The French Dining Table

When I first met my French man and settled in the South of France he was the ideal wine-loving romantic, full of flowery compliments, a good dancer, and a good cook (particularly with meats) so of course I had to have him. What I hadn’t hedged my bets on, however, was having to adapt to the little quirks of meal time manners and what was expected at the dining table.

In France, it’s terribly rude to eat before everyone is at the table, no matter whether there are guests or not. Aperitifs (before dinner drinks) are usually served with nibbles, followed by the entrée, or appetiser. However, if you are invited over to someone’s home for the apero, you may wish to cross out any further engagements for that particular evening because before dinner drinks inevitably lead to so much consumption of little nibbles (which can vary from tapenade-covered toasts to oven baked filo-pastry delicacies) you will have made a meal out of it and stayed until bed time. And if you are planning to invite French guests over for dinner, it would also be wise to note the importance of the entrée to French dining culture.

It is so important that even school children have this course at their cantine, usually in the form of some simple salad or cold cuts. The main meal (le plat) is usually a warm dish (more often meat) that must be slightly undercooked because nothing disgusts a French diner more than thoroughly cooked red meat. Even in school cantines, a steak haché would be red in the middle. And do not even consider the idea of going without dessert (and a cheese course before, if you have guests) because a French meal without dessert is as good as a Chinese meal without rice.

If you are thinking of what type of meat to serve your French guests, by the way, you would not go too far off the mark should you choose that “other white meat” otherwise known as pork. In case you have not noticed, the French eat a plethora of pork in the form of sausage, salami, dried and cured ham, roasts, terrines, bacon or lardons, pork rinds, pig feet and ears, pork flavoured chips – the endless variety here is enough to make anyone begin to think France is one big pig pit.

Add to that the over 230 types of cheese and I’m thinking French people must have the highest cholesterol levels compared to all their European counterparts! But my guy has never even had his cholesterol checked. Most of the French I know in my neighbourhood (Provence) are not over-weight and nor do they have any food related illness. And Pork just happens to be the cheapest meat at the supermarkets compared with chicken, beef, and lamb. It’s even cheaper compared with almost any sea food by the kilo. It makes economic sense, therefore, to feed the French family mostly with protein from this curly tailed animal. As the saying goes, “toute est bon sur le cochon” – referring to the fact that happily, every part of the pig can be consumed or used in cuisine.

It can take some time to adapt to the French dining culture particularly if you are a member of the globe-trotting-big-city folk that have been exposed to a larger variety of cuisines most of your lives but fear not; in the meantime there are a handful of Asian and Middle Eastern markets around to stock up on ingredients for those luscious curries, spicy tagines, and addictive delicacies like sushi that you’ll just have to make yourself. But don’t count on there being “take-aways” around where you might settle in Provence. Unless you find yourself in the more crowded (and therefore not as habitably desirable) cities like Toulon and Marseille, this region still has a long way to go in that department.

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