Cutting the Cheese

 

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© isabel cooney

 

Whether a guest at a French table, or serving French cheeses chez vous, here are five ‘cheese faux-pas’ to avoid. Learning the unspoken rules of fromage will alleviate the stress that can result from culture clash at the table, and lead the way to pure cheese joy.

Like others who live in France and regularly host foreigners, I have occasionally been obliged to muffle a shocked gasp or a giggle at dinner. It is common for people not brought up in a cheese-rich culture to be uninformed about the appropriate ways to cut a given cheese. Those of us who did not absorb such primordial survival knowledge in our infancy are forced to learn it later, just as, like it or not, to really know French, one must eventually learn the subjunctive.

Cheese Faux-Pas #1: Hacking Haphazardly

The key to cutting any given cheese is to take your share of the rind. It is an act of courtoisie, which is still much appreciated by the French – no matter how hip or modern your acquaintance might seem. And despite the fact that you may proceed to dispose of that rind in a petite pile on your plate, it is nevertheless your duty to do your part.

Any disc-shaped round cheese – like a Camembert, a creamy sheep’s milk circle, or even a more bulbous goat’s milk crottin, is to be sliced in two unhesitating strokes, like a pie: in a triangular portion radiating from the center. The same also applies to pyramids, square-shaped soft cheeses (Pont-l’Evêque) or the heart-shaped Neufchâtel.

For wedge-shaped cheeses, which can either be soft, like a Roquefort for example, or hard, such as a wedge of Petit Basque, one commonly begins slicing at the low end, parallel to the rind. However, as you approach the rind – approximately two inches away – begin cutting in a perpendicular manner, so as to begin sharing in the citizen’s duty of divvying up the ‘undesirable’ rind.

Flat, rectangular blocks, which might typically be Comté or Gruyère, are approached similarly. Cutting begins in a carefree fashion, as you slice personal portions at 90° (or your closest shot), gradually approaching the distant rind. These blocks can throw you for a loop because the rind can show up in all sorts of combinations – before being chopped up into the blocks you find in your fromagerie, these cheeses usually start out the size of an SUV tire.

Finally, an extremely easy one: cheeses in the form of a log or a brick, most often covered uniformly with a soft while or an ash-sprinkled rind, are simply to be sliced from the end, like bread.

Just remember, if you keep the golden rule of rind-sharing in mind, you will be fine. The sorry diner who forgets this advice and takes the last slice of edible (melt-in-your-mouth, crystal-filled) Comté, leaving nothing but an empty rind, can expect at the very least a dirty look, if not an outright scolding.

Cheese Faux-Pas #2: Knife Switching

In fact, this common faux-pas is easy to remedy in most cases. Unless you are a guest in an extremely formal household, most French families provide just one knife with a cheese platter. The key is not to stick your own personal knife into the public cheese supply.

Use the knife that has been provided, using a piece of (unnibbled!) bread to clean the blade at any point if it has become gooey. The ‘common knife’ is there for cutting cheese, spearing what you’ve sliced, and transporting it to your plate.

If what you have sliced does not easily dislodge with a simple twist of the knife, take your (clean!) fork or knife and give it a nudge. If your fork is covered in bechamel  from the previous course, ne paniquez pas! … calmly clean wipe it clean with your bread and then begin ‘Operation Liberate Your Cheese.’

Don’t panic, but don’t get so relaxed either that you forget yourself, as one American guest once did at our table, grabbing the wedge of gooey, farm-house Camembert directly off the common knife with his fingers. Though you might feel others watching you, or sense their impatience to get at the cheese, it is imperative that you concentrate during this delicate procedure and take pride in doing it with care.

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© isabel cooney

Cheese Faux-Pas #3: Mold Paranoia

Rind tends to be a personal issue.

Clearly, if you are reading this article, you are not a goat, and therefore no one reasonably expects you to happily ingest paper, wax or foil! However, I have noticed that novices often remove even the most edible rinds (Brie) or even the pleasant ashen dusting on a Selle-sur-Cher goat cheese.

I’ve found it very useful to consider rind, whenever possible, and especially with soft cheeses, as an integral part of the product. It is not only what the precious cheese is dressed in, but also a key contributor to the cheese’s uniqueness.

A friend and I were once sampling artisinal cheeses at a farmer’s market in Normandy. The man who was serving us these extraordinarily flavorful Salers cheeses made a point of giving us each a slice of pure rind. He bragged about the thickness (several inches!) of this brown, lunar substance, explaining that it was the concentration of this particular sort of mold that formed the most delectable part of these pricey fromages.

And it did require a leap of faith, but once I closed my eyes and turned off the American part of my brain, trained to loathe bacteria in all its forms, I must admit that it was a delightful gustatory moment.

So, in short, yes, rinds are usually ugly and moldy. And if you encountered any micro-organisms like this on anything else in your fridge, eating it would certainly be out of the question. But cheese is in its own category – stinky and moldy perhaps, but irrefutably marvelous. And if others are eating the rind, you should take the risk and try it too. Often it only enhances your pleasure. And if you’re really not up for it (some natives remove only the ridges from the Camembert rind) don’t bother with shame! Get out your fork and knife and prepare to perform some subtle dissection.

