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ETIQUETTE

Things you should NEVER do when dining in France

The French love their food rules, so here's how to get through the minefield of a French dinner unscathed.

Things you should NEVER do when dining in France
Photo: Canon EOS/ Pixabay
With the help of Paris-based cook book author and teacher of French cooking classes, Susan Herrmann Loomis shares some classic faux pas to avoid. 
 
Bon appétit. 
 
Don't ask for more food
 
Sure, the French often serve teeny tiny portions, but asking for more would “clearly be a faux pas”, says Herrmann Loomis.
 
“It would be an insult to the chef or cook to ask for more. If they offer more, of course, then you're safe.”
 
And if you're still hungry just remember that there is still cheese and dessert to come. 
 
Photo: lehtta1/Pixabay
 
Don't get your steak well done
 
These days French chefs may be used to the fact that some people are sensitive to the sight of the slightest trace of blood in a steak, but in France it has been known for chefs to refuse to grill an entrecôte “bien cuit” (well done). 
 
Either go for “à point” (medium rare) and get used to it like everyone else – or just order the chicken.
 
Photo: Alpha/Flickr
 
Don't put your bread on the plate
 
While it may be tempting to put your bread on your dinner plate like you do back home, resist the urge in France, says Herrmann Loomis. 
 
“In France the bread goes on the table. They think it's odd if you try to balance a piece on your plate. It's a custom.”
 
Don't put butter on the bread
 
“The French just don't do it except at breakfast, and then they slather it on,” says Herrmann Loomis. 
 
“But the French don't serve butter with meals so don’t expect any.” And don't put any on your croissant either, it's made of butter.
 
Photo: Canon EOS/ Pixabay
 
Don't drink anything but wine or water with dinner
 
“Americans often drink coffee with their meals and I have seen people ask for it here,” Herrmann Loomis says. 
 
But this isn't the French way to do it. Here it's wine or water. Also on the banned list of drinks is coke (maybe for kids but it's not typical). Beer is OK depending on the meal – it goes great with choucroute, for instance, or mussels. 
 
Cut into cheese correctly (or let someone else do it)
 
There are so many faux pas with cutting cheese that you're bound to go wrong from the beginning. 
 
For a start the cheese comes after the salad, before the dessert. 
 
But most importantly, you have to cut it the right way. Cut the cheese in the direction it's already been vit, never cut off the point and don’t leave the cheese board looking a warzone, she adds.
 
Photo: Fedac/Flickr
 
Don't cut up the lettuce
 
Cutting the lettuce with a knife and fork is a faux pas in France, Herrmann Loomis says. 
 
“If you cut the lettuce it is an insult to the cook and suggests to them it was not prepared correctly. The right thing to do is just fold the lettuce leaves and put them in your mouth.”
 
Don't eat with your hands
 
It might sound like obvious advice, but you'd be surprised at what some people think is good dinner table etiquette. 
 
“Don’t take a chicken leg and pick it up,” Herrmann Loomis says. “Use the knife and fork.”
 
Leave the ketchup alone
 
Basically no one in their right mind should ask for ketchup at a French dinner table or in a French restaurant unless you're having French fries, but it still happens. 
 
Your addiction to the red sauce can cause all sorts of problems in France, especially if you want it on your omelette – but you're just going to have to quit it. The same goes for BBQ sauce, unless you're at an American style joint, and don’t expect any “French dressing” on your salad. Where do you think you are?
 
Photo: Campus France/Flickr
 
Don't spread your foie gras
 
“Many French people are proud of foie gras; when it is served cooked and chilled, take a generous slice, set it on the toast that will be served with it, and enjoy. Don’t treat it like a mousse, and try to spread it,” Herrmann Loomis says.
 
“This controversial delicacy and like all fine foods in France you have to treat it with the respect the locals think it deserves. And a big part of this is resisting any urge to spread it on bread before you eat it. It's not a Brussels paté, you'll be told.”
 
“And while we're at it, don’t talk about animal cruelty when there is foie gras in the neighborhood. It’s a traditional dish; the French copied it from the Egyptians a gazillion years ago, so if you really have a problem with it, take it to Egypt.”  
 
Photo: cyclonebill/Wikimedia
 
Another version of this story was published in 2013

Member comments

  1. Well, I’m sure its all true but personally I don’t care if the “chef” is upset. He’s a cook, and should stay in the kitchen and get on with his job – cooking food for which people pay.

  2. I completely agree about cutting the cheese. How it irritates me when someone cuts a large chunk taking the point – effectively leaving the next person with the back skin!

  3. A question for all you out there :Is it acceptable to ask that magret de canard be served ‘bien chaud’? I like duck quite a bit but it is often served tepid or even near room temperature. How can I ask for the duck to be served hot? Thank you!

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FOOD & DRINK

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”

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