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À table !

The third and final principle of Eating like the French is a concept I like to call à table.

In French, à table literally means “at the table” and is how the French inform people when the meal is ready: “à table!” Something like “Dinner’s ready!” I’m employing the phrase here, though, for a slightly different purpose: to explain the French habit of taking time for the culinary side of life and, more specially, sitting down to eat at a table. Notice that the French don’t summon people to eat by announcing the meal is waiting. They call them, quite literally, to the table.

One of the parts of French culture that I love the most is their continued tradition of à table. Families come together for the evening meal. They sit down at the table and talk about their day. It’s all very 1950s, Leave it to Beaver, in fact. But it’s also all very wonderful.

When I was an impossibly busy lawyer back in North America, I used to eat most of my meals on the run. The only time I sat down to eat properly at a table was when I was at a business lunch or at my mom’s house for Easter and Christmas. But even during the client lunches, I’d rush through my food having more important business lurking in the background. For dinner, I’d grab a handful of something and eat standing at the counter. I think many of us North Americans are like that. We’ve forgotten the age-old pleasure of savoring our food, sitting down to a beautifully set table for at least an hour-and-a-half each evening to soak up the experience that is culinary enjoyment. Some of us even eat in front of the TV or, like me, stand at the kitchen counter shoveling our finger-food into our mouths. I was guilty of this too. In fact, that’s how I ate most of my meals back in that former life.

Little French children learn as soon as they begin to eat solid foods that courses are coming one after another, that they are to remain seated until the meal is over, and to eat correctly with a knife and fork, napkin in lap. I have little tiny nephews of 2 ½ years who sit at the big table with their little forks feeding themselves through the entrée, plat, cheese and dessert just like tiny versions of their fathers. It’s incredible, almost unbelievable. And yet not inconceivable.

These children learn by watching. From the very beginning of their lives, they are taught to eat at the table, go through all the courses one by one. All kinds of vegetables too. They are asked what types of cheese they would like to try during the cheese course. They are given small, reasonable portions and eat fruit before they are given a sweet dessert, if they are given one at all. And they are taught to eat slowly. Habitually rushing through a meal to go play or because a program is coming on TV just doesn’t enter the French psyche. That would be inconceivable, sacrilege even.

Remarkably this works and traditional French families churn out adults with some of the best table-manners I’ve ever encountered. And some of the most reasonable eaters too. Funny enough, kitchens in France are designed with their philosophy in mind. The open concept kitchen where you can eat at the counter is called an American kitchen in France. French kitchens have traditionally been closed off from other parts of the house making eating at the table a necessity.

Of course, you can certainly find French families that don’t follow these traditions, just like you can find over-weight, unmannerly and unhealthy French people. With the influx of fast food (although still 100x less than back home), major consumerism, packaged foods, etc, you do get people who throw their hands up and opt for what is easiest. But on the whole the French still benefit from their wholesome culinary traditions.

The trick is to allow time in your day for meals. I know this takes more effort than to throw something together and eat on the run. And I know all too well that we can’t have three sit-down family meals a day. I also realize that even though it is better to eat your biggest meal at lunch time, most of us can’t come home for lunch. Many French children, by the way, still return home for two-hour lunch breaks with their parents. Some working parents even do the same. But not everybody is able to do so in our ever globalized, competitive world. So dinner has become the time when families can reunite to share a meal.

The other key is to eat at regular times and be smart about your snacking. The French eat something for breakfast even if it’s a piece of toast and a café. This has two helpful purposes: first, it gets your metabolism going; and second, it ensures that you don’t overeat at lunch due to ‘starvation’. Then they eat a balanced lunch around 12:30, followed by dinner about 8:30pm. (Children eat dinner earlier but still à table.) Small children have a morning gouter or snack at 10am consisting of something like two small cookies or a piece of bread and butter and a piece of fruit with a glass of water as well as a snack at 4pm. The afternoon gouter turns into l’apéritif as childhood disappears into adulthood and this takes place after work, sometime before dinner. L’apéritif  is optional. That’s all the French eat on a regular daily basis. No bags of chips or chocolate bars between meals. No Big Gulps of soda. No constant munching. The stomach is trained to be hungry at certain times and thus once satisfied it doesn’t continuously crave more.

At the culmination this Eating like the French series, I have put together a week’s worth of authentic French dinner menus for autumn. This is how we eat over here in France every evening. If you’d like to try the French way of eating for a week, try these menus as your guide. And remember the three basic principles:

(1)    When you are shopping: eat in season (& local).

(2)     When you are cooking and serving: portion size! Let the courses do the work!! Start with half of what you would normally serve.

(3)    When eating: sit down to dinner, eat slowly, and enjoy the flavors of your food. (Train your stomach and then it will come naturally.)

Now on to the menus: (Click for a better view.)

Weekend ideas:

If the recipes aren’t already on our site (linked), then you’ll find them below.  (Recipes for 4 people)

Figs au bacon

  • 100g bacon (alternative 4 small hotdogs)
  • 2 rip figs

In frying pan, grill pork until crispy, add figs sauté on med heat for three minutes or until reduced.

Serve hot on small appetizer plate.

Radishes served with baguette & sea salt

  • 30 radishes washed, stems removed (7 radishes/ serving)
  • 1/2 baguette for 4 people
  • Sea salt butter
  • Serve cold, nicely arranged on appetizer plate

Salade d’endive with lardon, conté, green apple, walnuts, vinaigrette

  • 4 endives chopped (use only leafy part up to halfway)
  • 140g Comté cheese (or like) cubed
  • 2 green apples
  • 10 walnuts chopped
  • Grilled lardon (bacon) in strips
  • French vinaigrette

Turkey tournedos in onion cream sauce with sautéed mushrooms

  • 4 tournedos (~3oz or 85g each)
  • 15 mushrooms sliced sautéed in butter
  • 1 onion sliced
  • 2 tbsp sour cream or heavy cream
  • 2 handfuls fresh parsley chopped
  • Salt & pepper

Pan fry the tournedos in butter in frying pan with onions. Once the tournedos are cooked, remove to warming plate. Add ½ tbsp butter to same pan of onions, add cream and 1 handful parsley. Stir and let reduce into thick cream sauce. Serve on top of meat. Plate with sautéed mushrooms and sprinkle remaining parsley over the whole.

Salade de carotte rapé

  • 8 carrots grated
  • 10 walnuts chopped
  • 1 handful raisons
  • 3 tbsp walnut oil or olive oil
  • 1 tbsp Xérès vinegar or fresh lemon juice
  • Sea salt

Breaded pork chops with stewed chestnuts

  • 4 pork chops (~3oz or 85g each)
  • 1 cup bread crumbs (I made mine from two-day-old bread)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 handfuls fresh parsley
  • 1 handful grated parmesan cheese

Place egg yolks in a shallow bowl. Place bread crumbs in another shallow bowl. Dip chop individually into egg yolk evenly coating the meat with the egg, then coat with bread crumbs. Fry in pan at med heat. Sprinkle with parsley and parmesan mixed together when serving.

Bon appétit!