How to cut a/the cheese

There are rules to cheese-cutting. Strict rules. Strict, strict rules.

If you’re a native speaker of American English, you probably giggled childishly at the title of this post–I will admit that I did while watching the video that inspired it.  I’ll explain why in the English notes below.

It’s no secret that food is a huge part of French culture, and it’s no secret that cheese is a huge part of French food.  You will often read that “the cheese course”–the traditional end of a French meal–is disappearing from French tables, but I can tell you this: I have never had a dinner in a French home that didn’t have one.  Rather than being the absolute end of the meal, it might be followed by the optional French fruit course, or it might be followed by a sweet, American-style dessert–and it’s certainly the case that I have no reason whatsoever to think that the small number of meals that I’ve had in French homes were in any way typical.  But, for my sample, it remains the case that the cheese course lives.


I go back and forth between France and the US pretty frequently–three times in the past month (excessive even for me).  The hardest thing about adjusting?  Table manners.  No sooner do I get used to keeping both hands on the table while I eat (obligatory in France–to do otherwise would be low class) than I find myself back in the US, where I must have one and only one hand on the table while I eat (to do otherwise would be low class).  I’m well aware that there are a bazillion other aspects to good table manners in France–and well aware that I have no clue what they are.  So, I was happy to see that the always-adorable Géraldine of the Comme une française YouTube series has just put out a video on the subject.


So, how does one cut a cheese?  It depends on the shape and size.  The graphic below makes the main point, as far as I know:

…il faut veiller à ce que chacun des convives puisse disposer d’une part allant de la croûte au coeur.

Linguistic points of interest:

  • le convive : this is a guest, but from what I understand, it is specifically a guest who has been invited for a meal.  So, this wouldn’t apply to, say, someone coming to spend a week with you.
  • veiller à ce que + subjonctif : I think this means something like to make sure that.  
  • disposer de quelque chose : to have something at your disposal, to have something available
  • la croûte : the rind of the cheese.  You probably already knew this one, but I try not to miss a chance to write a circumflex accent.
  • le coeur : this is the center of the cheese.

There are actually a number of different kinds of cheese knives.  I think that they’re destined for cheeses of different degrees of softness/firmness, but I haven’t yet found a good source for information about these.  Anyone have suggestions?

So: the thing to do, when cutting a cheese, is almost always to make sure that you do not, almost ever, cut off the center.  The rationale behind this is that the cheese ages at different rates on a gradient between the center and the outside, and you want to make sure that everyone gets the chance to appreciate the subtle changes in taste.  (I’ll admit right up front: over the past three years, I have eaten an enormous amount of cheese, and I can’t tell the difference.)  Although the graphic below doesn’t show it, there are actually some cheeses where it’s OK to slice from the center; I think they’re the hard ones, but hard in this case means hard, not just solid.  (Note the tomme in the lower-right corner–Americans would typically consider a tomme to be a hard cheese, I would guess, but we’re talking about things like parmesan here.)

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Veiller à ce que : le coeur :  Picture source: http://www.achat-mulhouse.com/pro1254-Comment-couper-les-fromages.htm

This nice graphic comes from a page that waxes quite eloquent about why it just doesn’t make sense to cut a roquefort any other way than this.  A nice additional point of vocabulary: le talon (heel) for the end of the slice that’s away from the center.

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Picture source: http://lafrancesaauxfourneaux.blogspot.fr/

Now, here’s someone who’s OK with you cutting the point off of a brie.  But, notice: You’re not just cutting the point off–you’re cutting it at an angle, such that the other slices, mostly fan-shaped, will get well towards the center.  Why would this be OK?  Probably because bries in France are big.  What is sold as a brie in the United States is actually about the size of a camembert in France.  In contrast, bries are considerably larger here.  While a camembert is about the size for one meal if there are a few people eating, a brie is a big family-sized thing.  You would get quite a few meals out of one, or even out of a good-sized slice of one, if your family isn’t huge.

comment-bien-couper-les-fromages
Picture source: https://www.papillesetpupilles.fr/2014/12/comment-bien-couper-le-fromage.html/

Here’s someone else who’s OK with cutting a brie in this way:

comment-decouper-vos-fromages
http://www.750g.com/comment-decouper-vos-fromages-a1053.htm

So, what’s so funny about Géraldine’s delightful video?  At one point, she makes reference to cutting the cheese.  In English (American, at any rate), to cut the cheese is slang for to fart.  To cut a cheese doesn’t mean that at all–it means that there’s a cheese, and you’re going to cut it.  To cut the cheese: to fart.  Clear?