Cheese Faux-Pas #4: Cheese as Finger-food

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© isabel cooney

Cheese is almost never a finger-food in France. Whereas in America, we are quite used to picking up cubes or slices of cheddar and arranging them on a cracker during ‘wine and cheese’ receptions, or as a snack in someone’s home. Cheese remains a traditional element of a French meal. It does not usually appear until the end of the meal, after the main course and before dessert.

In many families, the cheese platter – with two, three or more cheeses and one knife – is passed around the table and each person serves him or herself. A person may sample just one of the cheeses, or try every single cheese – it’s all acceptable. It is also common to take a few samples when the plate first circulates, and then later on in the cheese course (don’t wait too long!) to request the plate again.

But under no circumstances is it considered appropriate to handle one’s cheese! Though using a fork and knife to compile a little “bouchée” of bread and cheese might feel unnatural, resist the urge to get touchy-feely. Most French cheeses, especially the more pungent, like a Muenster or Livarot but even a decent Comté, will leave a lingering perfume on your fingers, and wipe as you might, a napkin is powerless against such powerful odors. You may not have a chance to wash away the evidence of your bad manners for a few more hours, given the way some French meals slow down and stretch out during the cheese, dessert, coffee, chocolate and digestive liqueur courses.

Bread, on the other hand, is OK to hold with your fingers (anything else would just be plain funny). But if you want to blend in, remember two important details. First, take only one slice at a time. Second, a piece of bread that’s already been cheesed up can rest briefly on your plate if necessary. But a bare bit of bread is expected to remain in its proper place: on the table next to your plate, in the vicinity of your wine glass for instance. I can’t say I understand why, but bread (and this also applies to breakfast) never seems to merit its own plate in France, despite the plethora of crumbs that always ensue.

Cheese Faux-Pas #5: Creating Cheese Stress

Don’t make a potentially divine food experience into an awkward one for your guests. If you are serving an assortment of cheeses as part of a buffet, there are some simple things you can do to facilitate happy cheese tasting for all. Consider pre-cutting each cheese (it’ll be an opportunity to practice your new skills!). You might as well remove the non-edible rinds too, as rind-sharing courtoisie will be lost in such a setting. Without your forethought, knives get switched around and creamed up, rind is avoided like the plague, and beautiful cheeses are gruesomely massacred.

°  °  °

The art of cheese cutting and serving is easy to learn and only enhances one’s pleasure. Keep these guidelines in mind for your next cheese course, and when all else fails, just ask your host! The French love to share their knowledge of all things food.

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© isabel cooney

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14 thoughts on “Cutting the Cheese

  1. Oh my! So much to learn. Good thing we have you to guide us with your good humor and wit! Thanks for shedding the light on all this Izzy. I’m glad you took the time to break it down for us non-natives. Looking forward to more 🙂

  2. Formidable!
    Qui l’aurait cru? Tant de choses a savoir parfaitement expliquees par une Americaine pour tous!
    Felicitations et merci.

    • mais oui,
      c’est juste impensable pour nous les américains qu’il puisse y avoir eu autant de réflexions sur le fromage!
      moi, ça me fascine et ça m’amuse.
      merci pour ton commentaire!

  3. Quelle grande surprise! Your baroque manner of writing is so authentically Deep Southern.

    My own origins are Deep Southern, but the 2d half of my formative years–09 thru 18–were lived in Boston.

    My favorite southern and all-round American writer is Mark Twain. When he lived in Hannibal and long after, Missourians still considered their state southern, tho’ not the Deep South of moss-draped oak trees. St Louis native, T S Eliot, thought he was Southern too. He even joined Harvard’s Southern Club, before he became an Englishman and joined the Church of England.

    • ; – )
      well, wow!
      this coming spring will be my first real trip to the south, and perhaps i will find that elusive home i’ve been searching for, who knows!?
      funny you mention t.s. eliot (whose works i really don’t yet have the pleasure to know, but i love that he joined harvard’s southern club!) … i just read a really fabulous shanghai-based thriller by a t.s. elliot expert and t.s.e. is woven in throughout, as well as a whole slough of really moving chinese verse. (author = qiu_xiaolong; it’s the inspector chen series, je recommande!)

      • To connect with the genteel South, you will have to go farther south than Missouri. Louisville Ky might be the farthest north. West Va is rather rough. Virginia or NC not likely, but one never knows.

        Most hotel or restaurant staff in larger southern cities have become quite commercial and rushed. Few of them were ever likely literary anyway, but now they would disappoint a traveller hoping to glimpse the Southern mindset.

        Charleston SC, Savannah GA, and Mobile AL would be likely places if you could meet some people there in local cultural and literary circles. Picayune MS might be a good bet, but who in Hell has reason to go to Picayune?

        Meeting the real thing was less problematic in the South, before television. Earlier, many people especially Southern women read a lot (really a lot!–some of it high quality) and pursued cultural outlets. With television’s introduction, children and younger adults began spending many hours daily watching. As they did, reading and writing took a big hit as ladies of literary bent passed on.

        A few who could now be anywhere from 20 to 90 remain, but are hard to find. Forces that tended to shape Harper Lees, Eudora Weltys, etc are long gone. Nowadays, it would take a very eccentric lady indeed to push down their path.

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