'It’s well known that formal French meals are multi-course and the time to eat them, lengthy, especially a family meal. But, just what is each of the courses that put fear into the uninitiated in the art of French dining, and in what order are they supposed to be served? It really is not as mysterious as it may at first seem.
Firstly, On the Table
Bread will always be present throughout the meal as a matter of course in France whether you want it or not, unlike many European cuisines where it is optional.
The French view of bread is that is is a symbol of hospitality, so, to not serve it would be offensive.
Water is a different affair. You may well have to ask, you will be given bottled water unless you specify tap. The water from the tap in France is regulated and as good as anywhere, especially in the towns. If you are in a remote village somewhere though and are not sure of the source, then stick to bottled (though the chances are the water this way could be astonishingly good). Request “flat” water (au natural) if you want tap water. If you don’t specify the type, you will be served sparkling mineral water.
Wine is the classic beverage of choice for meals and is usually more available than water.
Hors d’oeuvres translate into “out of works,” the “works” being the main course. These are basic appetizers, meant to stimulate the appetite. They’re traditionally served first, sometimes with a small cocktail called an aperitif.
L’Entrée (Appetizer): Unlike in the US, the entree of a French meal is the starter, not main. Entrer (to enter) is self-explanatory and will usually depend on the season or occasion. Seasonality in food is important to classic French cooking.
The Fish Course
In a formal restaurant, a fish course garnished with vegetables sometimes comes between the starter and the meat course.
This may also be followed by a small dish of lemon or lime sorbet to cleanse the palate and refresh the senses. This would not happen in a Brasserie or Bistro.
The Main Course
An elaborate meat or poultry dish accompanied by a vegetable garnish will be served. The vegetables will usually be served on the side, not on the plate and will, often be simple, seasonal vegetables.
The Salad Course
Traditionally, simple greens tossed with vinaigrette are served as a means of cleansing the palate and aiding digestion. Modern French cuisine has brought about some very elaborate salads and dressing flavors but these are more likely to be found in an informal place or the home.
The Cheese Plate
The French reputably eat more cheese than anyone else in the world. After the salad, and before (may also replace) the dessert they appreciate a selection of it served on a wooden board and only if you are a foreigner would you be offered bread. The French like cheese 'au natur' (as it comes).
Fruit and other condiments are rarely served alongside, this tends to be a more British or American custom. This signals the end of a casual, family-style meal, a more formal meal will continue on to dessert.
The Sweet Dessert Course
Special occasions call for a treat.
French desserts are indulgent, rich, and so beautifully decorated. A small demitasse of freshly brewed café usually accents the sweets. What a fantastic way to end a formal meal!