So, yes–it’s childish, but native speakers probably giggled at the title of this post.  Here are some more examples, mostly referring to Trump.

Global warming: At least I’m messing up a better class of verbs

Pride comes before a fall, and sometimes the fall is worse than others.

Most mornings, I sit with my first cup of coffee and a stack of index cards and look up all of the words that I ran into the day before and didn’t know.  My 15 minutes or so of vocabulary every morning is a given–I typically learn about 10 new words a day, which means that despite having grammar that makes my French tutor shudder and an accent like fingernails on a blackboard, I know three ways to say “unremittingly.”

Everything else–conjugation, grammar, pronunciation–I rotate between.  Which is to say: I try to make sure that every week I spend a day on some new verb form, a new tense I don’t know, the order of double pronominal preverbal objects (my current bugaboo–il me le rend? Il le me rend?  FUCK), or something of that ilk.  Hence, I know lots of obscure things to say–but, I don’t necessarily know how to say them, if that makes any sense.

The other morning my plane landed in Paris after a long weekend in the US.  (A work thing, and then I surprised my father for his birthday.  We made fried matzah with schmaltz, which is to say: rendered chicken fat.)  On your first day in Europe, the challenge is to stay awake–fall asleep when you get off the plane and you’ll find yourself in a cycle of décalage horaire-induced sleep cycle disturbance that you won’t work your way out of for a week.  Sundays and Wednesdays it’s easy–there’s a market under the Metro tracks down the block, and getting out in the fresh air and sunshine is a good way to keep yourself moving and conscious.

On market days, I actually start not at the market, but at the fromagerie at the Dupleix metro station.  (Right outside the station was the spot where you were most likely to get taken to face the firing squad, at least as recently as 1871, the last date of which I’m sure.)  Although as an American, I had no clue about this ’til I got here, it turns out that cheeses have seasons; the first thing that I do when I get to Laurent Dubois is check the ardoise in the window to see what’s just come in.

This week: 3 “rare” cheeses.  Bleu du Nil, an obscure tomme, and something even more obscure that had already sold out.  Now, you’ll hear numbers about how many cheeses France has, but in truth, no one really knows how many cheeses France has.  Like the apocryphal Eskimo words for snow (that’s bullshit, by the way), some say 200, some say 300, some say 350…  In truth, there’s no way to know, because it’s not clear how to define “a cheese.”  In the limiting case, since every farmwife who still makes her own cheese is making a cheese unlike any other, the cheeses of France are essentially uncountable. (That’s not to say that there’s an infinite number–uncountable and infinite are different things.  I remember well being baffled by the idea of being countably infinite versus uncountably infinite as a graduate student.  As my wife of the moment said to me: Kevin, if you can’t wrap your head around this, you just can’t take any more math classes.  I thought that that was adorable, since I haven’t taken a math course since the obligatory algebra and trig course in college, and in fact am completely innumerate.)

But, back to the fromagerie.  My copy of Marie-Anne Cantin’s Guide de l’amateur de fromages (“”Cheese-lover’s guide”) lists somewhere around 200 or so French cheeses, but it doesn’t list any of the cheeses that had come in this week, so I asked the adorable pixie-cut saleslady to tell me about them.  It developed that the name of one of them comes from the valley where the cows from whose milk it is made graze.  Except…she didn’t use the word graze, and I didn’t catch the word that she did use.  No problem–I recently learnt the verb to graze.  “Where they paissent?” …I asked, using the verb paître–a favorite of mine, because I love circumflex accents.  Seulement voilà, the only thing is: I’d never had the opportunity to use this delightful lexical item before, and I screwed it up.  I should have said paissent–but, my mind wandered off into the delights of that circumflex, and instead I said paîtent.  Which sounds like pètent…  Which means that I had just asked the nice lady if she were referring to where the cows fart.  Damn it.  Pride before a fall, and all that.  She had the good grace not to laugh.  At least, I think she didn’t–I was too embarrassed to look at anything but the floor.

