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The dos and don'ts when you attend your next French dinner party

By Mary Kenny

Published 11/08/2015

Off the menu: hopefully you won’t be seated beside Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Off the menu: hopefully you won’t be seated beside Dominique Strauss-Kahn

All language skills need to be practised and polished, so I attend monthly French conversation classes to keep the lingo refreshed. Last month, our teacher decided to give us a tutorial about the way to behave when (or if?) invited to a French dinner party.

"First of all," said Anne, "there's the question of s'habiller. That is, correct - dress. You wear what is appropriate to the company and the occasion."

Accustomed to Brits turning up to visit ancient cathedrals wearing shorts and a bikini top, the notion of "correct dress" is an important point of Gallic etiquette. There is some discussion, in French, around this.

"Then," continued our tutor, "one brings a gift. It can be a bottle of wine, which the host will open immediately, out of politesse. It can be a thoughtful little bricole - some little trifle that will charm, delight or amuse. But something appropriate ..."

Remember, on attending such a dinner party, instructed Anne, that in France the woman commands the home. The home is "la royaume de la femme". The kingdom. Ah yes.

We have something in our Constitution about that, only modern women say the idea is hopelessly antiquated. Not, it seems, at a French dinner party.

Now, as to conduct. At a French dinner party, the guests' hands should at all times be on the table. Never under the table. This suspicion about hands under the table dates, it seems, from more combative times when someone might conceal a dagger or a pistol about his person.

Yet possibly also a sensible precaution in case you might be seated next to Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

"Hands must be clean. Spotlessly clean." Naturally. But some people forget.

"Next thing: one does not cut bread in France. Never. One breaks bread." Ah yes. Breaking bread is such a nice, verbal metaphor for hospitality - "let us break bread together". Traditionally, too, bread was placed on the table napkin, never on a side plate, but Anne noted - perhaps not entirely with approbation - that the Anglo-Saxon habit of providing a side plate for bread was now appearing.

"In France, one never eats with one's fingers. Even a pizza. Even fruit. Knife and fork, please. A small fork - une petite fourchette - is provided for the fruit."

But cutlery is often retained between courses, so pay attention to those useful gadgets on which the cutlery rests - the porte-couteaux. Plates are not always changed between courses - but always after a fish course.

Pay attention, too, to the salad. "One does not cut the salad. The salad is ritually 'turned' in the salad bowl, and when served on the plate, one wraps it delicately in a little parcel and eats it fastidiously."

Anne gave an exquisite mime display of a lady with elegant table manners consuming her salad without touching a knife.

Another offence at the French table is to cut "the nose" - that is, the top triangular bit - off the cheese. Oh! Quelle horreur! "Couper le nez du fromage", as an expression, means "taking the best bits for oneself". Cheese is sliced from the side.

Now, as to conversation. "What are the three subjects one never speaks about at a polite dinner table?" A pause. "Money. Politics. And religion."

"Of course," said Anne, "between ourselves, we yell at one another over politics and religion ("on s'engueulent"), but that's different from the formal rules."

Money, politics and religion being banned: I suppose that just leaves sex.

Though it is always permissible to talk about food.

The food you ate yesterday, the food you will eat tomorrow, and the food you are eating right now, beginning with the "amuse-gueule" - the pre-starter delicacy designed to tickle your taste buds.

We moved on to the various special feasts over the calendar year. Though officially a secular republic, the French haven't abandoned their religious holidays - perhaps they are too associated with food.

Epiphany on January 6 - for which there is a special savoury crepe, the Galette des Rois, tasting subtly of almond.

Besides Christmas and Easter, Mardi Gras, Pentecost, Ascension Day, and Le Toussaint on November 1, all seamlessly blended in with Bastille Day on July 14, marking the Revolution that was supposed to abolish the lot, but didn't, because the people liked these holy days too much - and devised delicious food for most of these occasions.

However, it's unlikely you'll be invited to a dinner party for the traditional feasts, which are limited to the family.

I don't suppose these social rules - though an inspired topic for a conversation lesson - are strictly adhered to, and French society is not as formal as it used to be.

But that's the useful thing about rules: it's helpful to know about them even if you break them.

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