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Entries in Cheese (3)


Top Five Posts of All Time

At the start of a new year, it's always good to reflect on the past year.

 So here is a recap of the top five articles that I wrote in 2010:


Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone can actually “learn to speak French” in the course of planning a holiday vacation to France.  However, you can use a few commonly known words to your advantage.  You just have to use precisely the right word at just the right moment. read more...


In France, things aren’t often easy.  As my good friend J always says “Those French, they’ve got a different word for everything” and this is certainly true for coffee.  So here’s a quick primer on how to get a satisfying cup of Joe just like you enjoy on your way to work back home.  read more...


In a Paris café or most average restaurants, fast, efficient service is not a highly-prized part of the experience. So expect to have to wait more than you’re used too.  Why would that be, aren't servers supposed to well, "serve?"  read more...


It's an age old question, but perhaps you never thought it was an important link to French culture.  It was one of the first lessons I learned about the cultural differences between Americans and the French when I moved here in 2001.  read more...


France's food culture is one of the most celebrated in the world, but the rules that surround it are not always easy to comprehend.  As an expat living in Paris I've learned the hard way that there are a myriad of French customs related to food that can surprise you when you least expect it.  read more...


Who cut the cheese?

France's food culture is one of the most celebrated in the world, but the rules that surround it are not always easy to comprehend.  As an expat living in Paris I've learned the hard way that there are a myriad of French customs related to food that can surprise you when you least expect it.

Once, relatively early on in my Paris life, I was invited to a party at the home of a colleague from Christie's France.  It was a large event, planned as a cocktail dinatoire.  The type of party a caterer would likely call "cocktail/heavy hors d'oeuvres."

It was held in a beautiful and elegantly furnished apartment in the 16th not far from the Bois de Boulogne.  I arrived a bit late, as I had already learned my lesson to not arrive on time. See previous post  Once arrived, things were going well.  I knew a number of people and those I didn't were welcoming and friendly. 

There was an abundance of food on offer.  In addition to passed petits-fours salés (Hors d'Oeuvres) there was a big buffet laid out in the dining room.  At a certain point in the evening the table was cleared to start cheese and dessert.  As you may already now, I love cheese and despite still being a newby in France (this was 2002) I thought I'd learned quite a bit about cheese.

The cheese and desserts had drawn a number of people and several were around me as I started to serve myself from the selection of cheeses.  Well, my knife had barely touched the first piece of cheese, a runny ripe Brie de Meaux, when I heard a sound I have learned to dread:  the sound of a deep nasal inhalation.  I call it "the sniff."  I looked towards the source of this sound and saw my friend Isabelle simultaneously shaking her head and gently clicking her tongue.  I don't know if you can imagine this combination of sight and sound, but if we ever meet I'd be happy to demonstrate so you know what to look out for.

I had already learned that "the sniff" was a polite indication of a social faux-pas in the making.  The tongue-clicking and head-shaking is a more emphatic and familial version ...something parents reserve for their children.  Since she knew me, she could do both.  Otherwise, she would have only done "the sniff."   The direction of my knife made it clear to those around me that I was about to make a big mistake.  You see, I was about to "cut off the nose" of this beautiful Brie de Meaux.  Meaning that I intended to cut the point off the wedge-shaped piece of Brie.  You might think that this seems like a reasonable approach, hardly worthy of "the sniff," but the French have a different and perhaps even logical view.

When savoring a really nice piece of French cheese, there are several factors that make up the flavor.  I have already talked about the importance of eating cheese at its seasonal peak and other factors that can influence the taste.  See previous post.  Having selected the perfect cheese, when you begin eating there are several key components that make a perfect bite.  These are the outer skin or "croûte," the interior "pâte," and any mold occurring on the surface or in interior veins.  Each of these components adds its own small part to the overall flavor and the idea is that everyone should have an equal amount of each flavor component. For example, the closer you get to the outer crust, the stronger the flavor. Another unlikely factor can be the crunch, the extra-vieux Mimolette is best eaten when its more than two years old and the crust has been invested with cheese mites.  (Hard to imagine who thought of that one.)  It's very dry and usually served in small cubes or crumbled. 