In the English notes, we talk about the little-known English subjunctive.  The French notes are, of course, devoted to the verb paître.  The bleu du Nil comes from exactly one farm, in Brittany–see the picture above.  It’s delicious–as creamy as butter, with little bits of fenugreek.


English notes

Anglophones complain constantly about the French subjunctive.  Even French teachers get into it, commiserating with us about its chiant existence and teaching us ways to avoid it.  In reality, this most charming of the conjugations of the French language is not one that is completely foreign to us.  Although it’s not widespread, my dialect still has a subjunctive.  It’s easiest to say in the case of the verb to be.  Here’s how it showed up in this post:

I had just asked the nice lady if she were referring to where the cows fart.  

The subjunctive here is were.  You would expect was:

I had just asked the nice lady if she was referring to where the cows fart.

…and indeed, (a) you most certainly could say that, and (b) I would guess that most Americans would say that.  (I hate to guess, but I don’t have any statistics on this–sorry.)  You can find some exercises on the use of the subjunctive in English here, if you’d like to pursue this.  Be aware that there are some differences between American and British English in the use of the subjunctive–the Wikipedia page on the English subjunctive goes into them at some length.

French notes

Paître is the kind of delightfully irregular verb that I just adore.  Along with repaître, native speakers don’t seem to agree on whether either, both, or neither of them can be used for humans, or just for cows and the like; whether either, both, or neither of them can be transitive only, intransitive only, or both; or in which tenses the gets its little chapeau chinois.  (From what I can tell, the Academy’s decision on this has not always been gracefully accepted.)  My Bescherelle maintains that (a) it doesn’t have any of the compound tenses, and (b) le participe passé pu, invariable, n’est utilisé qu’en termes de fauconnerie…. and if you can find a verb that’s cooler than that, I will buy you a beer–and if you’re a woman, I’ll marry you.

Three ways to say unremittingly: 

  • sans trêve
  • sans répit
  • sans cesse

Every cheese has its story: Munster

2016-03-12 14.11.06
Half of a Munster. Photo source: me.

My Saturday morning shopping trip always starts with a visit to the neighborhood cheese shop.  Once I get there, I check the sign in the window to see what’s in season.  If it’s not something that I haven’t tried before, I go in and shop for something interesting.

This weekend a medium-sized, soft, raw cow milk cheese caught my eye.  However: I’ve been focussing on French cheeses, and this one was called Munster–a German place name.  He iz French, this cheese here?, I asked the always-helpful attendant.  Yes, she answered–it’s from Alsace.  That explained the German name–Alsace and Lorraine are regions that go back and forth between France and Germany, depending on who won the most recent war.  At home, people often speak German, but the official language of school, the government, etc. is French.  (Wikipedia says that 43% of adults speak the local dialect of German, but that its use is disappearing among the younger generation.)

Every French cheese has its story–and its particularities.  Munster is thought to be one of the oldest cheeses in the country.  I’ve seen estimates of its date of origin from the 700s to the 800s.  The story is that it had its origin in the village of Munster, currently located near the very easternmost part of France, quite close to Germany.  The village is thought to have taken its name from the Latin word monasterium, meaning a monastery or a monk’s cell in Medieval Latin.  People clustered around the monastery, and in order to ensure the availability of food to the surrounding populace, the monks made this cheese.  (I’m a little skeptical–like any other soft cheese, Munster doesn’t last very long.)  Another story is that the cheese was brought into the region by monks who came to Christianize the area during the time of Charlemagne.  In the 1500s, it became popular outside of the region, being sold not just in Paris, but in Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Germany as well.  Back in those days, the price of the cheese for the upcoming year was announced every June 23rd at a large fair in the town of Gérardmer–I’ve never heard anything similar about any other cheese.

Some cheeses are defined in part by what the cows have to be fed in order for a cheese to have the right to its name, and Munster is one of those.  The cows have to graze on the grass of the massif of the Vosges, in eastern France.  This is what gives the cheese its terroir, its regional character.  During its preparation, the surface of the cheese is salted, and you can taste that very clearly.  While it ages, it is occasionally washed with beer.  This kind of washing is characteristic of cheeses that originated in monasteries, and specific cheeses have to be washed with specific things.  If it’s not washed with beer, it’s not Munster.

