Normally, a crime committed with a knife at a dinner table would involve blood and screams. Mine was different. The meal was almost over. We had waltzed through the appetizer and main course with a deceptive ease, pausing to refresh ourselves with a bit of green salad before soldiering on to the cheese course.
That was when it happened. A slight mishap with a cheese knife and my reputation was ruined. Yes, I admit it. It was I who cut the cheese—the wrong way. When I passed the cheese platter, I was met with an accusing stare, which traveled from my bewildered face down to the bit of cheese I had just cut. It looked perfectly fine to me. It was the end of a piece of Comté, and I had done what I assumed was the logical thing, I cut a straight line across what was left of the slice. Leaving a small piece of cheese with rind on three sides. Quelle horreur! That is just not done. Seeing my confusion, my tablemate, who just happened to be my husband, took pity on me, a poor, ignorant foreigner, and patiently instructed me on the Fine Art of Cutting Cheese.
It’s not as easy as it looks. The idea is to cut the cheese so that everyone has a go at the tender core, where the crème de la crème lies, soft and sweet. Cheese cutting is a decidedly democratic act. Everyone at the table is entitled to the same level of quality. Quantity is a more personal choice. No one will blink if you decide to sample a nice wedge of every cheese on the plate. They will, however, cringe if you mangle the morsels with your deficient cutting skills. Once you have shared in the communal platter of pleasure, it is passed on down the table like a holy relic. Which means that should you mess up, your gaffe will be immediately obvious to the person sitting next to you. When it comes to cutting the cheese, there’s no place to hide.
To make matters even more complicated, cheeses come in many different shapes and sizes, from classic wheels, to soft rectangles, to heart-shaped cutie-pies. Without taking out a slide rule or a compass it is difficult to carve out an equitable wedge, one that is perfectly placed to not only deliver the best of what your cheese has to offer, but also leaves a similarly delectable and easy-to-cut piece for your dining partners.
What to do? Fortunately, several cheese lovers have made instructional videos for the great unwashed and uploaded them to YouTube. Even if you don’t understand French, you will appreciate this one, posted by the Franco-German TV channel Arte, designed to teach the basics to Germans and is easy to follow. This video is particularly heartwarming because you can see that even the French reporter interviewing the cheese vendor makes gaffes at this delicate mealtime moment (note the look on the cheesemaker’s face when she cuts the blue cheese).
Never fear, after you absorb a few rules, you will get the hang of it. Basically, do unto others as you would have them do unto your own wedge of cheese. Leave the good stuff for everyone, take your share of the rind, and when possible, cut a wedge.