Monday, September 5, 2011

On Eating in France – II. Seven Courses

As of yet I had not worked up the nerve to host my own dinner party, partly because we were still in our temporary apartment and lacked necessary kitchen utensils for even the most basic cooking, partly because the first trimester of this pregnancy was not conducive to food and visitors, and partly because I was intimidated by the endless requirements and formalities of the traditional French dinner. As I do more research on courses and customs, I realize that most everything is flexible. Of course, our friends will not hold it against us if a course comes out of order, and part of the experience is the mixing of a few Latvian or American customs into the French. On the other hand, I would like stick to the French basics, after all it is part of the fun being here in France, learning the traditions and way of life.

The first French friends that invited us to dinner helped explain the French tradition of a gift for the host or hostess. Latvians bring flowers, and often a bottle, often of wine. It is the norm that no one comes empty-handed. Americans tend to either bring a dish or a bottle of wine, which is immediately opened by the hosts and served with dinner. Here in France, because the meal is thoroughly planned out (and along with the meal, the wines that accompany each course), a dish is never brought unless requested by the host, and a bottle of wine will be well-received but rarely opened, as it might not match the food served. Flowers are a safe bet, and are great for any occasion (hint, husband!).

Bread is present throughout the meal. It is viewed it as a symbol of hospitality and a meal would not be served without it. Wine is the classic beverage of choice for meals, and is of course available. If you desire water in restaurants, you must request une carafe d’eau; if you only ask for water you will probably be served sparkling mineral water as well as its bill.

During the first course in a French dinner, L’Apéritif, hosts invite guests into their living room and serve them light alcoholic drinks and small appetizers to stimulate their appetites for the meal ahead. Usually drinks are not served until all guests have arrived, however in some more casual instances l’apéritifs are served to make waiting for any latecomers more bearable. A glass of flavored champagne is typical, although many times if there is a theme to the diner, they will follow this theme. Once in the dining room, l'Entrée follows. These appetizers vary from cold to hot dishes, and can be simple or elaborate.

A fish course is sometimes served between the entrée and the main course in a French dinner, le plat principal, if the main course is meat. But it is not compulsory, and often the meal continues with le plat. This course includes either meat or fish, served with side dishes of salads, rice, or pasta. Wine is served throughout the meal – red wine to go with red meat and white wine to go with white meat or fish (this is a very general statement – the grapes, vintage years and experiences with the wines are often closely matched with the food served). Another variation comes with the salad course, which can either be a separate course at this stage of the dinner, or it may be served with le plat. Traditionally, simple greens tossed with vinaigrette are served as a means of cleansing the palate and aiding optimal digestion of the meal.

The next course, the cheese course, is very important. After the plat and salad courses a selection of cheeses is served, sometimes with fruit or nuts, sometimes only with baguette. I will add at this point that the bread is not cut into slices.  Instead, each guest will tear off pieces with their hands as they wish.

Finally, my favorite, the dessert! French desserts can be indulgent, rich, and beautifully decorated, or they can be a simple bowl of sorbet or glace (ice cream). To keep guests from feeling too full it is usually light and small. Mousse or little tarts are also popular.

Dessert is followed by le café. A typical café is served in a small demitasse, rather than a coffee mug. Often, a small chocolate or sweet biscuit accompanies the coffee on the saucer. Finally, le digestif, which signals the end of a French dinner: Guests are offered small doses of strong alcoholic beverages such as cognac, brandy, or whisky. This last course is also not always observed, but after some holidays it is still a custom to smoke cigars along with it.

My editor, hard at work


  1. No matter how hard I try I can't get used to all of the courses in a French dinner...I'm usually done by the cheese course!

  2. Tell me about it! When we do go out to eat, rarely do we order the menu (entree + plat + dessert), because it's just too much food! One plat of truffade will completely suffice...

  3. This is so interesting, but it sure isn't something I could do. I'm lucky if I fix a meat and a vegetable! (I don't really like to cook, whereas my daughter really enjoys it).

  4. Oh, I looooved the drawn out French meal...but then I found that the portions were small enough and the time between courses long enough that I never had an issue. Then again, I'm not known for not being able to finish my food.

    What about Ricard? Have you tried that stuff? I don't like it at all... but everyone else sure did drink it a lot! I'll have a glass of champagne any day over a Ricard!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...