Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France

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The recently arrived Anglophone expat might find the following do’s and don’t's useful when wining and dining at a restaurant or at a French friend’s house. They’re the result of my own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during more than 40 years of mainly peaceful co-habitation with the French.

Man under shower Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France1. Don’t arrive at a dinner party too early, or even dead on time. Try to organize things so that you turn up five or ten minutes later than the agreed time – otherwise your hostess might still have her apron on, and her husband rinsing himself under the shower.

Chrsyanthèmes au cimetière Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France2. If you’re invited to a meal by a French family in Autumn and you decide to offer your hostess a nice bouquet of flowers, for heaven’s sake don’t go for a bunch of chrysanthemums. Though she’ll do her best not to show it, this could give her the impression you’re wishing her an early demise. Even though in England the chrysanthemum is a hobby plant, and no-one would think twice about brightening up their living room with a nice vase of Japs, in France this flower is inextricably associated with the cemetery and death. Traditionally, they’re placed on the graves of relatives on 1st November (All Saints’ Day).

3. When dining don’t put your hands on your knees under the table. For some obscure reason (perhaps some Frenchmen have wandering palms), it’s considered to be the height of bad manners. When not eating, keep them above board: rest your forearms (but not your elbows) on the table where everybody can see them.

Loo 300x100 Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France4. In a French home don’t ask to use the loo (especially during the meal) unless you’re absolutely bursting. Going to the toilet in someone else’s house can be considered to be an impolite invasion of their privacy. So try to bottle it all up until you get back home.

Mopping up sauce Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France5. Always remember that the pleasure of eating was a French invention, and that it was the English who invented the rules. My mother, who always insisted on good table manners when I was a child, would have been horrified, for example, by the French dunk – that widespread habit the Gallics have of systematically using a piece of bread digitally, in much the same way as a sponge, to mop up their soup or the sauce remaining on their dinner plate during the final stages of the main course. Even though it’s not done in the very best of circles (though, apparently, it is tolerated when bread is impaled on fork) the practice is extremely common. In addition, the same technique is frequently resorted to at breakfast time when bread is plunged into a bowl of coffee or hot chocolate until it has imbibed as much liquid as the laws of physics will allow.

Basket of bread Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France6. Unlike in England where it is not systematically provided at meals, bread in France is considered to be an integral part of the pleasure of eating, so don’t be afraid to ask the waiter to fill up the bread basket when it’s getting low.

7. The French are not in the habit of using a side plate on which to place their bread. So don’t be afraid of plonking it on the table cloth on the left side of your plate.

Elbows on table Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France8. My mother always taught me that a meal was eaten using both a knife and fork. In addition, she always insisted that a knife belonged exclusively to the right hand while a fork always stayed in the left. The French have a more liberal view of things. So don’t be surprised when you see them take the earliest opportunity to abandon the knife (unless there’s a piece of steak to be cut up first), transfer fork to right hand and then use it as the sole eating tool for the rest of the meal. What’s more, on a popular TV programme where participants take turns to invite one another to come dine with them at home I’ve even seen contestants unashamedly commit what for my mother was the unpardonable sin of placing their knife in their mouth.

Pouring wine to taste Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France9. When the waiter pours a drop of wine for you to taste don’t give the glass a good swirl and then go into raptures about its focused bouquet, or try to show off by vaunting its complex wild black fruit flavour mixed in with subtle overtones of black pepper spice. It’s simply to know that it hasn’t been corked (i.e. contaminated with a cork taint which makes it smell and taste of damp, soggy wet or rotten cardboard).

Cheese board Ten Tips for Wining and Dining in France10. In France you will be presented with the cheeseboard before the dessert. Even if there’s a huge selection it’s not considered polite to choose more than two. If you do decide to go simply for that nice, mature-looking Camembert, don’t cut yourself too large a wedge by way of compensation. It could give the impression you’re pig greedy. And don’t expect to be provided with crispy cheese biscuits and butter. The French eat their cheese with plain, unbuttered bread.

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Converting the French to the ‘Doggy Bag’

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Doggy bag 3 Converting the French to the Doggy BagIf you’re eating in a restaurant in the U.K. or America you probably wouldn’t think twice about asking the waiter for a bag or box so you can take that nice bit of steak you couldn’t quite finish home for Rover, or even for yourself. in France, however, it’s still not quite the done thing. If you did the same in a restaurant here you might come in for some strange looks from the person serving you, and a good deal of mockery (behind your back) from other diners. But, as a result of the present European year of fight against waste, all this could be about to change. For while most French still tend to make fun of the ‘doggy bag’, in a world where resources are increasingly limited some restaurants, companies and internet sites are now doing their best to promote this Anglo-Saxon invention as a means of combating waste. And in France where, according to a study conducted in 2011, each person throws away on average 21% of food bought (that’s 90 kg of food per year), 8% of which hasn’t even been removed from its packaging, this kind of waste is coming in for more and more criticism.

