Charles de Gaulle famously said that it was impossible to govern a country with 258 different cheeses — and he was only talking about AOC varieties! With more than 1,000 different cheeses by some estimates, France is truly a cheese-loving nation … but with this passion comes a whole lot of rules.
Etiquette and procedure related to food is a double-edged sword: sometimes I feel like rules are only there so that people can call you out on them, Emily Post-style, but other times, these standards are there for a reason. When it comes to cheese, knowing about these guidelines can actually improve your cheese-eating experience, and with that in mind, I picked the brains of two top Parisian fromagers about the right way to cut — and eat — le fromage.
When you’re putting together a cheese platter, it’s important to choose a variety of cheeses. Some people prefer featuring cheeses from one particular region, like the Alps. Others pick several different cheeses made with the same milk type, like goat. Still others prefer mix and match a variety of milk types and regions on one platter.
None of these methods is wrong … as long as you respect two rules for the number of cheeses on the platter.
“You should never have more cheese than you have guests,” says Pascal Luc of the Fromagerie de Grenelle in Paris. “And you always want an odd number.”
Say what now? Yep, according to Marwen Amor of wine and cheese shop La Vache dans les Vignes, “Tradition states that cheese should be served in odd numbers: three, five or seven.”
The jury’s out on why this is, though most agree that it’s more for aesthetic reasons than anything else: any student of art history will tell you that a still life should always have an odd number of items in it, and as the French like their food to be as beautiful as it is delicious, the same rules apply for a cheese board.
Cheese doesn’t just have a number, it also has an order.
“You always start with the mildest, and then you go to the more powerful,” explains Luc. “If it’s a blue or an aged tomme, for example, that should be at the end. If it’s too powerful in flavor, you won’t be able to taste the lighter ones afterwards.”
When you put it that way, it makes total sense – but here’s the problem: it’s not always that easy to tell just from looking at a cheese which one is the strongest. While often, age is an indicator of strength, Luc notes that this isn’t always the case.
For this reason, it’s important to talk with your cheesemonger about which cheese is the strongest, and then arrange the cheeses on the board or platter in such a way that it will be easy for guests to proceed from mildest to strongest.
There’s nothing worse than cold cheese: cold fat molecules retract, keeping most of the flavor shut away and keeping your guests from enjoying the cheeses you have selected to the fullest.
Luc suggests taking the cheese out of the fridge before sitting down to the meal (in France, cheese is eaten after the main course and before the dessert). If you’re serving cheese as an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre, however, take the cheese out of the fridge at least 30 minutes – and up to two hours – in advance.
And while we’re at it, there’s really no need to keep cheese super cold. French people traditionally keep their cheese in the cellar rather than in the refrigerator, but if you don’t have one (or want to keep it from smelling like feet), Luc suggests keeping it in the veggie bin, which is the least cold part of your refrigerator.
Tradition dictates that cheese should be paired with white wine, and while this is certainly an easy way to go, it’s not the only way.
“White wines are generally less tannic than red wines,” explains Amor. “Since tannins pair very poorly with casein, most of the wines that we choose to pair with cheese generally have very soft tannins or are not terribly tannic.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re limited to whites: any reds that aren’t terribly tannic pair nicely with cheese as well.
Tannins aside, it’s important to match the power of the wine to the power of the cheese.
“You really need balance between them,” says Luc. “A powerful wine with a powerful cheese, or a light wine with a light cheese. If you’ve got Brie and fresh goat cheese, you’ll want a Beaujolais, a light wine. If you’ve got Saint-Nectaire or Comté, maybe more a Bordeaux. And if you’ve got a Corsican sheep’s milk cheese, a Burgundy or a Corsican wine.”
You don’t necessarily need to stick to wine either. Luc likes to pair cheeses like Comté or Beaufort with Champagne, or pungent blue cheeses with sweet white wine like Sauternes. He also suggests pairing whisky with cheeses that have a bit more of a personality, like washed-rind Maroilles or Alsatian Munster.
Amor also suggests pairing cheese with beer: his trick is thinking about balancing bitter with bitter, acidity with acidity, or sweet with sweet.
Consider, for example, pairing a rich Porter with a washed rind cheese to echo that bitterness.
This might be the toughest rule on the whole list, but it’s one of the most important: in the land of equality, cutting cheese properly is the key to ensuring that everyone’s cheese-eating experience is equally delicious.
“There’s no one right way to cut cheese,” explains Amor. “That said, be it round, oval, square, triangular, pyramidal, cylindrical or anything else, there’s only one rule to respect: the repartition between the cheese and the crust must be equal. This guarantees that the first person served and the last person served get equal proportions of cheese to crust.”
For example, with a Brie, often served as a wedge, cut pieces off of the side, repositioning the tip as you go. The Brie should always look like a wedge; hacking off the tip might get you guillotined.
Round cheeses like goat cheese or Camembert should be cut like a pie, so that each person gets an individual triangular wedge. For a blue cheese, which will be served in a doorstop shape, cut lengthwise triangles, each of which incorporates a piece of the tip and a piece of the heel.
For a cheese like a Comté, where you usually won’t eat the rind, you can cut widthwise slices slowly leading up to the heel; each piece will have a bit of rind on each end, which can easily be cut off and discarded. When you reach a point where there is only about an inch of cheese left attached to the outer rind, you’ll want to switch directions, so that each slice has a bit of rind at the edge of their piece, and no one is left with just a hunk of rind.
In other words, the key to cutting any cheese properly — and really, the key to any of these rules — is that you shouldn’t ruin anyone else’s cheese-eating experience.
Photo by Didriks, CC BY 2.0
Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After many years of trying, she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She writes about her experiences with Franglais and food on her blog, tomatokumato.com. Follow her on Twitter @emiglia.