How to Break Bread and Brie in France
How To: Great cheese abounds in the land of Gaul, but dig in and you risk committing any number of faux pas. Terry Ward explains how to partake of the nation's famed fromage with savoir faire.
06.20.08 | 9:21 AM ET
The situation: You’re a guest in a French home and are in the final stretch of a perfectly paced meal. You’ve managed to keep your hands visible, atop the table—elbows off! You’ve daintily raised bite-sized pieces of hand-torn bread to your mouth instead of biting directly from a whole slice of bread, placing the remainder directly on the tablecloth between bites as French etiquette demands. You’ve even refrained from cutting your salad with a knife, folding it as neatly as possible with the knife atop your fork instead. But you’re not out of the woods yet. The cheese course—served between the main dish and dessert—is about to make its round, and with it comes any number of potential faux pas.
The basics: General Charles de Gaulle once lamented the near impossibility of one man governing a nation that produced over 200 kinds of cheese. Today it must be be significantly more difficult. The number of French cheese varieties has been estimated at more than 500—from the classic Brie and Camembert wedges that make their way into every mainstream American supermarket to uncooked soft chèvre, Port du Salut and oozing, odiferous Epoisse.
A basic French meal almost always includes an entrée (the word most Americans use for a main dish actually means appetizer in French), a main dish and a cheese course, which may or may not take the place of the final course, dessert. And while cheese courses are often proffered in restaurants, it’s far more common to find yourself faced with the plateau du fromage when dining in a French home.
What to expect: At a casual meal, the cheese course might simply be a round or wedge of cheese passed around on a plate—although it could just as easily be a platter with several selections of cheeses of varying tastes and textures. In many restaurants, vast cheese offerings are often wheeled to the table on a cart.
“In my family, it’s always three types—a soft cheese, like a Camembert or Brie, a strong blue cheese and perhaps an Emmental or Gruyère,” says Helene Toures, the French executive director of the Alliance Française in Atlanta, Georgia. What’s more, she adds, “There are never crackers. The cheese course is always served with bread, perhaps a baguette or a round bread—but never crackers.”
Cut with care: This is where things get tricky. Cheeses, like wine, should be appreciated in a taste-appropriate order—begin with the milder cheeses (the soft Bries and Camemberts, for example) and finish with the strongest cheeses, such as the blue-veined varieties. While it’s not a hard and fast rule, oftentimes, individual cheeses are sidled with their own knives for cutting, and it’s imperative not to use one cheese’s knife to slice and dice another. One French cheese easily adapts another’s tastes and odors if knives are shared. The goal is to avoid contaminating a mild Brie de Mieux with the strong flavors emanating from, say, one of the blue cheeses hailing from the Auvergne or the Causses.
That said, if there’s only one knife on the platter, feel free to use it to cut all of the cheeses, Toures says.
As for how much to put on your plate, there’s no need to be shy. The French believe in hearty cuts of cheese to truly experience the flavor, and when the cheese plate is passed your way, it’s customary to take a slice of each offering at the first go-around.
From each cheese, according to one’s needs: When it comes to cutting into the cheese, proceed with care—the size and shape of each particular cheese on a platter dictates a precise way of cutting, and if you come at a wedge from the wrong angle, you’re not going to win any French friends.
The ultimate goal with every slice is to equally distribute the crust.
“You have to think like a communist when cutting cheese,” a French friend once told me. “You must cut it so that everyone gets the same amount of good and bad.”
The good part of the cheese, he explained, is the soft inner part, with the bad usually referring to the cheese’s exterior, whether soft spores or a calloused crust. (Nevertheless, it’s fine to eat the crust of many French cheeses—if you see your friends digging in, give it a try, too.)
Advanced slicing technique: The worst faux pas you could make is to seem too greedy for the good stuff when slicing your portion. And while the inclination for an American faced with a fresh wedge of Brie or Camembert would naturally be to cut off the point (or the nose of the cheese, as the French call the tapered goodness), this, in France, is a cardinal sin.
Says Toures, “With a piece of Camembert, for example, you must slice from the side, taking equal portions from the crust and inner part.”
When the cheese is round (such as a wheel of Brie), cutting it into wedges, as you would a cake, is appropriate.
For cylindrical cheeses (a log of chèvre, for example) or rectangular varieties (a brique of Saint Maure, perhaps), start from one end, and cut in equal circles or squares along the length. When circles (called “rondelles” in French) are too large for a single portion, they can be sliced into wedges.
Pyramid-shaped cheeses should first be cut vertically in two equal parts, and then quartered.
With blue cheeses, the rule about equally dividing the crust and interior is particularly important, as the mold spores (yes, those are the good bits) are rarely equally distributed throughout. Slicing always begins from one end—never in the middle—but if you’re lucky, your turn with the knife will come toward the middle of the cheese, where the softest and tastiest bits are usually found.
Last but not least: With your cracker cravings at bay, tear off a piece of baguette and enjoy the fruits of your egalitarian labor. And don’t forget the magic words: Bon appetit.