Meals in France have many rituals and levels of meaning.
Food is seen as an art in France, and the country has a long and immensely proud history surrounding meals, their preparation and consumption. The first French cookbook was produced in the middle Ages not long after the advent of the printing press, and the oldest restaurant in France, Le Tour D’Argent in Paris, claims to have invented the fork. It is not surprising that “cuisine” and “gourmet” are French words. Food, restaurants and wine are a popular topic of discussion among the French, by no means limited to chefs or cooking enthusiasts. Lively disputes are common over the merits of one restaurant over another, or the proper preparation of a certain meal.
A typical French breakfast usually consists of a croissant, pain au chocolat (croissant-type pastry with chocolate inside) or bread, with coffee or hot chocolate, sometimes drunk from a large bowl. Lunch was once the traditional main meal of the day, but these days many people—especially in cities—have their main meal at dinner. In Paris, lunchtime is usually around 1 pm and dinner at 9 pm or even later. People tend to eat earlier in rural areas.
Many French people still buy fresh meat and produce at the market daily. Fresh bread, usually the long, thin baguette, is a staple of the French diet, and it is common to see business men and women on their way home from work carrying a loaf under their arms.
The ritual of leisurely meals is important in France. Formal lunches and dinners, both in restaurants and at people’s homes, consist of many courses and may last several hours.
The entrée, meaning “entry”, corresponds with what Americans would call the appetizer. A typical entrée might be a liver pate served with bread, a bowl of soup, a plate of mixed charcuterie (smoked or dried meats and sausages) or escargot – snails cooked in butter and garlic. The main course is usually meat or fish, served with vegetables. A simple green salad comes after the main course. Cheese is served after the meal. France is home to hundreds of different cheese varieties, and at fine restaurants, an elaborate and odiferous cheese cart is often wheeled out after dinner. Hosts serving dinner in their homes will usually offer their guests between three and five cheeses. Dessert such as cake or fruit will follow, with coffee served after, rather than with, dessert.
A common way of getting to know someone is to have a drink together. But the French are not into bar binges, and an aperitif is usually sipped and stops at two. Wine accompanies dinner, and a glass is filled to three-quarters, never to the brim.
Dinner guests are expected to bring a gift, however modest, and this is usually a bottle of wine, flowers, or a pre-agreed dessert or cheese dish. The French keep their arms above the table, not in their lap.
Meals in France can take a long time to eat, and the French like it that way. The table is a meeting place to linger over good food and lively conversation with friends and family. A recent study showed that the French spend more time eating than any other nationality. Even business lunches are considered a time to build the relationship, rather than to simply conduct business.
Fast food, however, has made inroads in France in recent years, and, with the advent of globalization, some of the old traditions surrounding food have begun to fade somewhat. For example, long lunches and leisurely trips to open markets are becoming less common as people adopt time-saving measures in a faster-paced world.
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