Monday, October 26, 2009

Dinner at a French winery

What's it like to eat dinner at a Bordeaux winery? I recently did this several times on a visit and, since all had very similar aspects, thought I'd share the basics.

First, you chat standing up in an antechamber of some sort, while having either a glass of bubbly or white wine, or even possibly an aperitif cocktail. One -- only one -- type of hors d'oeuvre is served. Whether you have been tasting wine on official business for an hour, or you just arrived at the door, this standing-making-polite-conversation step is never skipped.

Then, you move to the dining room. You stand and wait as the hostess (or host, if there are no women, which happens), assigns seats. The French aim to break up friends and partners so that people will talk to strangers.

Once seated, you have a beautiful plate in front of you. This will be whisked away nearly immediately. Not being a cultured guy, I don't understand the need for this decorative "don't touch" plate. But it's always there.

The first course is brought out and always served to the women first, guests or hosts, then the male guests, then the hosts. The first course at winery dinners is quite often foie gras (right), both because French love it and it represents luxury. But it might be some other style of meat, or it could be fish or pasta -- we had outstanding homemade pasta with truffles a couple of times. You'll get a single crusty piece of baguette (or possibly a roll), and if you eat it, somebody will give you another from a silver tray.

Wine service is very formal; it's very hard to convince Bordeaux winery people to let you pour your own. Again, women always get filled or refilled first.

Speaking of formal, this is a rich part of the world and many people actually have servants, though the majority hire servers for the night. White gloves are common. They're universally good about refilling your water glass, which makes me happy. But I can't joke, "Pass the foie gras," because nobody passes anything -- you ask, and a servant brings.

The main course is invariably meat, but even in Merlot-Cabernet country it's not a fait accompli that it's beef: we also had duck, veal, lamb and poulet, which was outstanding because the French like free-range young chicken with flavor. You almost always get green vegetables on the side, and possibly potatoes as well. Most French cooks are good with meat, but I found their skill with vegetables varied a lot, from carefully sauteed to boiled flavorless. Sauces, the hallmark of classic French cuisine, are such work that they have become uncommon.

When I did volunteer work in France nearly 20 years ago, I used to eat rapidly, and Pierre, our French leader, admonished me, telling me something I've never forgotten: "You Americans eat like it is a contest. Well it is, and the person who finishes last, wins." His point was to savor every bite. I often hear Pierre in my head at dinner, but apparently his message is 20 years old; the French people almost always ate faster than the Americans, rapidly working through their meat. The French rarely leave anything on the plate, whereas I almost always did, as portions are generous -- though not as enormous as, say, a Midwestern restaurant.

Usually after everyone is done or mostly done, the servants will recirculate with a meat-and-veggies plate for seconds. Once I took a second piece of meat but didn't finish it, and while everyone was polite I got the impression that that's usually not done.

Conversation continues throughout the meal, but actual controversy is carefully sidestepped. This is very different from my experiences dining with French people in foreign countries, who always seem to want to question U.S. foreign policy. Wineries are entirely too polite for that.

I had one green salad out of 15 meals in France, and it was such an event that the hostess went into detail about her effort to procure the greens for it. That said, I love and try to emulate the French style of dressing a salad, on those rare occasions when they provide one: tossing it with very good vinegar and oil and carefully removing the excess dressing, in contrast to Americans, who seem to spray on dressing with a garden hose. I might have to beg for a green salad in France, and it's likely to come with crispy pig ear or roast duck kidneys, but at least I never have to ask for dressing on the side.

On those red letter days when you get a salad, it comes between the main (meat) course and the cheese. The idea is to refresh your palate as well as your digestive tract, and I agree. I like salad after the main much better than the American restaurant way of serving it first and not bringing your main course until you eat every last leaf.

After the mains are cleared away, you're soon brought exactly 3 cheeses. After seeing this 15 times in a row, I felt Monty Python-esque: "Three will be the number of the cheeses, and the number of the cheeses shall be three." It was almost always one goat's milk cheese and two cow's milk, a soft and a hard, though there was some variation. Surprisingly, while the French NEVER drink any other country's wine (with the exception of Port, which they drink as an aperitif), they are open to cheese from Spain and Holland at least, and possibly others as well. Usually you're brought three smallish slices of cheese but occasionally you can slice your own. You always, invariably, get one piece of nut bread.

After the cheese course, there's dessert. Always both, unlike some restaurants that offer one or the other. French still have a way with chocolate. You're offered coffee about halfway through dessert and I was surprised at its consistency -- it's like an Americano, supposedly espresso but not as concentrated as I have become accustomed to. Even though you may still have dessert on your plate, you always get a small sweet, usually a commercially made one (a wafer cookie, for example), with your coffee.

Afterwards, you leave the table and retire to another room. If it's dinner, you're likely to be offered one glass (but only one) of a digestif, which might be Cognac, Armagnac or even Scotch. I did not see Pastis served even once; it's too low class for the genteel set.

People generally do not smoke at the table, even those who smoke like factories. Thus the post-prandial digestif room can get hard to breathe in. But generally the French will step outside to smoke, though that may have been because they were hosting Americans.

French people incorporate real art, not posters or prints, into their homes and offices much more than Americans, and if you didn't get a tour before dinner, you might get one now. I was constantly impressed by the variety and daringness of the art we saw. This is a cultural thing at all levels, as some of my old French backpacking buddies have hand-me-down furniture but real paintings on the walls.

That's it, that's the dining-in-a-French winery experience. Was it vicariously good for you too?


Cara said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, condensing your many meals in Bordeaux last month. I'm very glad to know not to ask for Pastis, because I might have, and I'm relieved I could ask for some scotch and not be scoffed at.

I did enjoy a vicarious dinner through your post. Thanks for sharing! I once had the loveliest dinner at Cos d'Estournel and this brought back some good memories.

Olive Oil said...

This post made me chuckle, indeed. I liked the Monty Python reference. I'm sorry to hear you were disappointed with the vegetables and the lack of salad. I lived in France for three years and I had a very different experience.

I do think you need to ask how the reason for your trip shaped your meals and how your hosts were probably trying to meet what they felt were foreign or American expectations. What were your own expectations? Meals are all performance and a good performance often depends on whether the host perceives the desired performance and the guest has their expectations fulfilled by that performance. You should read Mary Douglas' essay "Deciphering a meal". I think we will make an anthropologist of you yet!

Lisa said...

Thanks for the vicarious feast. Beautiful photos, though the Belgian endive is a bit provocative :)

Speaking of heaping Midwestern portions -- I re-watched "Fargo" this week. Brilliant, IMHO.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the kind words! Cara, I think they'll drink Scotch because it's something they acknowledge they can't do themselves.

Olive: What were my expectations? I expected perhaps fancier cuisine, but what we were served was mostly fairly simple, hearty country fare. My biggest surprise was the extreme formality of the service, even at lunches where the winemakers were in jeans and work shirts.

Lisa: Hadn't thought that about the endive, but now that you mention it ... I was just glad to get some greens, of any shape.