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Etiquette Be Damned

photo: non etiquette table

Diners can seriously disturb a correct table setting.

Paris Life - No 31

by Laurel Avery

Paris:– Friday, 26. December 2003:– I have lived in France for eight months now and am still getting accustomed to French dining etiquette.

When I was a teenager I used to collect late nineteenth–century etiquette books and spent hours poring over the pages dedicated to the proper way to eat an olive, which fork to use, etc. So I figured my table manners were pretty well honed.

Then I came to France and learned that many things are done differently here than they are done in America or any other European country, each of which has their own rules.

First of all, the way the table is set is slightly different. Utensils such as the fork and spoon are placedphoto: flowers with the tips down, which explains why French silver has the majority of its design on what we would consider the 'back' of the utensil.

What I still find confusing are the wine and water glasses. I am used to them being placed near the top of my knife, but here I find they are often placed at the top of my fork and there has been more than one incident of me picking up my dinner partner's glass by mistake.

Chocolates are an alternative to flowers.

Apparently, one of the biggest 'faux pas' I've made since being here was serving myself wine. Women in France are not supposed to pick up a wine bottle.

When I did, the French man I was with regarded me with a look of horror, as if I had done something like wiped my mouth on the tablecloth. It's the job of whatever man happens to be at the table to serve the beverages, though I'm not sure what the protocol is if two women are dining alone.

I had an amusing situation where I was having dinner with three others and my wine glass had been empty for aphoto: correct table setting number of minutes. I didn't dare reach for the bottle, but my host was engaged in lively discussion with the other lady at the table, so I was not about to interrupt him.

I resorted to making desperate glances between him, the wine bottle and my empty glass. Happily, it only took him a moment or two to realize he was being derelict in his wine pouring duties, for which he proceeded to apologize profusely. Everyone laughed.

A 'correct' table setting, with everything lined up perfectly.

Salad is something that should never be touched with a knife. The chef is supposed to make all the elements small enough to eat with only a fork, but should you encounter something too large you are only supposed to use your fork to cut it. It was explained to me that silver does not react with the vegetables, but the steel in the knife blade will make the salad taste bitter. Trying to cut a cherry tomato in this manner is more than a little challenging.

Sopping up the remains of the magnificent sauce au poivre on your plate with a piece of the ubiquitous baguette that comes with every meal is encouraged, but you are not supposed to use your hands or you will be considered a 'plouc' – a hick.

The proper way is to spear a piece of bread on the end of your fork and then sop up the sauce. It rather reminds mephoto: plouc of the scene in 'The Gold Rush' when Charlie Chaplin spears a dinner roll each on the end of two forks and makes them do a little dance number. I imagine, however, that making one's baguette dance at the dinner table in France would be frowned upon.

A 'plouc' demonstrates how to mop up sauces.

When going to dine at someone's home it's customary to bring flowers or chocolates. People do not generally bring wine, as the hostess is supposed to have paired the proper wine with what she is serving – with the assistance of Monsieur, if available.

I don't personally follow this custom, as most of my friends – including myself – are very fond of the product of the grape and I would be completely broke if my guests didn't pitch in. I just instruct them to bring a bottle of red wine, no matter what I'm making. Not only this, surprises and variety are the spices of life.

I know oenophiles out there will cringe, but as long as it's red I'm happy. Etiquette be damned.

Text & photos, Laurel Avery © 2003

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