In my case, with the Brie de Meaux, cutting off the nose, as I was barbarically about to do, would deprive the other guests of their perfect bite.  Thanks to Isabelle, my faux-pas was averted.  I took her cue and stopped in the nick of time.  She made a gesture that indicated I should cut down the side of the wedge, thus allowing everyone a similar piece.  What I have later learned is that every shape of cheese has its own rules for how it should be cut. 

Basic Guidelines for Cutting French Cheeses


Some varieties, like the Swiss Tête de Moine even have their own tools designed expressly for making the perfect bite.

In recent years I've learned that the French love to break the rules.  Especially the rules that are begging to be broken.  However, what I've noticed is that when people break the rules about cutting cheese they often first make it known they realize they are breaking the rules; often using the assumptive phrase, "you don't mind if I cut the nose."  So even though they are breaking the rules they don't want you to think they don't know their way around a cheese plate.


A brief guide to French Cheese

I love cheese, and in France there's a lot to love.  There are literally hundreds of different cheeses and variations. 

As with French wines, there is a system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Laitière (AOC Dairy) which are 42 legally controlled names which can only be used if the maker conforms the requirements of the name. There are even four official kinds of butter and two types of Creme Fraiche. These requirements cover the type of milk used, the texture and the location where the milk is sourced, and the cheese produced.  The intention of the AOC name is to protect consumers and producers alike, preventing a cheesemaker in another region (or country) to make a similar cheese sold with that name that may not be of the same quality or flavor.  Here you can explore the list of AOC cheeses.

For example, one of my favorites this time of year is Vacherin Mont D'Or.  This is defined as a soft washed-rind cows-milk cheese that is produced in selected villages in the Jura Mountains.  It is aged in a round box made of Spruce wood that imparts a woody flavor and aroma.  Since most cheeses have their seasons, this one is best in the fall. At this point the woody flavor is pronounced, but its still quite creamy. It's especially good with a round Pouligny-Montrachet or an older MersaultThe longer it ages in the Spruce box, the heavier the woody character becomes.  Try it at different times of the season to see how you like it best.

My friend L's favorite cheese is Saint-Nectaire.  He's from Auvergne and that's the region where this cheese has been made since the 17th century.  One of his fondest childhood memories was getting a free morceau of Saint-Nectaire every time he accompagnied his mother to the local fromagèrie. Huh? 

When he first told me this story, I had to laugh; finding it hard to imagine a child getting excited about a stinky cheese treat.  I don't know about you, but when when I was a kid I remember fondly a getting free cookie at the bakery. 

Like much of French food culture, knowing what kind of milk is used and when the season peaks is just the start of understanding cheese.  In some cases it helps to know when the milk was produced.

During the brief period L and I lived in London, his parents came from his hometown of Le Puy in Auvergne to visit.  They arrived proudly bearing an enormous Saint-Nectaire cheese.  "Summer milk" his Mother leaned forward and said to me.  She used that same hushed tone some Mothers reserve for words like "Cancer" or "Prison," letting me in on the secret that this was indeed a special cheese.  Not only was it L's favorite type of cheese, it was made from Summer milk that imparts a grassier flavor - also his favorite.

It makes sense given that cows are eating grass at that time of the year.  It turns out that since Saint-Nectaire is produced throughout the year, there isn't a specific season.  The flavor varies along with the taste of the milk used in production.  Evidently, a true lover of cheese also knows what time of year each of his favorites is best. The Saint-Necataire made with Summer milk contrasts to one made of Winter milk when the cows are eating silage.  If you are like me and have never heard of silage, as best as I can tell silage is a sort of fermented feed that is stored for later use and imparts a stronger flavor. 

Try the Saint-nectaire at different times of year to see what you prefer.

Or you can take an armchair trip to Auvergne to learn about Saint-Nectaire first hand.

Your turn to share; What's your favorite childhood food memory?

A brief guide to French Cheese