From Apéro to Digestif: Anatomy of a Formal French Meal

Living, as I have for the last two years, across from a bakery in a French village, I have found my curiosity about the French deepening. Specifically, I find myself musing about what motivates them, what happens behind all of those hedges, garden walls and closed curtains, and where they hide their idiosyncrasies, in this land of politesse, protocol-following and privacy. Be it Mother’s Day, Christmas Eve or Labor Day, I watch in awe as the line snakes out onto the sidewalk. Customers wait patiently – often in the rain, and sometimes up to half an hour – for their turn to pick up cake, pastry or bread orders.

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© isabel cooney

From behind my windowpane, I behold these straight-faced strangers and come to the conclusion that their expressions aren’t the only serious thing about them. They must also be serious about food, or supporting local business, or simply about traditions, to stand in line that long, defying the elements, when they could easily have grabbed what they needed in the bakery section of any supermarket.

Watching them leave the bakery, a subtle but satisfied smile on their lips, a few baguettes tucked under their arms, and a box tied with ribbon in their hands, I picture the elaborate family meals that are sure to follow.

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© isabel cooney

An entire day dedicated to one single meal. First the apéro: savory snacks and an alcoholic beverage (or two) to get things started. Orange juice for the kids. Warmed up and ever-so-slightly fuzzy, the group migrates to the carefully set table, where they may very well stay sitting for the next 3 – 4 hours.

Each course is a separate entity, sufficient unto itself, taking the time it requires – no more, no less. The wine flows. Fresh bread accompanies each dish. Running out of bread during a meal is rather unheard of here. It’s always safer to err on the one-too-many baguettes side than on the it’s-finally-time-for-the-cheese-course-but-there’s-no-bread-left side. On a Sunday afternoon, when most bakeries are locked up, this would be nothing short of a catasrophe!

The pièce-de-resistance is undoutedly a once-alive animal. Salad usually shows up somewhere. A cheese plate follows, with more wine, and more bread.

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© isabel cooney

Hours have now passed. You stopped experiencing hunger hours ago. Instead, it’s gourmandise (a pet word of the French, referring to the tendency to eat not for hunger but for pleasure) that now explains your ability to keep eating.

Just when you thought your belly was full-up, plates and platters are cleared away, and dessert plates are set down in front of you. Accompanied by a spoon. Always a spoon, no matter what the dessert! The ribbons come off the box and the pure beauty of the thing, plus the anticipated sugar jolt, magically combine to make more eating possible and even attractive. Then the coffee arrives, and depending on the family, after-dinner drinks as well. “To help you digest,” of course.

I came to know these French family meals well during the years I was married to a Frenchman. Despite my oversized love for eating, I often dragged my feet as I headed for the table. My resistance was most likely linked to a desire to use part of the afternoon for other pursuits. Two hours seems beyond sufficient for a meal – three to five leaves you in a semi-coma, useless for anything but napping, and usually too full to consider dinner. Something about feeling obliged to stay there for so long – beyond hunger and drowsiness, made me feel resentful, as if I were being held hostage.

Yet I will openly admit to occasionally being drawn into the energy of these ritualistic gatherings. Alcohol certainly helped. As did the cheese – especially when it was raw milk, super stinky and ripe, or the bread – preferably the tradition baguettes, crusty on the outside and densely moist on the inside.

Nevertheless, this type of gathering, so typical in France, remains a foreign concept for me. Or rather, it has the tendency to make me feel like a foreigner. One who would rather relegate such feasts to once-a-year autumnal holidays and who longs for an oven-baked, one-dish meal, eaten informally around the table with gratitude and good cheer, and a game of catch afterwards to help digest.

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2 thoughts on “From Apéro to Digestif: Anatomy of a Formal French Meal

  1. This brings back fond memories of these extended meals (well, mostly fond) but perhaps that is because of living in the land where families often eat in the van on the way to soccer practice!

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