Back to French food and culture
FRENCH MEAL AND CUSTOMS
Food is a subject of prime importance to every French person. It is not
uncommon for suggestions for the day's menus to be discussed by family
members at the breakfast table over a hot drink, breads, and preserves.
Traditional French food recipes are treasured and the happy purchase of a young
vegetable or a fine piece of meat will send the whole family into
rapturous anticipation of the "special dish."
The morning meal is light but each of the simple items must be "just so"
the exact proportion of hot milk to well-prepared coffee, the freshest
bread of exactly the length, width, and crust favored by the members of
the family, and choice preserves to each one's taste. The noon meal is
usually dinner, the special meal of the day, although in cities this
pattern is changing somewhat as more women move into the workforce.
A traditional dinner would begin with hors d'oeuvres, literally "aside
from the main work," and meant to be small appetite teasers. These may be
taken with a light aperitif, a favorite being Kir; directions for its
preparation include opening a lightly chilled bottle of Chablis and
pouring off one drink (for the server) then replacing that amount of wine
in the bottle with Creme de Cassis which gives the pale wine a rosy glow.
The fish course would be followed by a course of meat, poultry, or game,
never carved at the table. In homes the carving is usually done in the
kitchen and the foods are presented attractively arranged by a servant
holding spoon and fork in what is commonly called "French service."
Carefully prepared vegetables may be cooked and served as a garnish to the
main course or immediately after as a small separate course.
A serving of salad greens, cool, crisp, and shiny with a simple
vinaigrette, will always follow the main course. Family dinners will end
with cheese and fruits either fresh or poached and a demitasse of coffee.
One wine may be chosen that will complement all the courses or a separate
wine will be served for each course, always proceeding in the order from
light dry wines to heavier and sweeter. Wine may be on the table but is
never taken with a green salad (the vinegar in the salad would disturb the
palate's appreciation of the wine).
The staple food to the French is bread. At every French meal, the bread basket is
placed on the table and remains as a part of each course, the last crust
to be enjoyed with cheese. Only the Fruit, the sweet dessert (if there is
one for a special occasion), and the demitasse coffee will be taken
without bread. Bread is not only considered a symbol of hospitality and
satiety, it is also viewed as important to cleanse the palate for the
appreciation of the flavors of the various courses.
Water is never on a French table; wine is
served throughout the meal to everyone at the table, regardless of age,
and black coffee signifies the end of the meal. The French also do not add
water to sauces or casseroles – how can one add water when stocks,
vegetable juices, and wines are always at hand?
French banquet menus follow traditional patterns too. The courses are
usually multiplied, depending on the grandeur of the occasion. Commonly,
soup either hot or cold followed by hot hors d'oeuvres then a course of
cold hors d'oeuvres would precede the fish course. A course of poultry or
fowl may precede a more substantial entree of roasted meat or game.
Carefully chosen vegetables garnishing the entree will accompany the meat.
Or a course consisting of cooked vegetables by themselves or in the form
of small casseroles may be served preceding a small course of green salad
to clear the palate. Cheese and fruit would then be followed by an array
of sweet desserts, the choice depending again on the type of occasion.
After-dinner liqueurs may accompany the demitasse coffee. In a gathering
of true gourmets, it would be considered bad taste to smoke during a meal
as this would disturb the taste sensations and thus the appreciation of
French table service differs only slightly from that in other western
countries. It is customary to place cutlery with the fork prongs and soup
spoons facing downwards to the cloth. Dessert spoon and fork are placed
above the dinner plate setting with the fork at the top and the spoon
French family supper menus most frequently consist of a good satisfying
soup or casserole, bread, and wine. It is a lighter, simpler meal than
that the noon meal. But as in other countries, this pattern is changing as
people dine out in restaurants, bistros, and even fast-food outlets.