food etiquette

the etiquette of dining

So focused are the French on food and all things culinary, that it is not surprising to find that a number of ‘rules’ – the rest of the world should read ‘potential faux pas’ – have evolved.

To be fair, some of what follows is falling into disuse, especially among the younger generations, but it would be wise to bear these possible pitfalls in mind...they're charming, if nothing else.

Ladies first
When ordering in a restaurant, women order first; the waiter will pointedly look to the woman/women in the group to order, not to the men.

Wine tasting
In a restaurant, the waiter or sommelier will ask who is going to taste the wine; it is usually one of the men present. But – and here’s the catch – you are not actually tasting the wine to see if you like it (who would order a wine that exposed their lack of knowledge about wines?), you are tasting it to see if it is corked – it has a slight musty smell, if it is – indicating that the wine has reacted with the cork in an unacceptable way, and is affecting the quality of the wine. You can detect this mustiness by smell; it’s quite distinctive. So, you don’t actually need to taste the wine; just swirl it around in your glass, stick your nose in and smell it, and then pronounce it good ('Oui, c'est bon') or bad ('Non, c'est bouchonné').

In addition, as more and more wines, especially at the lower end of the quality hierarchy, come in screw-top bottles, it follows that if the wine doesn’t have a cork, it can’t be corked. So, just ask the waiter to pour it.

Wine pouring
In a restaurant, wine will normally be poured by the waiter. But they can be busy people, so you may find yourself doing the honours. Never, never, never fill the wine glass above half way; you must allow room for the bouquet of the wine to flourish in the upper part of the glass. The bouquet is every bit as important as the actual taste.

When opening champagne, hold the cork and turn the bottle, slowly, so that the cork eventually eases out with a polite, almost apologetic, hiss. It takes practice, but there is nothing worse than wasting champagne by allowing it to spurt from the bottle. Unthinkable! – and so speaks a Chevalier de la Commanderie de Saulte-Buchon, who had to perform this feat in front of the brothers of the Commanderie and the assembled company before being knighted...and what a night it was!

Starting the meal
Before actually starting your meal, it is polite to say ‘Bon appétit’ (don’t pronounce the final ‘t’), and equally correct for men not to start eating before ladies have started their meal.

Mopping up
So many French dishes come with excellent sauces, so much so that you don’t want to waste any of it. So, use a piece of bread to mop up the sauce. But, fix the bread to the end of your fork, and use it that way. Do not manoeuvre the bread around with plate with your fingers, even if you do know where they’ve been!

Knife and fork recycling
Never in up-market restaurants, but often in rural auberges you find that one knife and fork is intended to be used for all courses – well, not dessert, of course. If you leave your knife and fork, used for the first course, on your plate, the waiter may well move them to the side in readiness for the next course. You can anticipate this, by wiping knives and forks clean on a piece of bread. If it turns out that the restaurant replaces the knives and forks, then no harm is done.

And, delving back into the archives, if, during the course of a meal, you pause for a moment, never allow the knife to rest on the table. It’s okay for the fork to do so, but not the knife; leave it on the plate. In fact, once you start eating, the knife should never touch the table again…don’t ask me why.

And, when you've completely finished eating, place the knife and fork together (not crossed) on the plate, at about the 5 o'clock position. Again, don't ask me why...I just do what I'm told.

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