The Art of Living

11 Oct

French food isn’t just about food. In fact, it’s often an aside (albeit a delicious, well crafted and at times labour intensive aside ) that contributes to the larger justification of social gatherings. Being social is being French, and no social occasion can exist without food. And that Simba, is the great circle of life. French life that is.

The cyclical relationship between food and social gatherings can be seen walking down any street in Paris as you pass by dozens of corner cafes whose crammed tables and chairs are almost always completely occupied by locals sipping espresso, munching away on some beef tartar or a pastry of sorts, and not seeming to mind that they are literally sitting on top of their neighbour. And why should they? If anything, this is a wonderful excuse to strike up a conversation with an unknown stranger.

Conversing with those lesser known isn’t reserved for day-to-day life and café visits. This phenomenon is almost an institution, which can also be observed in even the most formal of French dining experiences. A perfect example of this is seen in traditional French seating arrangements, whereby couples are never placed side by side. In fact they’re often across the table from one another for the reasoning that you spend every other moment with this person, why would you want to have the same mundane conversation you normally have sitting by the fire reading the newspaper when you’re at a dinner party with all sorts of exciting new faces. And so, a traditional French seating arrangement has the host and hostess sitting across form each other, shallow-width of the table, with the respective “guest of honour” and their spouse sitting to the right of the host of their opposite sex. The rest of the table alternates between man and woman as well (assuming of course that you always have an even number of both), with couples, as previously mentioned, sitting across or diagonally from each other. Or in other words, as far away as you can possibly get.

These lessons and many more wonderful things, make up our art de vivre classes – the art of French entertaining, and life in general.

Before guests are seated, one must of course prepare the table. Depending on the formality of the dinner, the host or hostess must organize the appropriate plates, bowls, cutlery and glassware.  The image below shows a more formal design with glassware for both red and white wine, as well as water and champagne tumblers.

This next picture shows a slightly less formal dinner that would most likely be used for a meal with more familiar friends or even relatives.  Note that there are fewer glasses (only one for wine and one for water), the centrepiece is slightly more casual (apples over a tedious floral arrangement), and a carafe of water and bottles of wine are served on the table so that guests may help themselves.

This next setting shows a typical arrangement for an even more casual dinner, something with very close friends, or even just the immediate family.  Both beverage glasses remain, but placemats are subbed in for the tablecloth, and a soup bowl is not included, suggesting that perhaps this course has been selectively eliminated in preference of a simpler menu. The table decorations remain, but are minimal and friendly and offer a warm ambiance to make guests feel at home.

This final example is that of a very casual dinner or lunch such a BBQ or picnic. Easy to discard paper plates and plastic cups and cutlery replace normal silver and flatware, and the table decoration is kept very simple and rather accessible in case you’re looking for a post meal snack. Casual bouquets in plastic cups supply a lovely party favour especially if guests brought extra goodies to contribute to this free-form meal.

That being said, in traditional French culture it’s not expected or even encouraged to bring a gift or to offer to bring an edible contribution. The reasoning behind this is that if you bring a bouquet of flowers for example, it simply creates more work for the hostess or host, as they must find a vase, trim the flowers and arrange them accordingly as soon as they are received. A more suitable gesture is to have flowers sent before or after the party accompanied by a note of gratitude, or to simply return the favour of a dinner invite. In terms of bringing wine or food, this implies a lack of trust that the host or hostess has done their due diligence in preparing for the party, and suggesting otherwise (even if unintentionally) could be considered quite rude. Oh mon dieu! No no, the host will have spent a significant amount of time preparing by selecting the perfect wine and arranging the perfect centrepieces like the ones we created in class.

If you’re looking to try your hands at some floral or even fruit/ veggie arranging for a dinner party centrepiece, it can be a beautiful and impressive touch. Just remember a few key pointers…

Firstly, the colours should match the rest of your decor and should all be within a similar palette. For example, if you have orange detailing in your china, stick with rusty tones that will blend in with the rest of the table. The goal isn’t to be matchy-matchy but to offer as little distraction as possible from the main focus of food and conversation.

Second thing to remember is that the arrangements must be fairly low so that you can easily see over them, as no guest should be cut off from one another.

Finally, make sure the vessel in which they are held is in keeping with the formality of the dinner. For example, porcelain goes nicely with a more traditional meal, whereas baskets or small bouquets in simple tumblers are better suited for casual gatherings.

But even before quests arrive, the host must call and invite them, and then send a pour mémoire note closer to the date. Although the French aren’t notorious for their punctuality (it took my landlord 3 days to show up to collect my rent and damage deposit. Actually), they do frown upon the concept of being “fashionably late”. The window of arrival is about 15 minutes, with anything earlier being unheard of in French culture. Guests are greeted with aperitifs such as champagne, kir (white wine and crème de cassis) of even kir royale (champagne and crème de cassis) and may sample a simple amuse bouche of gougère (refer to post The French Basics), for example. The actual eating time is a surprisingly short 45 minutes or so with the main focus on the post dinner schmoozing. As mentioned earlier, the French are master schmoozers and can often linger for an extra 3 hours after the meal sipping on drinks and digesting their dinners. Somewhat reminiscent of the marathon-like coffee dates you see Parisians pursuing as they nurse their teeny tiny espressos for a 2+ hour stint. But don’t worry, if you’re exhausted after a long day of preparations and cooking, you can simply serve some fruit juice to your loitering guests as an indication that they should be leaving within the next 10 minutes. Clearly the French have thought of everything, although I’m pretty sure if I served my guests some OJ a couple hours after their meal, they would look at me like I was insane. Too bad most North Americans aren’t aware of some of these wonderful little French formalities.


2 Responses to “The Art of Living”


  1. Digesting the Experience « Shortt and Sweet - 11/10/2011

    […] The Art of Living: I’ll finally be giving you some details on the Art de Vivre classes with topics ranging form table settings, planning dinner parties, wines, cheeses and floral arrangements. […]

  2. It’s the Most Delicious Time of the Year « Shortt and Sweet - 23/12/2011

    […] When planning decorations keep things relatively simple, and stick to a particular colour palate as mentioned in the post The Art of Living. […]

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