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French Cheese Eating Etiquette

Did you know there was a careful etiquette to follow when eating French cheese?

Either did I.

Not for many years. I wonder how many times I might have embarrassed myself?

Oh well, I’m pretty sure I’ve accidentally cut a super long spaghetti strand in Italy with a knife before too (another faux-pas)!

Cheese is a staple of French culture and cuisine. Le fromage is serious business in France and it is surrounded by a world of unspoken and unwritten rules.

In my experience, travelers are more likely to have smooth and less frustrating travel experiences when they arrive knowing what to expect. This is one of my primary goals when travel consulting and crafting custom itineraries for my clients.

So, to help you avoid some of the embarrassment I’m sure I’ve inflicted on myself, I’m going to share with you specific French cheese-eating etiquette that is observed while enjoying cheese in France.

Related Article: A Traveler’s Guide to French Cheese

Restaurant waiter serving a French cheese plate.
Photo Credit: Jessica Spengler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY

 

1.     The French don’t consider cheese an appetizer

You won’t see cheese served at just any time of the day in France….it has a proper time. and place….see Rule #2:

2.    The right time to have cheese is right before the dessert

The French don’t like ending a meal with cheese, so they always follow it with dessert, which could even be just grapes.

3.    Cheese and crackers don’t go together

The French don’t like serving cheese with crackers because they believe that they diminish the fantastic taste of their cheeses. Therefore, cheese is served with bread, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be a baguette.

4.   Cheese and red wine are a thing

While there are various factors considered before selecting the wine to pair with a specific cheese, the French typically prefer red wine. Otherwise, they tend to pair a wine that originates from the same region as the cheese.

5.    Mentioning the stink of a cheese is considered impolite

So, hold your nose or stop breathing – do whatever it takes to stop yourself from commenting on the (unpleasant) smell of a French cheese, because the locals will take it to their heart. If you have to say something, you can say that the cheese is “fort,” which means strong in French.

6.   Let the cheese breathe

Wrapped up cheese that has been sitting in the fridge is not considered ready to be eaten. To be able to eat it, you must take it out and prepare it on a serving plate at least an hour before you want to eat it. It is at room temperature that the flavors and aromas of a cheese really thrive.

7.    Follow the “odd” rule

Anybody who is putting together a cheese plate in France should know that it should always contain an odd number of cheeses, apparently for aesthetic purposes. That’s not all; you should also have a minimum of three varieties – a soft cheese, a hard one, and a goat or blue cheese.

8.   Cut it right

This is perhaps the most demanding of the etiquette. There is a specific rule for each shape, and it is all about manners and geometry. Here’s a summary of the rules for each shape:

  • Round cheeses (e.g., Comte) – cut in thin triangular sections that resemble cake slices (should be around the thickness of a pencil)
  • Log-shaped goat cheese – cut in parallel slices
  • Square cheeses – cut in triangles
  • Rectangular cheeses – cut slices that are parallel to the rind
  • Pyramid-shaped cheeses – cut into one slice, then halve it
  • Wedge-shaped cheeses (e.g., Brie, Roquefort) – cut along the side of the wedge diagonally, being careful not to cut off “the nose” (the tip of the cheese that is nearest to the center) because it holds the most flavor. Make sure that you get more of the side and less of the middle so that others can also get some of it.

And if after reading all this, you are wondering why the host doesn’t manage the slicing on his or her own to save you (the foreign visitor) from all that trouble, here’s the reason. Pre-slicing is bound to compromise the flavor and moisture of the cheese, and your host wants you to have the best, most indulging experience of the local cheese.

9.   Keep it small

Don’t spread the cheese like it’s Nutella, and certainly avoid placing a whole slice of cheese over a large piece of bread. The correct way to enjoy your cheese in France is to gently place a small piece of cheese on a bite-sized morsel of the bread and then put it nicely into your mouth.

The irony is that the irresistible French cheese may tempt you to quickly stuff it all into your mouth (while you forget about the world), but you have to be all decent, slow and gentle while eating it (I feel your pain!).

10. Follow the correct order

This is important so that you may enjoy the flavor of each type of cheese. Start with the mildest one, and work your way up to the strongest (a polite word for smelliest) of them all. For instance, you want to start off with Brie, move on to the goat cheese, then the blue and finally the Camembert.

11.   Don’t cross-contaminate the cheeses!

You will find a designated knife for each cheese, so be careful not to use one knife for more than one cheese. However, if you have to use one knife, make sure that you wipe it out properly on a piece of bread before moving on to the next cheese. The French hate it when you mix their cheeses!

12. Rind or no rind? Decide for yourself

Fortunately for you, the French don’t have a strict opinion about eating the rind, so you can choose for yourself whether you would like to eat it or not.

13. Storing cheese in plastic wrap is a big no-no

You don’t want to suffocate the cheese, so keep it in a cheese bag to maintain its freshness as it regulates humidity and allows the cheese to breathe. In case you don’t have a cheese bag, you may wrap the left-over cheese in wax paper and then very loosely in plastic wrap.

Too many “rules?”

Have you made it through the list and now feel a bit intimidated?

Actually, you don’t have to let all of this get in the way of you enjoying the cheese paradise that is France.

While these “rules” exist, they are not very strictly followed when eating with close family or friends. And of course, the French are lovely to tourists, so they will cut you some slack (and cut your cheese for you!). But you can still try to be mindful of what I have shared with you so that you can save yourself from (avoidable) embarrassment.

Enjoy tasting your way through France!

And, if you need help with a cheese-focused travel itinerary (or any other special interest itinerary), check out my Custom Travel Planning Services!

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