Saturday, 21 April 2012

Eating à-la-française is not just about food

One of my preferred eateries here in Lyon

Elegantly-laid tables, fine wines, beautifully prepared dishes. These are just a few of the many images that are conjured up when discussing what eating in France is like, but the reality is somewhat different. Contrary to widely-held views, eating here is not first and foremost about enjoying the food. It’s about enjoying the people who sit down to eat it.

I’m writing this entry in response to a commenter on The Guardian who suggested that I write about French cheeses, of which he is a fan. Having thought about it for a while though, all my ideas for this subject seemed to revolve around the usual kind of gushing praise that British and other newspapers heap upon French food in their ‘Food & Drink’ sections. 

Articles on cheese in these papers often talk about bringing a fine selection of cheeses out of the fridge on time and laying them lovingly onto elegant cheese platters and selecting four of five excellent bottles, one for each cheese, and at least two different breads, before going on to relate the exquisite sensations to be enjoyed whilst eating and drinking each cheese and wine etcetera. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do that, so I hope the commenter concerned will understand why and forgive me.

The majority of French people do know how to select and serve cheese of course, and they also know how to eat correctly in good restaurants and prepare finely-tuned cuisine, but it isn’t what many of them prefer to do, which is to burn the good etiquette book and chuck it out the window.

A first social invitation to eat often involves a more-or-less formal table. Your host may even serve your wine, your food is served for you, and in no circumstances do you help in any way. You’re the guest after all. But if all goes well and everyone enjoys each other’s company, subtle changes to the conduct of subsequent meals together will occur.

You may begin to hear things like “how about if I bring the serving bowls in and we all help ourselves?” and your host may well hold his empty glass out and ask you to fill it because the bottle is nearer to you and he can’t reach it. Politics and/or religion may begin to creep into the conversation.

If this happens to you it’s a good bet that your company is appreciated and that your hosts would like to lighten up on the rules and become more relaxed and familiar with you. You should seize opportunities like this and help further them.

You will soon find yourself mopping up sauces with your bread and helping to clear the plates in preparation for the next dish. Bread connoisseurs who know each other smell bread from extremely close up to appreciate the aroma, and so shall you. 

Elbows will eventually be put on tables, and you won’t get a cheese plate anymore because, like everyone else, you’ll just clean a corner of your main dish plate with bread in which to place your cheese, cheese which you have cut with your own knife after wiping it on your bread. And if people are eating different desserts, they may well ask if they can “just have a little taste of yours” before dipping into it with their own spoon.

Now you’re getting somewhere. Conversation will become more incisive, ribald jokes will be told, and it’s now that you begin to realise what eating in France is all about, which is developing relationships and not showing off your impeccable table manners. What constitutes good table manners here can, and often does, vary according to who one is eating with. The food is important, sure, but the whole exercise is ultimately geared to enjoying the company of people whom one appreciates in a relaxed and unfettered manner.

In fact, some of the very best and most satisfying meals I’ve ever eaten in France happen when longstanding friends gather together and a couple of them, or I myself, have just been to the local market. So it’s roll-your-sleeves-up time and all the charcuterie and excellent cheeses are just plonked down in the centre of the kitchen table, still in their wrappers. Napkins are kitchen paper roll. Add a couple of good breads and a few bottles of local wine – fine wines would be out of place and inappropriate here - and it’s every man woman and child for him or herself. Banter and fun guaranteed. Heaven.

That’s what real eating à-la-française means to me. Eating for many French people is first and foremost a vehicle – an excuse even – for relaxed, informal and enjoyable social interaction. This is why the sooner the etiquette book gets burned the sooner everyone can start enjoying eating and each other. And that is precisely what art de vivre is all about in its day-to-day sense.

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