French social customs 3: table manners part 1

For my other posts about French customs, please look in ‘Customs’ under Topics in the right-hand sidebar. For part 2 of this post, which is about eating in a French restaurant, please click here.

Here are some tips for when you are invited for a meal in a French household.

What to bring: don’t go empty-handed.  A bunch of flowers, chocolates, a book on a subject you know interests your hosts or a couple of pots of home made jam or chutney are acceptable.  It’s better not to take a bottle of wine (although good quality champagne or armagnac are OK). French people normally serve very good wine and have reliable sources.  So taking wine is akin to bringing coals to Newcastle. If you know them quite well and know their taste in wine, a decent bottle won’t go amiss.

Apéritifs: dinner always starts with drinks. See my comments in French social customs 2. Normally, drinks are not served until all the guests have arrived.  We once went to a party where this principle was taken to the extreme: 40 of us had to wait an hour for the stragglers to turn up, and only then were we allowed a drink. 

Serving champagne as an apéritif has become more common.  The snacks served with drinks are often almost a meal in themselves: shot glasses of soup, spoonfuls of cream cheese with mock caviar, mini-pizzas, hummus with crudités, or foie gras on mini toasts.  A group of French friends vie with each other to provide ever more inventive snacks.  Our bowls of olives and pistachios must be a bit of a come-down.

The meal: see my comments in French social customs 2 on what to talk about.  The French often serve soup followed by a second starter. Wine is never served with soup and your hosts will start to pour the wine only with the starter or main course (if there is no second starter). So don’t make an undignified grab for the bottle and start helping yourself.  Drinking too much is frowned upon.  We learned only recently that it’s up to the hosts to pour the water the first time, but up to the guests to top up their own water glass (and others’ if you are polite).

French people often say “bon appetit” as a signal to dig in. A French person once told us that this is considered common and we shouldn’t do it, but I’ve never heard anyone else voice that opinion.  So go with the flow: if everyone else does it, you do it too.

The French do not provide side plates for bread. I’ve often seen British people attempting to balance a large hunk of bread on an already full plate, but it’s quite acceptable to put your bread on the tablecloth, like they do.

After the meal: coffee and digestifs are the norm, although a lot of French drink tisanes (herbal teas).

As with apéritifs, don’t outstay your welcome. The departure of one couple is a signal for everyone to leave (unless they had to leave particularly early for some reason).

The next day: phone to thank your hosts. Interestingly, for such a meticulously polite nation, the French rarely write thank you notes.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved.

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