Lindsay McCallum is a writer who has lived in Paris for the past six years. Here, she shares the rules she's learned for fitting in with the French à table
It goes without saying that eating is a major part of French culture.
A country known for its cheeses, macarons, pastries and wines, with its Michelin star chefs, open-air markets and gastronomic meals, France is a haven for anyone who enjoys cooking or dining out. So much so that the French gastronomic meal was inducted into the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage items in 2010. And not only for the food itself, but for the ritual of preparing the table and the meal, beginning with the famous apéro, followed by at least four courses.
In short, the French do not mess around when it comes to mealtime. And where there’s a meal, there are manners.
Whether you’re in a restaurant or invited to a French home for one of their famous four-course dinners, there are a few golden rules you need to know in order to fit in with, and most of all, not offend your hosts and fellow diners.
1. Forget what you heard, do not say “bon appétit”
If you can believe it, it’s actually a big no-no to wish your fellow diners “Bon appétit” before a meal. The classic French line, meaning literally “good appetite,” has been made famous to Anglophone cultures by the melodic voice of Julia Child who would wish her audience a “bon appétit” while putting the final touches on her dish before the camera – and if Julia Child said it, it must be right…
Well, unfortunately, it’s wrong. The jovial phrase actually comes with a quite physical connotation, meaning more literally “hope you digest everything okay” rather than wishing someone an enjoyable meal. To impress your tablemates and hosts, try wishing everyone a “bon repas” (good meal) or happy dining before the meal.
2. Hands must remain above the table at all times
Contrary to the rules in many Western cultures, in France, if your hands are under the table - well, it’s not good. Now, this gets a bit tricky when you are also respecting the rule of no elbows on the table. So, the French have perfected this sort of forearm-table lean that allows your hands to remain within view, for the comfort of your hosts, while avoiding resting your elbows lazily on the table in despair. This gentle forearm-lean also allows for more gesticulations with your hands as you speak, which the French also appreciate.
This move will also come in handy when a calm mealtime conversation turns into a heated debate, one of the most adored pastimes of the French. Be sure to brush up on the latest in current events and literature before your next French dinner, so that even if you have no idea what is being said around you, you’ll have your hands poised and ready to defend your point of view or more simply, agree with your neighbour.
3. Salad is meant to be folded, never cut
This one could come as a bit of a surprise, but salad leaves are not meant to be cut into bite-sized pieces and scooped up to eat. The French have artfully mastered the motion of folding, never cutting, their salad leaves. This is actually a very old rule, dating to before the time of stainless steel when the vinaigrette on the salad would oxidize the silver of the cutlery, leaving it tarnished.
Technically, your host or the chef is responsible for cutting the salad to manageable sized pieces before serving, and if you need to further cut it in your plate, well then they didn’t do a very good job. Do as the French do and delicately fold the each leaf using the back of your knife and your fork simultaneously before eating it in one bite. This takes a bit of practice, particularly for those who are accustomed to eating with just the fork in one hand. But, since salad is served often in French meals, it’s a good manoeuvre to master.
4. Never pour your own wine
While it may be hard to swallow, your empty glass of wine might remain empty until someone else is nice enough to notice and refill it. Resisting the temptation to refill your own glass can be difficult. Although sometimes, there are ways around this rule. By beginning to reach for the bottle yourself, the person nearest to you will almost automatically jump in and reach for the bottle before you, offering to refill your glass, and saving you from any awkward looks.
Another trick to get around this rule is to politely ask your neighbour if he or she would like any more wine, pour their glass and then your own. Even though you may have technically broken the rule by pouring your own glass, the politeness of serving others before yourself goes a long way. However, chances are that if you’re a woman, the man nearest to you will jump in to pour your glass before even letting you get to his.
5. “Chin chin!”
The clinking of glasses before taking the first sip is one of the most festive mealtime traditions in any culture. Leave it to the French to have come up with rules even for the cheers. First of all, the cheers is technically meant to be done before everyone arrives at the table, most likely during the apéro with champagne. However, if you’re at a restaurant, this may likely happen à table, in which case, you’ll have no choice.
But even more important than where the first cheers takes place is how it takes place. Make sure never to cross glasses with anyone else when cheers-ing, as this is bad luck. Each cheers is done one by one, with intent, and most importantly, eye contact. Be sure to look whomever you’re clinking glasses with in the eye, or else you may have just signed yourself up for seven years of bad sex – or so the French say. Besides, it’s the perfect excuse to make eye contact with the cute French guy across the table.
Follow Lindsay's adventures in France on Instagram @girlmeetswhirl