Happy Bastille Day: How to Serve (and Eat) a Cheese Course
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 among close friends and family, you can rip off chunks from the main loaf like this:
If your 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 lycopene 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 listeria 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-ayor 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 toward the back of the cheese with a crust, you want to start cutting it this way…
…to avoid being the last person 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 two or three 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?”
Lady Jennie also blogs at A Lady in France, where she writes about life in France, parenting, gardening and French cuisine.