And it’s the restaurants which seem to be taking the lead. According to a recent survey which questioned 2.700 restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region restaurant owners’ greatest fear is that their customers will become ill after eating left-overs which have not been kept in the best of conditions at home. In this respect, however, they can rest assured as, legally speaking, restaurants can no longer be held responsible for a dish which was started in their restaurant and then taken away. A total of 31% of the establishments questioned already offer or are thinking of offering a box or bag which customers can use to take uneaten food home.  And 86% of them feel that, since the customer has paid for the entire meal, he’s entitled to take the left-overs away. It’s also a good preparation for 2016 when restaurants will be legally obliged to limit organic waste.

Doggy bag 2 Converting the French to the Doggy BagWhat’s more, some young entrepreneurs see this as a market opening, and are doing their best to make the bag or box more attractive. This is certainly the case with the Trop bon pour gaspiller (Too good to waste) project launched by Laurent and Rabaïa Calvayrac. ‘We’ve lived in North America where the practice is very common,’ says Rabaïa. ‘When we came back to France we decided to try to make it more popular by improving the quality of the box. We think this is very important.’ As a result they’ve produced a luxury doggy bag – a rigid, recyclable, bio-degradable box suitable for both microwave and normal ovens (up to 180°C), and made in France. The problem is that, in spite of its qualities, only small quantities (5.000) will be produced to begin with. And the cost price will be around 1€, a bit too expensive to hope for massive success, even though those restaurants who have shown interest say they’re willing to make an effort as far as the price is concerned.

In addition, Rest-o-Resto, a Grenoble-based company, is compiling an online directory of restaurants which offer a doggy bag or box. At present it has 130 addresses from 11 towns. And the numbers are expanding. ‘The reactions we get vary from one restaurant to another,’ admits Alexandre Teodosio. ‘Some owners are very enthusiastic, while for others it’s unthinkable that a meal should end up in a bag or box.’ The company is in the process of developing a box which will be less upmarket than the Trop bon pour gaspiller one.

France’s Belgian neighbours, on the other hand, have adopted a different approach to making the doggy bag more acceptable. This involves finding not only a suitable French name but – since most left-overs are taken home for human consumption – one less associated with a canine. It doesn’t seem to be an easy task, however, as their site has just launched a Facebook consultation page inviting people to come up with their suggestions. Among these can be found Restopack, Restrobon (Restes trop bons pour être jetés), or even Gaspipa.

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The Decline of the French Breakfast

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It has always been an enigma to me that the English, so universally condemned for the uninspired nature of their cooking, could have managed to impose on our planet such a varied, copious and delicious meal as the cooked breakfast; or how their French neighbours, who have elevated cooking to no less than a creative art, could have come up with nothing more imaginative than a miserable slice of bread and butter, or a solitary croissant, and a bowl of watery coffee or hot chocolate by which to start the day.

English breakfast The Decline of the French BreakfastThis is not to say, however, that the French fail to appreciate the qualities of a full English breakfast. But there exists, perhaps, no other country in the world where so many people unreservedly admit that there’s nothing like a substantial meal to get the day off to a flying start, and where so few actually find it possible to believe that anyone can have either the time or the stomach to take it – even at the weekend or during the holidays. This was confirmed to me during a recent trip to Portugal in the company of a group of 20 or so French people. Not only was I the only person among us to be hungry enough to indulge in egg, bacon, sausage, fried bread and tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans, but a great deal of surprise (and in one case horror) was expressed at my stomach’s ability to cope with such copious and varied quantities of food at that early hour of day.

And according to a recent survey conducted by the Credoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie) on the eating habits of the French, the breakfast in France has suffered such a severe decline over the past ten years that now only one person in five is willing to devote an average of 14 minutes per day to eating it. And they don’t necessarily do this every day. Is this a sign that the meal is on the point of disappearing in France? Whatever the case may be the danger is present enough for producers of breakfast foods and drinks to launch a campaign designed to convince their compatriots that going to work or school on an empty stomach is not the best of ways to start the day.

