There is a right way to cut the cheese...
Once upon a time, a young woman flew to Paris on holiday and met the man of her dreams. After a short courtship, he invited her to a dinner party at his home, where he had prepared a meal of baked salmon, roasted tomatoes and French-cut beans in olive oil and garlic. As the young woman began to eat, she looked around the table to see what appeared to be a ballet of forks and knives pirouetting on plates, and her fellow diners sitting erect with the posture of dancers.
She had an out of body experience. Hovering above the dinner table, she could see herself hunched like Quasimodo, barbarically mashing the fish into bite-sized pieces or scooting the French-cut beans onto her fork with the edge of one thumb, while her knife lay abandoned on the table beside her left elbow.
Awaking from this horrifying vision, the young woman clumsily lifted her glistening knife with one hand, testing its unfamiliar weight, and awkwardly resumed eating. She and Prince Charming lived happily ever after, but not without a few lessons in French etiquette along the way...
Every culture has its own way of experiencing a meal that requires a certain amount of know-how when it comes to gathering around a dinner table. In some places it's polite to burp, in others hands are the primary utensils, and in some micro-societies – like the one the young woman from the story above comes from – the only real rule is that the food somehow winds up in your mouth.
Yet, as we all know, what flies in one culture does not necessarily pass in another, and if reputations are to be believed, Parisians tend to be an unforgiving lot. If one sits down to a table with uninformed manners in Paris, not only does one run the risk of ruining everyone's appetite, but also accepting the responsibility of having single-handedly butchered the art, nay, the patrimony of French cuisine.
So here are a few of the lessons in French etiquette our heroine learned to help facilitate a new life in Paris:
Hands on the table at all times.
For whatever reason, this particular gesture can be of great importance to some French. When pressed to explain their malaise with the idea that a fellow diner might rest their hands out of view, a typical response might be “But what are they doing with their hands hidden beneath the table?” Need one ask what devious behaviour they might be imagining?
Food should come to your face, not the other way around.
Elbows in. Young Parisian adults are traumatised by the horror stories their mothers used to tell over the dinner table of their own upbringing so many years ago, when they were forced as young children to eat holding books beneath each arm while balancing another tome on their head.
Knife down between bites.
As our heroine’s Prince Charming pointed out over dinner one evening, “I’m afraid you might stab me”.
If you're a woman, don't even think about touching the wine bottle.
You’re there to be served, not to do the serving.
There is a right way to cut the cheese.
This is highly dependent on the shape of the cheese. If it’s a round wheel, then you slice the cheese in small triangles; if it is a wedge of cheese, it’s always slivered from the crust to the tip, usually in line with the angle the cheese itself was cut at. This way, one avoids leaving their fellow diners or hosts with an unappetising bit of rind at the end of the meal.
Utensils must be placed at 4 o'clock when not eating.
Tines up if you’d like a refill, tines down if your meal is completed.