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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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).
10. 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.