Munster (pronounced, incidentally, [mœ̃stɛʁ]]) smells stronger than it tastes, so it’s actually not a bad cheese for an American who is just starting to explore the stinky cheeses (even the French call them les fromages qui pue, “cheeses that stink”).  Enjoy!

My apartment reeks of camembert and paint fumes

Camembert is sold in wooden boxes.  Here is one with a picture of a poilu, or French soldier from World War I, on the lid.
Camembert is sold in wooden boxes. Here is one with a picture of a poilu, or French soldier from World War I, on the lid.

France has hundreds of cheeses.  You hear lots of exact numbers, but I suspect that no one really knows how many there are.  Camembert is perhaps the most French of the French cheeses–it is the Frenchman’s stereotype of a French cheese.  (If you’re French: Americans think that the stereotypical French cheese is a brie.  We can’t get camembert worth the name in America–raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days are illegal.  Yes, illegal.)

Every French cheese has a story.  The story of camembert is that it was created by one Marie Harel when a priest fleeing to England around 1790 gave her some suggestions based on how they made cheese back in his home in Brie.  (The Church was gone after with a vengeance after the French Revolution.  Over 200 priests were killed in the September Massacres in Paris in 1792.  I went to a beautiful Vivaldi concert nearby.)  According to Kathe Lison’s delightful The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese, camembert makers distributed it for free to soldiers in the trenches during World War I, hoping to create loyalty, and it worked.

Part of camembert’s charm for Americans (when we can actually buy it, which is when we come to France) is that it smells like we think a French cheese ought to smell: pretty bad.  The hallways in the apartment that I’m renting were just painted, and the combination of the smell of the camembert sitting on my kitchen counter and the fresh paint is…intoxicating, and not in a good way.  Still, the camembert made for a great dinner tonight with the stereotypical baguette and red wine–shoot me, I’m a tourist.  Here are some words that are helpful for reading about camembert:

  • puisque: since, because, seeing as; just as, just like.
  • le convive: guest.

Devenu le symbole de la France avec la baguette de pain et le verre de vin rouge, il a une taille idéale pour un fromage, puisqu‘on peut le manger en une seul fois à quatre ou cinq convives“Having become the symbol of France along with the baguette and the glass of red wine, it has the ideal size for a cheese, because one can eat it at one sitting with four or five guests.”

Why supporting traditional French shopping is in your own best interest

The traditional French store is a little mom-and-pop operation.  A French neighborhood will have a boulangerie, where you get your bread; a patisserie, where you buy your pastries; a fromagerie, for cheese; a fruit and vegetable stand; a wine shop; a butcher…you get the idea.  Parisian kitchens are pretty small, without much storage space, so you go grocery-shopping pretty frequently, and make lots of small purchases at the local shops.

As in most places, the supermarket appeared quite a while ago in France.  In Paris, it’s most often a Monoprix.  You can find pretty much everything you need there, and not just food, but clothes, school supplies, on and on.  I go to the Monoprix once or twice a week, as there are a few things that I don’t know where else to buy–the giant 0.78 kilo jars of Nutella, for instance, or giant jars of cassoulet.  It’s convenient in terms of having everything under one roof, but: it is a miserable experience.  Shopping in a Parisian supermarket is a blood sport: you stand in line at the deli counter (if that’s the right word for the part of the store where you buy deli meats, but also grilled cuttlefish, duck Spam, blood sausages…and let’s agree to forget the time that I almost found myself in the middle of a fight in the deli line, when I suddenly realized that the British tourist for whom I was mindlessly translating was deliberately egging on a pissed-off French family man), you shuffle with hordes of other people through the coffee aisle, and finally…endless, endless lines for the cash register.  I now know why Parisians always look so glum–they’re exhausted from standing in line at the Monoprix.

There’s a way out of the hell of supermarket checkout lines: shop at the little mom-and-pop specialty stores that dot your neighborhood.  Go to my little fruit and vegetable stand across the street, where the seller will ask you when you’re going to eat his produce and then give you an assortment of more- and less-ripe things meant to last until you come visit her again.  (Sorry for the gender confusion–they’re a couple, and I’m too scatter-brained from sleep deprivation to fix this.)  Walk to the next subway stop to go to the cheese shop, where you can ask for a recommendation of a seasonal cheese and be offered a taste of something in season from a guy who actually does know what cheeses are in season.  Go to the little bakery on the corner, where the lady at the counter will very kindly correct your pronunciation of champêtre at no extra charge.  As soon as I figure out where else to buy giant things of Nutella and cassoulet-in-a-jar, I’ll be done with Monoprix for good.

