Fonduegate and why the customer is not always right in France

An argument in a Paris cheese shop over a fondue has taught The Local's editor Ben McPartland that the phrase "the customer is always right" just doesn't apply in France.

Fonduegate and why the customer is not always right in France
Photo: The Local

As a veteran of fondues I know what I want in there: Comté, Beaufort and Appenzel. Forget Emmental, it's not strong enough.

But my usual Paris cheese monger put a spanner in the works this week.

When I asked him for some Beaufort he just looked at me and shook his head. The conversation went roughly like this.

Monsieur fromage: “The Beaufort is just too good.”

Me: “Ah great. I'll have 200 grams please”.

Monsieur: “No it's too good for a fondue. It's so tasty. It would pain me (faire mal au coeur) to see it melted.”

Me: “Ha ha, OK that sounds amazing. I'll have 400 grams please.”

Monsieur: “No, no. It would be a waste. This is a 2015 Beaufort. And at €39 a kilo. It's too expensive for a fondue.”

Me: “Ah that's OK I don't mind paying.”

Monsieur: “No, No. I'll give you some Abondance. It's a similar cheese and cheaper.”

Me: Errrr. OK, but can I have some Beaufort too.”

Monsieur: “Are you going to put it in the fondue?

Me: “Errrrrr (I can't lie), oui.” 

Monsieur: “Sorry can't do it.”

Me: “Wait, you are meant to be a cheese eating surrender monger.”

Monsieur: “What?” 

OK that last bit was made up. But in my head I'm thinking “Cheeses Christ. Is he for real or is he totally Emmental. Does he not want my money?” Isn't the customer meant to always be right? What would have happened if I had insisted? Would he have thrown me out for his principles and told me to go and spend my €44.53 in another cheese shop? Could he report me to the prefecture and scupper my future attempts to get French nationality? I feared I would be banished to cheese hell (Holland) if I pushed it too far. I was left in shock but also awe of the man who protected the welfare of his cheese.

In the end we reached a kind of compromise. He gave me Abondance for my fondue and agreed to sell me 200g of his special Beaufort as long as I signed a “compromise de vente” (sales agreement) that it wouldn't be grated or melted and would only be used to be put on display on the mantelpiece.

Well not quite, but almost.

He did also take the time to explain to me why a 2015 Beaufort is just too good for fondue. Good Beaufort's aged two years are becoming harder to find these days, apparently, because they are expensive to make and to store.

Producers are under pressure to make money and they know the name Beaufort will sell anyway, so they are not bothering to keep them and age them. The aging process can be risky and it can go wrong and lead to the cheese being ruined.

He invited me to pop to a supermarket and buy a 6-month-old Beaufort for a fondue, but not his 2015 vintage. The taste would be lost forever in that melting pot.

The story of fonduegate spilled over into Twitter where many sided with the shopkeeper and some even felt sympathy with my position.

Even France's Ambassador to Sweden got involved and as you'd expect he was very diplomatic.

Anyway I might not have come away with the cheese I was after but I certainly learnt a thing or two.

The reaction of the French shopkeeper was not of course a total surprise. Most people who have lived in France will have a story of having been corrected or even told off by shopkeepers, waiters or chefs after trying to order something.

There are the chefs who refuse to do a steak well done. A waste of good meat, they say. There are wine sellers who refuse to sell you a bottle of Bordeaux if they find out you are cooking Boeuf Bourguignon and the clothes store staff who simply tell you: “Sorry you are just to big to fit in that size”.

While everyone who has been to France has probably had the experience of a moody waiter or a shopkeeper who seems affronted you entered his/her store to spend money, they do have an unfair reputation of being impolite and snooty.

They generally know their stuff, especially when it comes to food and are a lot more passionate about what they are selling than we perhaps are used to in stores in “Anglo-Saxon” countries where might get the works in terms of politeness, but do we always get the expertise?

