The French love their food, and they love it so much that a large part of the time spent eating is also used to talk about food … how the dish is prepared, how it can be eaten, with which wine …. no wonder it is not uncommon to sit at the table for four hours or more!
Eating good meals should be an intrinsic part of visiting France. The occasional visitor rarely gets the chance to join a family for a meal, but even in restaurants, it is possible to get a taste for the essentials of French table culture.
But what is that culture? what are the do’s and dont’s? how about the table, how is it laid? what is the etiquette? how does a French dinner party go?
Today I’d like to show you a typical French dinner party, a special moment shared with friends – french living as if you were here!
So, you are invited to dinner with your new french friends. They asked you to come 8-8.30 …. you will be expected to arrive around 8.40.
It is good to arrive with a small gift, some say you should never bring flowers for the hostess because you make her rush around looking for a vase just when she’d prefer to be chatting with her guests. Chocolates are good, a book is lovely, a sweet smelling candle … you get the picture.
You may be ushered into the sitting room where a fire will be crackling in the fireplace and glasses ready on a table for drinks to be served. Sometimes you’ll enter the kitchen first, to keep the ‘cook’ company during the last preparations of the meal, in which case you’ll be served a glass of wine or champagne while you watch and of course join in the discussion about the best way to filet a fish or the compared merits of slow cooking a leg of lamb.
Wherever you enjoy your pre-dinner drink, there will be ‘amuse-bouche’ (literally mouth entertainment!) to open your appetite and let you have a feel for the great meal that is just around the corner.
This eating and chatting could well continue to 10pm, when you will be invited to sit down to the table and commence the meal.
Wine will be served with each course (ladies never serve themselves by the way, they are always served), and your host will probably explain why he chose that particular wine to go with the dish. You’ll have a separate glass for water, and possibly a new glass for each new wine.
You will be served a first course, main course, cheese and dessert, in that order, often with a salad to accompany the cheese. Plates will generally be changed after the first course, but not necessarily between the main course and cheese. You may also notice that there is only one set of cutlery, in which case you should hold on to your knife and fork between courses if the plates are changed, and simply lay them on the knife rest beside your plate.
Compliments to the chef are most welcome throughout the meal, and you may serve yourself more than once if you wish, although french women rarely do so.
The end of the meal is finished with a sweet flourish, and then coffee or tea, served at the table or back in the ‘salon’. You will rarely rise from the table before midnight, and sometimes not before 1am.
Conversation is wide and varied and can cover politics, sex, books and invariable a dose of local gossip. Guests should be interested and interesting, amusing but never overpowering, and should be able to recognize the right moment to leave without outstaying the welcome.
Voilà, a quick resumé of a typical dinner in our part of the woods … how about you? does it play out the same way?
All photos taken at Le Chateau de la Marine
by Franck Schmitt for my book, My Stylish French Girlfriends.