We’d like to share with you the fruits of our experiences in France regarding a subject near and dear to our . . . stomachs – food and drink. The French would call them astuces and they are tips, guidelines, traditions and courtesies which may or may not be obvious, but which we hope will help you get a little more pleasure out of your stay.
There’s no doubt that food and drink are high priorities in French life. Outside of Paris, virtually everything in France grinds to a halt for lunch. In even the smallest town, there are minor traffic jams at 12:05 and 1:55 as everyone rushes to and from the table. Hopefully you too will make dining an important part of your stay
A menu is a carte and a fixed-price selection of dishes is called a menu (something obviously got lost in the translation). But one great advantage of dining in France is that invariably a restaurant posts its menu (carte) outside the door, so before you commit yourself you can see what style of food they serve and at what price. It will also show if there is a fixed menu or if one can order à la carte. The menus offer a starter course, one or two main courses, cheese and/or dessert. Wine and coffee are not usually included.
Choosing a menu is often good value and reduces the amount of translation and decisions that have to be made. Personally, unless something really grabs us à la carte, we go for a menu. It will usually offer a choice of interesting dishes and often includes a daily special, which is fresh and seasonal.
An innovation that is proving popular in the more casual bistro-style restaurants is the menu-carte. Instead of a multi-page menu requiring intense scrutiny, this limited-choice menu offers 3-4 starters, mains and desserts. You can choose one of each course for a single fixed price or else take just a single dish, or a starter + main course, or 2 starters (often a good strategy for vegetarians) or any combination you like. The prices of the component dishes are marked too and the sum of the parts is only slightly greater than the whole.
If you want to “eat” according to the French definition (i.e. a full sit down 3-4 course meal) you have to keep an eye on your watch. Get used to planning your day around your meals, as the French do. Lunch is served between 12 and 2pm, and after 1.30 you may be refused a table – especially on a slow weekday. The kitchen will close and the staff will be looking forward to going home before the evening shift. Dinner is usually served from 8pm onwards, rarely before.
That said, one can usually find something to eat at nearly any time of the day. Many bars, even a bakery or charcuterie, will make you a sandwich, or offer a salad or a square of pizza or quiche that is infinitely superior to what we find in many restaurants at home – but they won’t consider it “eating”.
The French usually wouldn’t think of arriving for dinner before 7.30pm, or even 8. If you do, you are likely to find the doors locked (the preparation having been done after lunch) or the staff in the middle of their communal meal. Have a snack in the late afternoon, or better yet, consider stopping for an apéritif at the local café if you find yourself running early.
Say what we will about dining, the role of drink remains sacred. The evening apéritif hour is still a time to catch up with friends and the day’s news and gossip. An apéritif is still a drink taken before a meal. Wine is still usually not an apéritif but is taken with food. In better restaurants, unless you ask, the wine you’ve ordered will still not be served until the food arrives.
Hard liquor and beer are not considered appropriate apéritifs, as they kill appetites rather than enhance them. Instead why not try a kir (chilled white wine with a touch of fruit liqueur) or a kir royale (the same but made with champagne), a vin de noix (walnut wine), a fortified wine such as Banyuls or Pineau, a pastis or a Martini (not an American style “silver loudmouth” but the Italian fortified red or white wine version). Campari is similar – more bitter but refreshing with soda, orange and/or lots of ice.
In France everyone drinks wine with meals – hey, the Americans proved that it reduces the risk of heart disease! – but as often as not it’s the local red, white or rosé out of a pitcher or a carafe. Finer bottled wines are often reserved for special occasions and slightly fancier restaurants where the more sophisticated food calls for a more complex wine. If you are only in France for a short while then why not experiment and splurge on a couple of exceptional $20 bottles. You’ll never find these wines at as good a price elsewhere – if you can find them at all.
In a better restaurant, ordering wine might look like an art of its own, like a ballet dance between the server and the guest. Once you know the little ritual though, it’s not nearly as tricky as it might seem.
This is how the little wine dance goes.
The Waiter: presents the wine label of the unopened bottle.
You: check that it is the wine that you ordered. Don’t forget to also look at the year (millésime). You’d be amazed at how often servers pull wines from an entirely different year than the one you ordered.
The Waiter: pulls the cork, holds it out for inspection and pours a small taste of wine in your glass so that you can determine if it is corked.
You: can basically ignore the cork unless it is green and crumbling (we’ve never known anyone to make any sense of the actual cork), give the glass a little spin on the tabletop to air the wine (this is also the easiest way not to embarrassingly spill any), give it a good sniff (smelling for the bad, moldy smell of a “corked” bottle – it is obvious once you know what it smells like – or if the wine smells just dead) and a good slug, swilling it discreetly around in your mouth and then swallowing it.
Don’t confuse an unfamiliar wine with an off wine. If you are unsure, ask your waiter to try it: “Qu’est-ce que vous en pensez?” (“What do you think of it?”)
The Waiter: awaits your approval. At this stage they don’t want to know if you like the wine, just that it is OK to serve (i.e. not corked or off).
You: say “C’est bon,” meaning, “It’s OK, thank you.”
Et voilà! Bonne dégustation!