

    Now my stomach is grumbling mad, craving for cheese!

  12. Ms. Michelle says:

    I am 5lbs heavier after reading your blog :)

    What are your thoughts on smoked cheeses? Do they have a place on the cheese service or would it be too overpowering?

  13. Grandpa says:

    Hmmm…I wish I learned this some years ago when I made yearly trips to France…

    I love those bread, don’t mind tearing them up. They are very difficult if not impossible to find here.

    Good to learn about Bonne Nouvelle – now that I’m off alcohol.

    I had high drama on the highway, have you read about it yet?

  14. Kathaina says:

    Oh my . . . I loved your little cheese etiquette party.
    Too bad I’m across the pond and couldn’t taste any.

    I am loving your blog.

    Katharina
    Onewomansthoughts2day@blogspot.com

  15. Ms. Pearl says:

    Great tutorial! They all look amazing….

  16. Alexandra says:

    Oh, what a cool post.

    I LOVE learning about the rest of the world.

    Truly, I do.

    Thank you, for being my special place in the blogosphere.

  17. AW says:

    What a yummy post! Thanks for sharing.

  18. mep says:

    I will be referencing this post in the future, I know. Putting together a proper cheese plate is just the kind of thing I’d like to be able to do. Thank you!

  19. ayala says:

    Nice post. Once in awhile my husband will be in the mood for some good Brie and Blue cheese. It gave me an idea to have the types of cheese that you recommended . :-)

  20. The pictures above are gratifying, but I must clarify, to answer the question of your post………

    It was I who cut the cheese.

    My sincere apologies. :)

  21. You made my mouth water will all this talk about bread, wine and cheese. And praising God that I will be in France this time next week!

  22. I just found your blog thanks to the Empress. This post is awesome! I always wanted to know more about French cheese and was certainly not aware of all the etiquette. Thanks so much!

I'm Lady Jennie - Welcome to A Lady in France!

I think I was born in the wrong era. I am meant to live in the 19th century. In England. Born into an aristocratic family that is independently wealthy and doesn't need to marry off its daughters to save them from becoming spinster governesses. ( To continue reading, please click here. )

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