Eating in France is more than just enjoying good food—it’s like stepping into a cultural maze with its own set of rules. But don’t worry, we’ve got your back! In this article, we’ll break down the dos and don’ts of French dining etiquette in easy-to-understand language. From what time to arrive to what time to leave and everything in between, we’ve got the lowdown on how to make your experience smooth and leave a good impression.
Firstly, let’s look at an invitation to an Apero (aperitifs). Depending on the day and the season, your invitation may be at any time of the day but during the festive period, you can expect it to be around 7-7.30 pm. Apero is just drinks and “nibbles” but at Christmas time even the nibbles can be quite impressive. You can expect any of the following: crisps, charcuterie, cheese, dips, pickles, pastries & fruits. Popular drinks are Kir Royale (Fruit liqueur and sparkling wine), Pastis (Pernod), beer, Martini, white wine, and sparkling or sweet wine. In winter, Apero should not last more than 2 hours as your hosts will wait for you to leave before preparing their evening meal. You should look out for subtle signs that the Apero is over, such as your host not refilling your glass or the “nibbles” bowls. It should be noted that aperitifs are also served when you are invited for an actual meal but are a smaller, simpler version and merely the warm-up act for the feast that follows!
Before you arrive
Whether you have been invited for a meal or Aperitifs, your host has probably given you a precise time to arrive and you should not (under any circumstances) arrive early. The French are firm believers in the “Quart heure de politesse” and the Mayenne is no exception. In fact the “Quart heure mayennais” is deeply ingrained in the locals’ psyches. If you are invited for 7pm, then 7.10-7.15pm is considered an appropriate arrival time. Anything more than 15 minutes late and you risk appearing rude.
Gifts for the hosts
Most guests will bring some token gifts for the hosts. Plants are preferred over cut flowers as the host does not have to go and find a vase and deal with the flowers when they should be preparing the meal. A bottle of wine is always appreciated but here there are 2 important things to bear in mind. 1 – the wine must always be French, and 2 – Don’t expect to be served the wine you brought during the meal, your hosts will have carefully selected the wines for each course; so your bottle might be put in the wine rack for another day. You could also offer chocolates or some kind of sweet selection.
Bisous or no bisous?
Even at larger gatherings, you should greet every person individually. If you have met them socially before then you can assume that a kiss on each cheek will be an acceptable greeting. Any new acquaintances should be greeted with a handshake or, in some cases, just a nod and “Hello”.
When the meal is served, everyone will take their place at the table and the host(s) will bring you your food and offer you a glass of wine. You should never top up your wineglass yourself as this is akin to accusing your hosts of neglecting their guests. Everyone will wait for the hosts to wish them “Bon Appetit” before starting to eat. You will be expected to eat everything on your plate to show your appreciation but do not ask for more, merely accept a second helping if it is offered. Try and ration your wine consumption so that your empty plate coincides with an empty glass as the next course could well have a different type of wine to accompany it.
Any French meal worth its salt will consist of at least 5 courses: aperitifs, starter, main course, cheese course, and dessert. At Christmas and other special occasions, you can expect an extra 2 courses: aperitifs, starter, fish (sometimes followed by a palate cleansing sorbet), main course, salad, cheese, and dessert; followed by coffee and a “digestif” such as brandy, calvados, or a liqueur.
And now, the end is near…
The French will spend as much time talking as they do eating so you can expect a meal to take at least 2-3 hours, sometimes 4-5. Try to avoid talking about money, politics, or religion but most other subjects are acceptable. Remember Somerset Maugham’s famous quote “At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely” By the time you put your dessert spoon down or sip your last drop of calvados your hosts will have built up a sizeable pile of washing up and will not be offended if you offer to help, however, wait for them to make the first move to clear the table. And even though you feel like you could go into winter hibernation after eating all that, if there’s daylight left your hosts may well suggest a short walk. If the majority of the guests are pulling on their walking shoes then you should too!
Possibly the most important aspect of French dining etiquette is when to leave…… If there are French guests there with you, watch for their cue to leave. And as you bid your hosts au revoir, remember to compliment their food and hospitality and enjoy the afterglow of a true French feast. Then start planning for the return match at your house!
For more French Festive Facts…… read the Mayenne 53 Special Online Christmas Edition of the Mayenne 53 Magazine 2023 HERE.