And not only has the number of French people who eat a breakfast progressively declined over the last ten years but the tendency seemed to have accelerated last year. Is it because people are in more and more of a hurry in the morning? Or is it just one more manifestation of the present economic crisis? It’s still too early to say – even if the common ingredients of the French breakfast are not outrageously expensive. This 2013 tendency  does, however, confirm recent concern shown not only at the drop in consumption of bread, dairy products, cereals and fruit juices, but the impact not eating breakfast may have on our ability to concentrate later in the morning – especially when it comes to schoolchildren, 29% of whom go without breakfast at least once a week compared to only 11% ten years ago.

The decline is all the more paradoxical as the meal enjoys a generally favourable image in France where 93% of people consider it vital for a good dietary equilibrium. Among those who spend an average of 14 minutes eating breakfast, nine out of ten consider it to be an enjoyable way of starting the day. 95% eat the meal at home (and not in a café), and 88% of these sit at table. However, almost half of them eat alone.

French breakfast The Decline of the French BreakfastJust what do the French favour for breakfast? Ingredients tend to be varied. It goes without saying that bread is indispensable for 75% of them. Bread is followed by coffee (78%), butter (57%), fruit juice (51%), plain milk (38%), yoghourt and pastries (22%), fresh fruit (15%), honey (14%), while the various types of breakfast spreads available on supermarket shelves come last at 10%.

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Are the French Rude?

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Mr Rude French Are the French Rude?You know, I can’t help thinking that the arrogant rudeness some Anglo-Saxons seem to find so inherent in the French is the result of a misunderstanding caused by a different cultural conception as to what constitutes basic politeness. This was once again brought home to me during a recent week’s holiday I spent in Portugal with a group of 20 or so French tourists. Even though I’d had several lengthy conversations with at least two male members of our group (especially at mealtimes when the wine began to flow), it was only towards the end of the holiday when we really started getting to know one another that we began using first names. It goes without saying that, had we all been Anglo-Saxons, we would have been on Christian name, even back-slapping terms right from the start. And the Frenchman in me is tempted to think it is this importance you attach to ‘friendly’ politeness which can cause you to view some aspects of the more formalistic French codes of socially-acceptable behaviour as little more than unamicable aloofness. In this respect, I distinctly remember one occasion when I’d just landed back in Blighty, and the Englishman in me must still have been fast asleep.

The train taking me from the airport was almost empty and I had no problem in finding a window seat. The next stop, however, was a large town where a crowd of people were waiting to board. Pointing to the vacant seat beside me a lady politely enquired, with an amiable English smile, ‘Is anybody sitting here, please?’

‘No!’ I replied, shaking my head, and with what I thought to be a cordial tone of voice.

Now, had this been in France the lady would certainly have gratified me with a primly polite ‘Merci, monsieur,’ and then, without further ado, would have proceeded to sit down. Not so with our English one.

‘I’m asking you if this seat is free!’ she repeated with barely-concealed annoyance.

A little surprised, I retorted, ‘Your original question was, ”Is anybody sitting here?” My reply was ”No!” That means nobody is sitting here!’ And with a gentle smile I beckoned her to take a seat.

She sat down stiffly. Despite having brought to her notice the correctness of my grammar, something in her demeanour made it obvious that offence had been given, and a long, heavy silence ensued. Puzzled, I gave the matter some thought. And, as we rolled along, it must have been my Englishman who began to stir; for it gradually dawned on me that, not only had my response to her first question been far too laconic, but totally lacking in English-style, friendly warmth.  And it could even have been mistakenly construed as ‘No, I don’t want you to sit here!’ In fact, what I should have said was something like, ‘Not at all, go ahead and sit down, love!’ accompanied by the broadest of smiles. But now the harm was done and all my attempts at reconciliation were in vain (she curtly refused my offer to lift her heavy-looking bag onto the luggage rack above). I finally retreated into resigned perusal of my newspaper.

Rude French waiter Are the French Rude?Personally, during the 42 years or so I’ve been living in France I’ve always operated on the principle that if you’re pleasantly polite with others in the vast majority of cases they’ll be pleasantly polite back. For me, at least, this has always worked with the different nationalities I’ve crossed the path of, including the French. Perhaps I’ve been lucky but, apart, perhaps, from the odd Parisian waiter (never address them as ‘garçon’), I’ve yet to come across the arrogant rudeness some Anglophones seem to find so rampant. The only exception was some years ago when I was having a drink in a café with a Scottish friend. We were sitting at the bar and our conversation was in English. Suddenly, an elderly man standing nearby announced loudly to one and all, ‘Ca sent la merde ici!’ and proceeded to storm out. In his favour, I think he’d had too many, and had perhaps mistaken English for German (perhaps he’d suffered during the German occupation of World War 2). So great was the indignation of the café owner (and several people standing around) that he offered us a drink on the house!


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