And there were strict rules: elbows and hands off the table, fork prongs down, eat bread in dainty bites, lay bitten slice to rest on a side plate between mouthfuls, no fingers – ever – and no talking with mouth full. For a long time I believed that these rules belonged exclusively to my family, all part of Dad’s draconian methods to keep us under control.
School dinners, however, soon reinforced these dining rituals which is why my first glimpse of French family life as an aupair in Paris was marked by mealtimes and their alternative methods! I was so mesmerised by breakfast, lunch and dinner that all my letters home described in minutia detail the contents of each meal, and how they were eaten,
“We have bread with every meal. No butter, just baguette. No one eats that much. It seems to be used more as a replacement for a knife, to push the food around the plate and then to soak up the sauce. At lunch madame puts the whole baguette in the middle of the table and we tear a piece off. I am still struggling to put my piece directly on the table like everyone else but they never lay the table with side plates. Never. Not even when guests come for dinner!. I perch mine on the edge of my plate, which makes the children laugh!”
One letter covered two whole sheets on both sides, and rambled on and on about salad. Salad is served at every meal, after the main, before cheese or yoghurt. Salade in France means serving a bowl of lettuce leaves (or a blend of lettuce varieties – lamb’s leaf, lollo rosso, frisee) coated in vinaigrette. No tomato, cucumber, onion, pepper, just leaves. And they are placed whole, not cut or chopped, simply washed and then tossed in vinaigrette. I soon discovered that the large leaves should be folded, never cut, before eating!
It was strange because these mealtimes followed a strict formality – always at the table, always around the same time, always with baguette and salad, fabric napkins, rolled or knotted in a different way so you recognised your own – and yet they felt more relaxed, there was more enjoyment and pleasure, more savouring of each mouthful than I had ever experienced before. Discussions at the table would be loud, often mumbled through a mouthful of food, hands were on the table, forks turned the other way to scoop up the peas, fingers used to prise open mussels, or suck on chicken bones.
Before every meal, the declaration of bon appetit would be obligatory and it certainly was heart-felt. There appeared to be a genuine desire for every meal, however simple, to be relished and enjoyed by everyone. Today I can honestly say that this can be achieved without a side plate.
All posts since 2007 are on http://www.frenchlivingdiaries.blogspot.co.uk/