An Invitation to the Art of French-Style Table Setting
Meals in France are often a great way to bring together family and friends. They represent the pleasure of being together in a convivial atmosphere. They are a time for sharing and emotion, as well as a feast for the eyes and the palate. The table may be traditional or contemporary, refined, more rustic or fun loving, but it is always inviting. It will set the tone for the evening's mood. The French table setting is done in accordance with well-established codes, with great attention to detail and harmony. It goes without saying that silverware, crystalware, the texture of the tablecloth, graceful china, i.e. beautiful accessories, whether modern or antique, are often the elements of a successful table setting.
However, with a little imagination and simple accessories, it is possible to make a lovely decoration that is not complicated. It is also entirely possible to mix styles and eras. We have chosen a harvest theme. The table setting will therefore be based on the two dominant vineyard colours: the purple of bunches of grapes—a blend of passionate red and mysterious blue, the colour of melancholy—and the hope-filled green of the vine—the colour of nature, vegetation and well-being. The elegance of a table will be enhanced by the subtle use of tone and shade variations. Warm and cool colours are always balanced. The difficulty consists in harmonising the hues and colours. The centrepiece has been arranged in a family dish made of solid silverware bearing the family's monogram. Noble families would display their coat of arms here.
A tablecloth is essential to any beautiful table setting. We have opted for a basic monochrome lilac tablecloth. For formal dinners, only white is allowed. White is a benchmark that is a symbol of purity and that goes well with everything. The drape of the tablecloth must be equal on both sides of the table and the tablecloth must be wrinkle-free, except for a rectangular table, where lengthwise folds are allowed. The dinner set and cutlery are from France. A dinner set essentially consists of the dinner plates (for starters, main courses and smaller plates for cheese and desserts), soup dishes and various dishes such as soup tureens and vegetable dishes… Wide presentation plates may also be presented and should only serve a decorative purpose. French Etiquette table setting calls not to stack two dinner plates. Only the soup dishes may be placed in advance on the dinner plates. The colour of the plates must match those of the central bouquet (be careful: the bouquet must not prevent the guests from seeing each other!). Here we have chosen plates whose edges coordinate with the colours of the bouquet. The plates are removed from the right and replaced from the left. Etiquette demands that there should be no more than three kinds of flatware on the table at the same time. We shall also refrain from placing fish knives and forks, which are an English invention. There has always been a reluctance to use them in France... Knife rests, which first appeared in the nineteenth century, are a bourgeois invention and are only accepted as a part of intimate and family dinners, since they imply that the hostess does not intends to change the cutlery between each dish. Here the knife rests are made of cut crystal. During an informal dinner, wine decanters are placed before the host to ensure that he can easily serve it. In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon practice of serving bread in a bread dish placed to the top left of the dinner plate, it is often presented in a basket in France. Serviettes nicely complete the table decoration. Paper serviettes must not be used in a formal dinner setting. The linen serviettes have been specially embroidered in Paris for this setting. Traditionally, during lunches, the serviette is folded into a triangle and placed on the plate. In the case of a dinner, it will be placed under the fork, folded in half. However, a personal touch is permitted if you have a talent for folding serviettes. Nonetheless, the fan shape placed in a glass is only appropriate in a restaurant setting. It is customary to harmoniously align as many glasses as the number of wines to be served with the meal. Flutes and champagne glasses are placed behind and offset. For a cosy romantic evening atmosphere, candlesticks, chandeliers or glass tea light holder are in order. For a more formal dinner, remember to provide a small, handwritten, individual menu presented on an attractive card (which shall nonetheless never mention the cheese! c.f our article on the French menu). In some cases, a small gift will be placed on the plate. * This workshop has been delivered at the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival in November 2014 by le Savoir-Vivre and Oulala Flower.
by Catherine Soulas Baron