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 amongst 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 lycophene 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 lysteria 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:

Cheese platter
Images: Courtesy of Lady Jennie

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.

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