In Paris: “I’ll Have Cheese of the Head, S’il Vous Plaît”

How could France produce the beautiful Eiffel Tower and serve something so atrocious like head cheese?
© Debbie Bacharach

“Well, I know fromage means cheese,” my mom stated as she, my dad, sister and I tried to read a menu at a restaurant in Paris. The menu, understandably, was completely in French. None of us could speak the language, but my mom could recognize some words.

“I’m not sure why it’s listed in the earlier part of the menu. Usually, in France, cheese is served as dessert,” she wondered. Oh, well — whether at the front or the back of the menu, cheese was a great start. How could you go wrong with cheese?

“I’m also not sure what the phrase after fromage means,” my mom added. Our waiter came by and waited patiently as we stumbled through our order. Ultimately, we felt reassured that, at least, cheese would arrive.

By the way, the phrase on the menu after “fromage” was “de tete.” We would find out later the translation was “of head.” We were ordering head cheese. Basically, flesh and other bits from the head of a farm animal set in a jellied mold.

Of course, at the time, we didn’t know this. And after a day of walking all around Paris, my entire family was famished. Somehow, we had roamed over to a street that did not have many restaurants or at least many that were open on a Sunday.

When we finally found one, we entered the empty establishment and the staff actually seemed happy to see us. An exuberant, young waiter greeted us and then led us to a table where he presented the menus. He didn’t speak any English nor did the other staff members.

When the food came, the waiter delivered the meals, carefully placing the plates before each person and giving what sounded like a loving, whispered explanation of each dish. His enthusiasm did not fit the stereotype of the aloof and condescending Parisian that I had heard so often. I looked up at him, smiled and then, rubbed my stomach indicating this would hit the spot.

However, I then looked down at the plate. Slowly, the awful reality hit — this was some type of heinous mystery meat.

Here’s looking at you, fromage de tete!
© Rainer Zenz

It was marbled with what looked like translucent globs injected in a polka dot pattern. Then, interspersed with the clear globs were other chunks that looked suspiciously like hot dog bits. The meat glistened  — not in an appealing, succulent way — but a slimy way. For a high school student who only wanted McDonalds at the time, it was horrifying.

Our welcoming waiter looked on for approval. Time for a fake smile. “Merci,” I gulped already experiencing a bitter, sour gag coming on. My parents didn’t look any more excited than I did about the offering.

My mom, dad and I all took small bites, which were easier to swallow, like pills. Breathing out of the mouth helped as well. My younger sister sat with her arms crossed and made no attempt to eat the fromage de tete. She was definitely hostile about the situation, and flat out refused to eat what we began to call the “pressed barf patty.”

I discovered that smooshing a tiny bit of the substance on a piece of bread, covering it with butter and then swallowing the combination with water was the way to go. The key was avoiding the texture. Our doting waiter came over to ask how everything was. “Bon..Bon appetit,” I said and then motioned for more water, “s’il vous plaît.”

Had it not been for this waiter and his warm reception and acceptance of us, I don’t know whether I would have tried what looked like belonged in a dog dish. Also, I was determined not to be an ugly American like some of the people we had seen earlier at the Louvre “Excuse me, I can’t see the Mona Lisa. Why is it so small? It looks so big in pictures. Why is it so small. It’s like a postage stamp.” I can only imagine what the docent was thinking.

At any rate, our waiter seemed thrilled that we were enjoying the meal. In the end, it was more about being gracious and open-minded. Later, upon consulting a French dictionary, we discovered that “tete” was head. We had eaten cheese of the head — head cheese —  bits from an animal’s head. Fortunately, I didn’t really grasp this until after returning to the United States when my parents retold the story to friends. “I guess it’s a good thing, Steph, that we didn’t tell you what head cheese really was,” my dad maintained. Yes, that was a good thing.

7 thoughts on “In Paris: “I’ll Have Cheese of the Head, S’il Vous Plaît”

  1. Fromage de tete is actually made from the meat that comes from around the head of the animal – usually either lamb or beef. It is pressed into a mould (like a cheese) with aspic and herbs & spices. Brain is a whole other matter!

    Making a serious mistake on the menu is an important part of traveling – if it had just been plain old cheese no one would remember it, but everyone is going to remember the infamous from age de tete on the trip to France!

    • Thank you for the clarification! Yes, you are correct — making a mistake while ordering food is half the fun of travel. Most travelers have probably experienced something similar.

      In fact, the next blog I want to post is about other travelers and their misadventures with food. Again, food mishaps are some of the most memorable and funny travel stories. I’m not sure if you had a chance to read the whole post about the head cheese, but I mentioned that eating something you find repulsive is a part of being open minded and gracious when you travel.

      Thank you for visiting Travel Oops and also for pointing out the correct parts of fromage de tete! I have edited the post.

  2. Sounds as if you had a true Parisian experience…a small, out-of-the way restaurant, exotic food, and a meal you’ll never, ever forget. Love it:) I’ve never had head cheese, by the way, but I do believe in trying something at least once. Next time I’m in France . . . (oh let there be a next time I’m in France!). . . I will order it and think of this blog post.

  3. Pingback: Travel Oops: The ‘Tomato Sauce’ Tirade | Travel Oops

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