Before I moved to France, I thought that French dinner parties were formal affairs with too many forks. I imagined elegantly dressed people sipping Champagne and discussing Molière. And with all those complicated courses, I figured it must take days to prepare the food. Then I met actual French people and learned that it’s not like that at all. In fact, it’s easy to put on a dinner party the French way.
Let’s see how it’s done.
A typical French dinner party follows a standard formula:
Plat principal (main course)
Cheese and salad
Let’s take these one at a time.
This is where everyone relaxes and starts the evening, usually in the living room or on the patio. Wine is served – often a simple white or rosé – along with some munchies. These can be something like a bowl of olives, some peanuts, maybe tapenade spread on little toasts. It’s nothing complicated – the focus is on conviviality, not haute cuisine.
Find some fabulous French aperitif recipes here.
This is usually a simple dish like soup, a quiche, or a shrimp cocktail. And many hosts make their lives easier by buying it at the store. There are so many delicious prepared foods in France, why not take advantage of them? And in the US, lots of stores have deli sections with tasty dishes that will do the trick. Recipe for a delicious French onion soup here.
This might be roast lamb with potatoes (great recipe in the spring issue of The Good Life France magazine – it’s free to read online/download/subscribe), a baked fish, or a stew of some kind. Plus a vegetable. Ok, it takes some work. But it may be the only course that is cooked by the hosts.
And don’t forget the bread. A few crispy French baguettes and everyone is happy.
Cheese and Salad
This could hardly be easier – go to your local cheese shop or deli, pick out a few favorites and put them on a plate. Make a green salad with vinaigrette, cut up a baguette and voilà.
This is usually bought from the local baker. French bakeries are so wonderful, how can you resist? Fruit tarts are especially good in summer and fall. Also popular is getting a selection of individually-sized desserts and letting everyone pick their own. If you’re not in France, you’re bound to have a favourite cake shop where you can get something to delight your guests. Let the baker do the work!
This is the time to get up, stretch your legs and move to the living room. And all you have to do is put on a pot of coffee or tea. If you want to fancy it up a bit you can open a box of chocolates, but it’s not necessary.
And Don’t Forget the Wine
No French dinner party would be complete without wine, and France has an incredible selection of delicious, moderately priced bottles. So get a few of those. If you are in the US, go to your favorite wine shop and get something good and reasonably priced. Sure, you can serve a grand cru on a special occasion, but there’s no need to break the bank. As the French say, the best bottle of wine is one that you enjoy with friends.
So there you have it – a classic, six-course French meal with only one course that takes much work. If you have plenty of time and like to cook, you can prepare everything yourself. But take it from the French, buy most of the courses, keep it simple and spend more time with your friends.