French Table Setting – The Easy Version

French Table Setting – The Easy Version

When I got married, a lovely French friend offered me an elegant set of cloth table napkins.  I’m sure I looked at her oddly, but she let it slide. Was I supposed to use these at home? Weren’t cloth napkins just for restaurants?  Observation skills to the test, a few dinner parties later, I realized that people were actually using them at home as well.  The Art de la Table or Art of the Table.  

The meaning of Art de la Table

The Art of the Table is defined as the art of preparing and presenting the meal in elegance and conviviality.

To put it more simply, you are not supposed to gulp down your meal in France.  The chatter of loved ones, the feel of soft linens and spotless cutlery, the smell of a heavenly dish, and finally the taste.  It is all meant to sing together to be the highlight of your day, to relax and unwind.

Right about now you’re thinking, who eats like that!? At home, with kids? Even if French kids supposedly eat everything, watching a 4-year-old trying to eat messy spaghetti will hardly be relaxing.  

History lesson on the Art de la Table à la Française

But let’s rewind a bit, if you are wondering how the Art de la Table came about.  The French Royals were always amongst the trendsetters in the courts of Europe. From the time of Marie de Medici to the tables of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, long elaborate meals became the norm at Royal Palaces.

But where the Art really took off and democratized was after the French Revolution in 1789. French aristocrats had fled or had their heads chopped off, leaving behind vast armies of chefs and servers needing employment. These unemployed cuisiniers opened up their own restaurants, looking for new customers.

New industries sprung up around tableware and cristallerie. Former butlers wroteelaborate etiquette books to educate the masses. Slowly people implemented these “rules” at home as well.

But today even the French can’t maintain that level of exigence every night.  A normal workday for office workers in Paris ends around 6-6:30 pm, and after commuting home, picking up the kids, bathing them, etc., the French are just as time-pressed as anyone.  

☞ RELATED POST: Do French people only work 35 Hours a week?

French Table Setting

Now the French like formality on most occasions, and dinner is no different. Even en famille, the table will be set in the Informal table setting below.

Formal and informal table setting in France

You will notice a couple of interesting things in the above illustration.

For one, there is a napkin in both the formal and informal setting. French people really do use cloth napkins when they eat. It is more ecological than paper.

Another is that the glass for the water is also in goblet format. It is just an added touch of class added to the “fine dining experience”. It is also quite nice to include older children and those not imbibing in wine, in the experience.

And finally, even with their great love of baguettes, the French informal setting doesn’t include a bread plate, since French people usually place the bread directly on the table. (A table cloth is recommended.)

The French Hack to Fine Dining

Now, you are probably looking at this and thinking, even the informal table setting looks too formal!

But I’ll tell you one of the secret weapons in all this: Frozen Food. The Art of the Table doesn’t actually have much to do with the food. Especially on a daily basis, after a long day at work. There is a reason that Picard, a gourmet frozen meals grocery chain, is usually within walking distance of every neighborhood in Paris.  There you can find everything from full meals to side dishes, as well as quick aids, like sauces and desserts.  

Charcuterie Platter
Charcuterie Platter

The real secret is not the main meal, but everything else.  You can set the atmosphere with an interesting tablecloth and napkins.  Add a few delicious staples such as gourmet cheese, baguette, and fruit.  Et allez hop! The ordinary meal has now turned into a feast.   Even if the main dish was a little burnt from sitting too long on the stove 😉

So try it tonight, pull out the fancy cloth napkins, slap together a quick meal with a good bottle of wine, and spend 2 hours over a lazy dinner with loved ones.  L’Art de la Table is the process, rather than the destination.  (Maybe after that 4-year-old is in bed though.) 

If you enjoyed this article, and want to learn some French-English keywords about the Art de la Table, download our Free Flashcards here. And let us know if you have any comments!

A bientôt!

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