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Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Cracking the socials codes in a new country is never easy, particularly in France where people seem intimidatingly well-mannered. So here's the lowdown (from an actual countess) on how to behave at the dinner table.

Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses - French table manners explained
If you're ever invited for dinner at the Elysée Palace, this is how to behave. Photo: AFP

If you have felt like an elephant in a porcelain store when attending a French dinner party – don't worry, you are not alone.

Entering the world of French mannerisms can be a challenging experience if you aren't used to their social codes.

Marie de Tilly is a countess based in Paris who teaches foreigners (and French people) how to behave properly.

We called her up to ask how we should behave when we have dinner with our French friends.

Here's what she taught us.

Marie de Tilly is a countess in Paris who teaches etiquette classes for foreigners and French people. Photo: Private

1. Say Bonjour

First, the very basics. French people say hello to everyone. Even children are expected to say bonjour madame or bonjour monsieur when arriving at someone's house. 

READ ALSO Why bonjour is the most important word of all in France

Shake hands or do la bise (one kiss on each cheek is the main rule) when entering a room. If you sit down without acknowledging the others' presence, that's considered pretty rude. 

2. Don't slouch at the table

Dinner has always been a key part of the French savoir-vivre. Photo: AFP

“French people judge,” de Tilly said.

“If you don't sit correctly or if you're not holding your cutlery like you are supposed to, you will be judged.”

And with that (slightly harrowing) warning, here's how to sit when attending a French dinner party.

Be it a family gathering, a nice dinner with friends or a more formal occasion, the basic rule is to sit up straight and keep your elbows away from the table.

“Place your hands on each side of your plate, not on your lap,” de Tilly said.

While in the UK well-behaved people tend to put their hands gently on their lap during nice dinner parties, French people “keep them where you can see them.”

3. Don't say 'bon appetit'

At least not if you are at a fancy dinner party.

“It really means 'good digestion', which is a bit unflattering,” de Tilly said.

“Then again, it's a little snobbish not to say it, and if you're in a more relaxed setting you shouldn't worry about it.”

But, not waiting for the bon appetit signal to eat does not mean you should start before your host or hostess tells you to. 

“Never take the first bite. Wait for the person who invited you,” de Tilly said.

4. Don't let your mouth find your fork


Valérie Trierweiler, ex-partner of former president Francois Hollande, let the cutlery find her mouth and not the other way around. Photo: AFP

“It's always the fork that comes to the mouth, not the other way around,” de Tilly said.

The basic rule – always – is to hold your fork so that the curved side points upwards and the tips of the tines point down. 

Between each bite you should put the cutlery to rest on your plate.

“Don't keep it hanging lose in the air,” she said.

5. Don't take too big bites

It's not polite to watch TV while eating in France, but when President Charles de Gaulle was speaking, some people (and pheasants) made exceptions. Photo: AFP

“It's important not to take too big bites so that you are ready to talk to the person next to you,” de Tilly said.

Like most places, talking with your mouth full is frowned upon in France. However for French people, dinner conversation is perhaps particularly important.

“French people love to talk and joke during a meal,” she said.

“Some foreigners don't know how to keep a conversation around the dinner table going, because they usually watch TV while eating.”

4. Wait for the wine

At dinner parties, French men are supposed to refill the glasses of any females sat next to them. Photo: AFP

Wine is a core part of French culture, but it's still pretty much a man's world.

“In France, women don't help themselves to the bottle unless they're offered,” de Tilly said.

According to the countess (and we double-checked this information with two under-25 French sources), men in France are still expected to be the ones serving wine.

The rules of course differ depending on what kind of dinner party it is, but in general it's the man's duty to ensure that the women have their glasses full.

So if you're a man sitting next to a women at a dinner party, make sure to ask her if she wants a refill before pouring into your own glass.

5. Don't eat with your fingers, unless..

If you're ever served asparagus as a starter at a French dinner party, you may eat them with your hands. Photo: AFP

Bread is one of the few things French people eat with their hands – rip off a piece and put the remaining bread on your side plate. Other than that it's pretty mich cutlery all the way and in restaurants you will frequently see French people eating pizza or burgers with a knife and fork.

But the French will make an exception for asparagus.

“It's absolutely possible to eat asparagus with your hands,” she said.

“If you're feeling unsure, just look at the hostess. That's my very best tip.”

6. Never eat cheese with your fork

Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla got a taste of French cheese when they visited a Lyon cheese fair in 2018. Photo: AFP

Cheese is hugely important in France. It is served after the main course, before dessert. But how do you eat it?

“You cut it with a knife, but you don't eat it with a fork,” de Tilly said.

Put the slice of cheese on a piece of bread (“don't smear it!” de Tilly said) and have a bite. 

“If you're on a bread-free diet, it's better to skip it,” she said.

And, make sure to get enough during the first serving as this is a dish where you won't be offered seconds.

7. Control your children

Are French children more well-behaved than others? Photo: AFP

Anyone who has been to a restaurant in France will know that even French children somehow sit like little well-behaved adults at the dinner table. 

“Educating children is very important in France,” de Tilly said.

“American parents are much more indulgent than French parents,” she said

“In France want our children to resemble us. If we stay at the dinner table, so do they.”

“We want them to be nicely dressed and combed, and to say 'bonjour madame'.”

Americans, on the hand, tend to adopt a more laissez-faire approach to their children's education.

“It's a huge cultural difference,” de Tilly said. “That's why French people are so shocked to see American children's behaviour during a meal.”

8. Finish what's on your plate

At least most of it. 

“You can leave a little bit if you are full, but if you leave a lot it means you didn't like the food,” de Tilly said.

 

Member comments

  1. Please can you explain the etiquette of eating dessert with a teaspoon? Even most everyday restaurants around here, as well as our friends, bring dessert with just a teaspoon (coffee spoon to them), which is feasible if it’s crème caramel, for example, but a crisp tart on a flat plate requires a helping finger from the opposite hand, which wouldn’t seem to comply with the countess’s advice!

  2. In fancy restaurants, you’ll often get a knife and a fork or a spoon (or event the three of them) if the dessert requires it.
    Otherwise, you’ll have to be creative and in last resort use your helping finger. Most of the time, you can avoid it using the curved side og the dish.

  3. French table etiquette seems to be very close to what is observed in Spanish cultures. One thing I do remember is that the tip of the fork is down when it is in the left hand and up when in the right. Thus, you eat rice with your right hand, but you cut the meat and bring it to your mouth with your left. Is that also the protocol in France?
    Fruits could be challenging. Does one swallow the grape seeds or carefully puts them on the side of the plate? What does one use to do that, hands?

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FOOD & DRINK

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit: www.economie.gouv.fr

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”. 

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