During my first couple of months in Paris, my lunch was often a half-baguette slathered with brie or camembert, which I’d wolf down before heading off to my French-language class.
I was in thrall to the deeply flavored cheeses I’d only just discovered at a supermarket around the corner from the apartment where I was then living in the 14th arrondissement, before I found the cheese shops in the neighborhood. These cheeses tasted like nothing I could get in the U.S.
Today I don’t consume cheeses in France with quite the same abandon as I did then, but I do eat more cheese in Paris than I do in New York (just not so much at one sitting). Cheese is a significant part of a French meal. My Parisian friends might not always offer a first course to their dinner guests, but most do make sure to have a cheese course before dessert.
In France you generally purchase the cheese you’re going to consume for that day, or perhaps the next. Cheese isn’t something you buy to keep for weeks, unless it’s a wedge of parmesan. That said, my friend Philippe V., who takes French thrift to an extreme, sometimes asks people over for a dinner “à la bonne franquette” – that is, potluck – to finish scraps of the weeks-old (and sometime months-old) cheeses he’s found lurking in his fridge. I sometimes offer to bring over newly bought cheese, just in case what’s there is inedible.
As with much in French life, there’s a certain way of doing things, and this applies even to a cheese course. You generally stick to odd numbers of cheeses: one, three or five (my friend Roland has served as many as seven). You mix firm, soft, mild and tangy styles, with cheese made from cow, sheep or goat’s milk. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however. A platter of small rounds of various chèvre is what my friends Jean-Paul and Dominique usually offer. You could also serve a single camembert or a brie.
Some friends of mine use up leftover cheese by making it part of their breakfast. They might spread remaining camembert on a baguette from the night before and have it with their morning coffee. Apparently this is a delicious combination.
For a simple cheese course, I might include a ripe camembert, a firm comté and a blue-style cheese such as a Roquefort. Once I referred to a Roquefort as a blue cheese but my friend Jean F. corrected me. “It’s not a blue cheese,” he said. “It’s Roquefort.” Here we go, I thought: the French love of categorization and putting you in your place. But Roquefort actually differs from blue cheeses because Roquefort, and only Roquefort cheeses, are aged in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. This is a distinction Americans don’t usually learn or even much care about. For us, a blue cheese is a blue cheese. And for us, Roquefort is a blue cheese.
Not in France, where you grow up recognizing the differences. From a very early age the French taste many cheeses, getting to know styles from different regions and what makes each unique. Even at pre-schools (écoles maternelles), where children are served a multi-course lunch, a local cheese is always included: camembert from Normandy in the north, Roquefort from Aveyron in the south, comté from Franche-Comté in the east.
As for comté, I look for ones that have been aged for more than 24 months, which have a nutty flavor and a sometimes-crumbly texture (especially those that are aged for 38-40 months). In the U.S., most comté is six or nine months old, and has less character than aged comté. Older comté cheeses are rarer, don’t ship well, are harder to come by and available only in late autumn for a couple of months. Sometimes instead of a comté I’ll choose a Salers, which is a semi-hard cheese from the Auvergne, in central France. It’s a little like a Cantal, but saltier and tangier. I might offer a brie de Meaux or a brie de Melun instead of a camembert. Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized brie, as is brie de Melun. The brie de Melun is much sharper in flavor, sometimes even with a hint of ammonia, which tastes too much like an accident to appeal to me. I also have a fondness for creamy goat cheeses such as Saint Marcellin or rocamadour, which come in small rounds that flatten and spread as they come to room temperature, lying in fragrant, oozing white puddles on the cheese plate. In any event, you’ve got a lot of cheese to choose from.
You generally let cheese come to room temperature before serving, though Roquefort is better held in the fridge until just before serving, since it can get too soft.
The cheese generally comes after the main course, alongside the salad. My friends are of two camps: some take salad first, then cheese, while others take both at the same time. Some eat the morsels of cheese with a knife and fork or use their fingers for a wedge of camembert, while others prefer cheese with a bit of a baguette. A French cheese plate doesn’t have the usual froufrou you see on cheese platters in America: no grape leaves or mounds of fruit.
We Americans generally have cheese before dinner as an appetizer or during a cocktail party. It’s a different way of organizing dinner, although I’ve come to prefer the French way of serving cheese, as part of a meal. You’re less likely to fill up on cheese before you sit down to eat. Still, in New York I don’t offer a cheese course with dinner. It would feel off somehow. Although it’s best to respect local customs I sometimes try to see if a French approach might work in the States. When one of my sisters was hosting a family gathering she had me bring cheeses, I asked her when she was going to serve them – before or during dinner. I could sense her rolling her eyes at me over the phone. “During cocktails,” she said. “Like normal people.”