Gastronomy in France: a Delightful Tradition That is About Much More Than Food

This is the polar opposite of eating a sandwich over the sink in a hurry.

It’s not about showcasing good food, or even excellent wines. This is about friends enjoying a meal together, and stretching that enjoyment out to fully savor it for the entire evening. The enjoyment is the primary focus; the food and drink contribute, but are entirely secondary. Decor and atmosphere count for more. And it is so central to French culture that it’s been named a UNESCO world intangible heritage.

The group gathers around 7:30 in the living room or on a comfortable patio, for conversation accompanied by an apéritif or three. The liquid apéritifs are usually dry, moderately alcoholic, and are thought to improve the appetite. The solid apéritifs are called ‘amuse-bouche‘, which translates to ‘amusing the mouth’. These can be cheese, olives, crackers, or whatever will amuse the tastebuds without filling anyone up.

At 9:00 or 9:30, the group migrates to the dining room and starts actually dining. There will be at least 4 courses here; the starter, followed by the entree with a vegetable, then cheese to fill in the corners, and dessert. These are selected to provide a harmonious flow from one course to the next; foods that match well are more valued than impressive dishes that clash with each other. Wines are served to compliment the foods presented, and hosts bring their best bottles out. This part of the evening can easily run for 90 minutes, while the focus remains on the ambiance and conversation that the group is enjoying.

Around 11:00, the group finishes the dessert and relaxes with digestifs: liquors, or cocktails intended to aid digestion. If the conversation continues to be lively and interesting, this can be followed with coffee and liquor as the conversation winds up. As the host, you can count your dinner party a resounding success if the guests don’t leave until 2:00. This is the true measure of success – the guests don’t want to put an end to the evening.

Yes, good food matters, and excellent wines help – but matching them well is the larger part of it. Decoration and elegance in the table settings are important, but this isn’t a Better Homes and Gardens photo-spread opportunity, it’s the little things that add up to an evening that one spends enjoying the company of their friends.

Not that this isn’t taken seriously, it is. There is a television show in France called “Un Diner Presque Parfait” (An Almost Perfect Dinner) in which 4 contestants compete to present the best dinner party. Their parties are graded on 3 factors: ambiance, food, and decoration. The winner gets prizes.

In the US, we do this a few times a year, for special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, Superbowl. In France, it’s a national pastime, and it’s a sad weekend when someone isn’t either hosting one or being a guest at someone else’s.

Picture that, for a moment. A life in which you gather for a full evening almost every week to focus on simply enjoying life. People could make worse choices than to adopt this charming custom and make it their own. We can’t let the French have all of the fun, after all.

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