Being an 18-year-old American abroad in France means two things for me. One: even though it’s definitely, totally, perfectly legal here, I still feel guilty about drinking wine, and two: after 12 years shuttling through the public school system, I am finally learning how to eat.
Food is of utmost importance here, as evidenced just by the French word “nourriture”, so close to “nourishment”. Apparently, meals are not to be consumed while standing up or running to the bus. You are actually supposed to enjoy eating! Magnifique!
I’ve been in the countryside the last few weeks, and even here we have each component for dinner, albeit simpler than one would find in Paris. Should you ever find yourself at an intensely French table, here’s a breakdown of the courses:
L’Apéritif, or Aperitif
Everyone relaxes in the living room, noshing on cocktails and small appetizers. Unless it’s a very fancy party, the appetizers are usually things like potato chips or pretzels, i.e. pre-made and store-bought. There are some region-specific drinks, like Kir, made of créme de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and (cheap) white wine in the North, or Pastis, a licorice-flavored spirit. If nothing else, champagne! Again, these are all things that I feel very, very guilty about legally consuming.
L’Entrée or Appetizer
This one was translated weirdly into English, because it’s seen as the main dish when it’s really just the “entrance” into the meal. The entrée is something light and tasty that complements the following course, such as a quiche or tart.
Le Plat Principal or Main Dish
This is the actual main dish, not the entrée! If the course is more complex, then the appetizer will be simpler, and vice versa. Northern France uses more butter to cook food, while Southern France utilizes olive oil. Either way, the plat principal features poultry, fish, or meat, or even an extra delicious seasonal vegetable. And, of course, there’s wine pairings! White wine partners with white meat or fish, while red wine best serves red meat, which is super easy to remember, even after the opening cocktails.
La Salade or Salad
As opposed to American meals, the salad actually comes after the main dish, as a palette cleanser.
Le Fromage or CHEESE
The 18th President of France Charles de Gaulle once asked “Comment voulez-vous governor un pays qui a deus cent quarante-six variétés de forage?” or, “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?”
Which is to say, there are a lot of options for this course. 56 different French cheeses are actually classified, protected, and regulated under law. Along with legal defense, the cheese is accompanied by bits of bread, fruit, and nuts.
Le Dessert or Dessert, obviously
Sweet, lovely, and light, sometimes with seasonal fruit, hopefully involving chocolate.
Le Café or Coffee
After eating, everyone has a tiny black coffee with an extra piece of dark chocolate. Or, in my case, a massive cup of milky coffee and half a chocolate bar. Regional variations!
Le Digestif or Digestif
Extra alcohol! Like whisky, cognac, or brandy, this is the absolute end of the meal.
And then everyone might go for a walk or stay home, discussing art, politics, and neighborhood gossip. This stays pretty much the same, regardless of the country.
But, if you feel exponentially intimidated by each coming course, it’s fine to do what I did when I first got to France: spend 30 minutes wandering around the supermarket in a jetlag-induced haze. There’s a massive selection of food here, especially for hungry traveling students. After many weeks of research, I’ve concluded that the best snack is a croissant slathered with goat cheese and Bonne Maman blueberry jam, all of which can be purchased for a total of 6 euros. With a recipe that simple, the joy of eating will hopefully accompany me back to the States.
Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman