Food in France is serious business and usually means leisurely hours putting the world to rights as you work your way through at least three courses and a bottle or three of good wine. Food and the eating of it takes pride of place over finicky tableware and textures are tactile and warm: splash out on earthenware bowls and crunchy linen and, unless you cannot live without elegant crystal, share out the wine in chunky glassware.
Send a large linen cloth billowing over the table, making sure that it has a good drop on all sides. This is your blank piece of paper on which you'll add color, texture and fragrance; The Wedding Bistro at Bellenza enthuses about a riot of colors from the French countryside, incorporating the rich earthy colors of the landscape into the table design. Large linen serviettes are essential for when cutlery is used to reinforce a conversational point, and place mats, while not obligatory, protect the table from hot plates and dishes.
Set a large plate at each place, with a knife and fork and whatever other cutlery you'll need for the food you're serving. If you're going for authenticity, remember that cutlery is often reused for each course, so you won't need a separate set for each dish unless you're doing battle with escargots, which demand their own weaponry.
Dispense with the cut crystal glasses and use the traditional flat table glasses for wine. These are usually contain the equivalent of a large wine glass, but are sturdier and less likely to be knocked over. Alternatively, simply opt for glasses with short stems. They're plain and functional, and suit the traditional thin red table wine very well.
Bring out your earthenware for serving each course and fill them in the kitchen before setting them out on the table on rush mats. Don't forget generous serving spoons. Rough and chunky, this kind of tableware is solid and practical and retains heat well; you can find dishes, bowls and tureens in warm, earthy colors with solid handles to match to anything you plan on dishing up.
Add one or two wicker baskets lined with crunchy cotton gingham or plain cotton serviettes to hold your freshly baked pain de campagne fragrant from the oven, and small earthenware dishes for butter – definitely not margarine if you don't want to hear cris d'horreur. You do not need side plates for bread as you can put it on the side of your plate or on the tablecloth.
Crown the table with color by bringing in a pot or two of fresh flowers, although not so perfumed that they overpower the aroma of the food. Nothing must spoil the olfactory bliss of creamy sauces, garlic and herbs, or get in the way of the taste of the wine. Finally -- it's time to wheel in the guests, seat them round the table, pour the wine and bring in the first course.
Tips & Warnings
- Instead of linen, use pale calico to cover your table for the rough, tactile feel of raw fabric.
- Extend the sense of informality by using a selection of dining chairs -- some upholstered and some painted, all with their own characters. Change places and mingle. Share food and revel in the experience.
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