Some words that came up in the course of buying my very in-season beaufort:

jadis: formerly; in olden days; long ago.  Fabriqué en Savoie et en Haute-Savoie, le beaufort est un fromage de garde, dont l’origine historique est liée aux grandes difficultés de communication qui caractérisaient jadis les régions montagneuses durant l’hiver.  (Note that no one has ever been able to tell me what a fromage de garde is.)

The vocabulary of cheese texture: Cheese 102

I continue my project of becoming familiar with the cheeses of France.  At about two cheeses a week, this is a long-term project–there are so many cheeses in my favorite cheese guide, Guide de l’Amateur de Fromages, that I don’t have the patience to count them.  Last night I went to a neighborhood fromagerie (cheese shop) and picked up half a wheel of livarot, a cow’s-milk cheese of Normandy.  This is peak livarot season–who knew that cheeses had seasons?  That’s part of every entry in my cheese guide, though–when the cheese is best enjoyed.  I tried to buy a specific cheese the other day and was told to come back in November.

The French are heavily into classification–learning philosophy in high school, it’s not surprising that ontology is part of the culture.  To talk about cheese, you need to have a good vocabulary of textures–that’s part of the description of every cheese.  Here are some of the words that I’ve come across in this context.  Note that these words are mostly applied to les pâtes molles (the softer cheeses)–for les pâtes presées, there’s a different set of terms:

Words describing pâtes molles à croûte lavée:

moelleux/moelleuse: soft, spongy, creamy, moist, gooey, smooth.  Think of a brie (of which there are many).  I also saw it on a bread ad today, presumably with the “soft, spongy” meaning.

onctueux/onctueuse: creamy, smooth.  Think, again, of a brie. In literature: oily, greasy, unctuous.  Yes, this is where we get our English word from.  Sounds terrible if your native language is English, but I saw it on an ad for a coffee drink the other day.

crémeux/crémeuse: creamy.  How many words you need for “creamy,” I don’t know–apparently, a lot, if you’re talking about cheese.

sec/sèche: dry.

fin/fine: not sure what this means in the context of the texture of cheese.  Might be something like dainty, although that sense seems to be associated with things like handiwork.  Might be thin, although that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with texture.  Follow the link if you want to try to work this out yourself.

friable: crumbly.

tendre: soft, tender.

ferme: firm, solid.

I should point out that in the descriptions of the cheeses in my book, the adjectives always have the feminine form.  This puzzles me, as cheese (fromage) is a masculine noun.

 

Every day starts the same: breakfast, Métro, Zipf’s Law

Days here start out pretty much the same.  Breakfast, then on to the Métro.  One of the nice things about the Métro is that free newspapers abound.  Many mornings someone hands me one as I walk into the station, and if not, you can typically pick one up somewhere.  Personally, I can’t get past the first sentence of the newspaper without running into words that I don’t know.  Here are some examples from the past couple of days, from the newspaper and life in general:

  • la chaleur: heat.  Everyone talks about how the summer heat is just around the corner.  No sign of it yet.
  • la myrtille: blueberry.  The crêperie that I went to yesterday had myrtille crêpes.  “Myrtle crepes?,” I thought…”Sounds horrible!”  Nope–a false cognate.
  • le pot: a variety of meanings.  I ran across two in three days.  One is of a pot, tub, or jar–I ran into this sense when reading the jar of chestnut spread that I put on my morning tartine when I don’t feel like Nutella.  The other sense is of a party with drinks–I ran into this sense when there was a pot at the end of the day of PhD student presentations of their research progress last Friday.
  • le ciron: the best word of the weekend–cheese mite!  My latest cheese is Mimolette–specifically Mimolette jeune, a mimolette that has been aged less than six months.  Take a look at the picture here–the holes on the crust are from cirons.  If you are as curious about what a cheese mite is as I was, see here.  Mimolette jeune is good, incidentally, and a good cheese for Americans–the flavor is pretty similar to a cheddar.
Cheese mites.
Cheese mites.
Mimolette Cheese
Mimolette, showing the holes in the crust that are caused by cheese mites.