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If anything is sacred to the French, it’s food! Meals are a true institution in France, and a true Frenchman can recount each and every detail of a memorable meal years later!

Anatomy of a French Meal

In France, this first meal of the day is called the petit déjeuner, or little breakfast, because it is light and simple. The meal is usually sweet, as opposed to the English savory breakfast. In France, a hot beverage – coffee, tea or chocolate – is served with tartines, or slices of bread spread with butter or jam. This meal is often replaced by a heartier version on weekends, complete with viennoiseries like croissants, pains au chocolat and brioche. Fruit juice and maybe yogurt round out the meal.

Lunch is taken between noon and two; in French, this midday meal is called déjeuner, the true breaking of the fast. Up until very recently, everyone – from parents to children – came home for a two-hour lunch in the middle of the day. Today, however, lunch is often eaten outside of the home, especially in Paris. Children eat at the school cantine or cafeteria, while adults are usually given tickets restaurants, discounted coupons that can be used to purchase lunch at a restaurant or café.

Lunch is traditionally made up of an appetizer, a main, and a cheese course or a dessert. In reality, the main dish, called the plat de résistance, is the only one that’s truly indispensable. The others depend on several factors, including appetite and budget, though schoolchildren are still served a several-course meal at midday! One thing is certain: bread is not an optional component of a French lunch! This meal was formerly accompanied with a glass (or several!) of wine, but today, you’re more likely to see people drinking water.

Dinner – or dîner – in France is usually eaten around 8pm, sometimes as late as 9, especially in the south. It’s never eaten before 7. Dinner is composed in much the same way as lunch. The midday meal was formerly the largest and most important meal of the day, but today, dinner has become the family meal and is usually the heartiest.

In years past, a fourth meal – supper – was served. This meal, called souper in French, was frequently composed of soup. The light meal was eaten after going to the theater and before going to bed. This practice has nearly disappeared today, except in the cases of weekend evenings when, after a several-course lunch that can often last from noon to six, soup is all you need before bed.

Three main meals are recognized in France – breakfast, lunch and dinner --, but there is another time when the French often eat, even today: the goûter or snack, also called the quatre heures or 4 o’clock, because of the time this snack is often eaten. This meal is above all intended for children, who eat it upon returning home from school, but let’s be honest: anyone can enjoy eating a bit of pastry with tea or coffee around 4!

Meals with Friends

French gastronomy isn’t just about Michelin starred restaurants, but also about the tradition of the French home-cooked meal, which has its own rituals of hospitality. French people may love eating out in restaurants, but they love entertaining for friends just as much! The table will be nicely set, and a selection of music creates the atmosphere. The pleasure of sitting around the table with friends for a long evening of talking and laughing together is a cultural and social practice that doesn’t risk disappearing any time soon.

The preparation of a dinner party is wrapped up in ceremony: coming up with a creative and delicious menu, finding the best ingredients and products at the market or at your favorite specialty stores, choosing a wine that will accompany the dishes you’ve chosen to prepare. The table, the ingredients, the atmosphere… nothing is left to chance!

A dinner amongst friends begins with the aperitif or apéro, which is usually served in the living room. This convivial moment before the meal is usually made up of alcoholic beverages – often a cocktail mixed by the host – and canapés, hors d’oeuvres or snacks like olives and peanuts, designed to whet the appetite. Next, everyone moves to the table for the true dinner, which will begin with one or several hot or cold appetizers, followed by the main dish (the one that was the biggest hardship for the hostess to prepare!), accompanied by one or several side dishes. This is followed by the traditional cheese plate and green salad, and finally dessert, which can be prepared by the hostess but is often bought from her favorite pâtisserie.

Dinner is finished off with coffee, served with chocolates or small candies, or possibly a digestif, often served, once again, in the living room. It’s no wonder that dinner parties can often last for hours!

A true gastronomic French meal isn’t a simple cliché of the French art de vivre. It’s a social and cultural reality, and the ceremony that surrounds the meal has anchored that spirit of a bon vivant, so integral to being French!

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