So respect to the Paris cheese monger. A man who puts fromage above fric. But this Beaufort better be bloody good, or it's going in the pot.


Best Briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette Photo: Thomas Liasne/Les Filles à Fromage


France’s national fast food: What exactly are ‘French tacos’?

If you're from the north American continent, you are probably familiar with the (traditionally Mexican) taco - but in France you will meet 'French tacos', a different beast entirely.

France's national fast food: What exactly are 'French tacos'?

If you walk the streets of any French city or large town, you will likely stumble upon a fast-food restaurant called O’Tacos. But if you are expecting to be able to order a delicious Mexican al pastor taco with salsa verde, you will find yourself sorely disappointed.

As staff writer for the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote in 2021, “French tacos are tacos like chicken fingers are fingers”. In fact, one Mexican chef in Paris told Collins that she once had a customer “throw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a taco”.

French tacos (always spelled in the plural sense) are a popular and distinct fast food in France, often decried by health experts as highly caloric – an average French tacos clocks in at about 1,348 calories, and an XXL can run up to 2,300, above the recommended daily total caloric intake for an adult woman.

What many imagine when thinking of a taco is the traditional Mexican food, eaten by hand, which consists of a small corn or wheat tortilla filled with meat, beans and/or vegetables, topped with condiments like salsa or guacamole.

In contrast, the French taco is a flour tortilla filled with meat, sauce, and French fries, folded together and grilled to build a panini-burrito-kebab mélange. You can add plenty of other ingredients inside too – from cheese to turkey bacon. Most French tacos are halal-certified to accommodate Muslim customers – so do not contain pork.

The biggest chain is the strangely named O’Tacos – France is home to 300 O’Tacos restaurants – an amount that has doubled in the last five years, as French tacos continue to pick up popularity among the youth.

And you are not limited to O’Tacos for your French taco needs – plenty of smaller fast-food shops and chains across the country, particularly those selling kebabs and those that remain open late into the night – offer French tacos too.

The origins of French tacos

There are various claims regarding the origins of French tacos – or whether there is a single inventor of the fast food at all – but many point to the diverse suburbs of France’s gastronomy capital, Lyon. 

In a documentary by Bastien Gens, titled ‘Tacos Origins’, claimed that French fast food was created toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s in Lyon suburbs of Villeurbanne and Vaulx-en-Velin. 

According to Collins, the “earliest innovators of the French tacos were probably snack proprietors of North African descent in the Lyonnais suburbs.

However, some claim that the concept originated in Grenoble first, which is also the site of the first O’Tacos restaurant, opened in 2007 by a former construction worker, Patrick Pelonero, who told Collins he had never visited Mexico but simply enjoyed eating French tacos on his lunch breaks.

Tacos’ popularity 

One thing is certain – French tacos, typically priced around €5.50 are distinctly French.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Loïc Bienassis, a member of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, said that: “For decades, France has been an inherently urban, industrial, and culturally diverse country. The French taco is a mutant product of this country. It is its own national junk food.”

In the past few years, French tacos’ popularity has spread beyond the l’Hexagone – to Morocco, Belgium and even the United States.

The sandwich has become so trendy in France that some even refer to traditional Mexican tacos as a “taco mexicain” to differentiate between the two.

In 2021, over 80 million French tacos were consumed in France, making it more popular than the hamburger and the kebab.

In the same year, French youth also took to social media, joining in an O’Tacos challenge #Gigatacos. The goal was to consume a giant French tacos, weighing in at 2kg. Anyone who succeeded would be automatically refunded. Videos of the challenge coursed through French social media networks, with several million views.

While France is known for its classic cuisine, which relies heavily on fresh ingredients, the country also has a history of loving fast food, so it may come as little surprise that it would invent its own highly caloric dish.

As of 2019, France was home to the second biggest market for McDonald’s per head of population after the United States. 

READ MORE: Krispy Kreme, Popeyes, Five Guys: the American fast-food chains taking on France