Cheese is a symbol of French gastronomy. A slice of cheese in France, isn’t just a slice of cheese – it’s also a slice of history, an icon of French civilisation. And it may seem that I’m over egging the pudding, or rather the cheese with such statements but I promise you, to the French cheese really is that important!
Some French cheeses have been around for a thousand years or more. Take Banon, a chestnut leaf wrapped goats’ cheese from Provence – it’s said it was the cause of death by gluttony of roman Emperor Antoine the Pious. Maroilles was made by monks in the village of Maroilles in the far north of France 1300 years ago, they used it to pay their taxes. And Cantal said to be one of the oldest cheeses of France which even the Roman Pliny the Elder wrote about.
More recently Camembert, apparently Napoleon Bonaparte’s favourite cheese, is said to have been ‘invented’ in 1791 by Marie Harel a farmer in Normandy who it is said was inspired by a priest who made cheese in Brie! Cheese has provenance in France, legends abound, and French cheese has peppered the tales of history throughout the centuries.
How to create a great French-style platter
Take your tastebuds on a trip to France and create a fabulous French style cheeseboard. It’s all about making it look as good as it tastes and mixing up the flavours. A piece of goats’ cheese, a creamy Camembert, a hard cheese and a blue cheese – it’s about balance.
Always serve the cheese before dessert. And let it ‘breathe’ before you serve it – leave it out in room temperature for about an hour.
Generally, you should include three to five cheeses on a board – a mix of hard, semi-hard, soft and semi-soft. They should be arranged from the mildest to the strongest. Take them out of the fridge around 30 minutes before serving so that they’re at the optimal temperature for eating.
And typically, extra flavours are added through a few fruits, nuts and vegetables. Crunchy piquant olives, for sweetness add slices of apple or pear, fig jam, a drizzle of honey, season berries, dried apricots, grapes and for texture add some nuts – walnuts are ideal with tangy cheese. Adding just a little bit of something different like this really does jazz up your cheeseboard. But not too many, you need to make it easy for people to get to the cheese, so put just a few on the board and some in pretty bowls close by for extras. Edible flowers, sprigs of herbs (which also smell good) and fauna, look wonderful on a cheese board, turning it from a plate of cheese to a work of art!
Cheese etiquette in France
Serve your cheese with bread, not crackers. Baguette torn into chunks is always good, but sourdough bread is also fine. Ideally you’ll have separate knives for each cheese – and especially for the soft cheeses.
There is a right way to cut cheese – and a wrong way. I was once at a big lunch with lots of French people and a few non-French. The non-French were offered the cheese board first. The cheeses are not cut in advance as that can make the cheese dry and lose flavour.
The non-French cut with gusto. The French were horrified. Entente-cordiale was almost lost. Cutting French cheese is an art – and it’s largely according to shape. Log shaped cheeses should be cut into slices. Square cheeses and round cheeses cut into triangle shapes. Rectangular cheese cut parallel to the rind.
But some cheese have special etiquette. The non-French guests cut off the nose of the Brie – eek, that is the tastiest bit in the middle, ditto with Roquefort. It’s good manngers to cut along the side of the cheese, not take all the middle! If you’re not sure how to cut, no French person minds you asking, better to ask than to offend and pinch the best bit! In a restaurant, generally the cheese will be cut for you.
Take a small piece of cheese, small piece of bread (bite size) – it’s not a cheese sandwich or for spreading. Start with the mildest cheese and work up to the strongest.
Paired with gorgeous dinnerware, a pretty tablecloth and napkins for that art de vivre (the art of living well) style the French do so well, a cheese platter isn’t just a plate of cheese – it’s a visual feast and a taste of France!
French cheese dishes that are irresistible
I have no idea how many cheese dishes there are in France – thousands and thousands, and new dishes emerge every day. This is after all the land where at least 2 new cookery books a day are published. But there are some classics that are iconic and if you love cheese – you have to try them.
Gougères – little cheesy puff balls of delight and a classic snack or to to go with aperitifs
Croque Monsieur – toasted cheese sandwich but with French style, this recipe by Michelin Star Chef Michel Roux Jr is delicious!
Baked Camembert – unctuous, comforting, irresistible
Tartiflette – mountain food, robust and homely and utterly scrumptious…
Want more cheese?! Have a listen to our Welcome to cheeseland podcast