Shortly after I arrived in France, I was invited as guest of honour to a dinner party for eight. I was flattered but also somewhat apprehensive as to the correct protocol. And so I dusted off my French etiquette book, which suggested simply following what the host does.
It made perfect sense and worked well – up to a point, that is! Imagine my horror when I was the first to be invited to serve myself from the cheese platter. A selection of cheeses in all shapes and sizes- some familiar, others perfect strangers- confronted me. Sitting imperiously in the centre of the platter was the famed Roquefort, and it had the air of just waiting for me to commit an error.
Numerous questions presented themselves: should I cut a piece from just one cheese or from several – and what size? In an effort to be fair I tried mentally dividing the cheeses into equal parts for the seven other guests – who by this time were wondering if I would ever pass the platter around!
Now, after over 30 years in France and any number of dinner parties, this is what I recommend when confronted with a similar dilemma: Take what you can. That platter may not come back to you and even if it does your favourite cheese might be gone. So go for it first time around!
There is only one totally unacceptable error, and that is to take an entire piece of cheese. One other useful tip: if you are the host you should serve yourself last.
That is not quite the end of your troubles, however. Let us return to the Roquefort – the ‘cheese of kings and popes’ and a reputed favorite of Emperor Charlemagne. No self-respecting cheese platter in France would be without it, but beware – it demands respect and is full of hazards for the unwary! Oh la la…
First a word about Roquefort. This creamy white cheese is made with sheep’s milk and injected with mould from rye bread to produce blue veins. It is then rolled in coarse salt and stored in caves in the village of Roquefort for three months.
Roquefort is located at the base of a cliff that shifted long ago to create crevasses, which the cheesemakers now use as cellars. Temperatures in the cellars year-round are between 8 to 10 degrees and 80 percent humidity provide the perfect conditions for producing the cheese.
Now back to the business of helping yourself to Roquefort cheese and how to avoid the two most common faux pas.
First, never serve yourself the creamy blue edge in the middle. That would be considered really bad manners, since it is the best part. (I don’t know if this is true, but my cheese merchant told me that men are the worst offenders!)
The second mistake is to cut a piece from top to bottom vertically – it isn’t fair to other guests! The person after you will get the outer slice with the mostly salty crust, while the person with the slice in the middle will have the best creamy part with the tasty mould. The proper way to cut Roquefort cheese is from the centre outwards toward the rind (i.e. in the shape of a triangle).
Roquefort is just an hour’s drive from Montpellier and Sète and all the Roquefort cheese in the entire world comes from this tiny village. Once there were 30 producers and today there are just 7.
Nancy McGee, founder of Absolutely Southern France, gives “insider hints” on regional delicacies, destinations and food etiquette. For a personal cheese etiquette experience, join Nancy on a Gourmet Walking Tour of Sète or Montpellier. Nancy is also a is a guest contributor to the Barefoot Blogger. Visit bfblogger.com