France, a country with glorious history, indulgent cuisines, unparalleled romance and a top-level mountaineering community; this is where we all want to go. If you’re here, you’re probably looking to do some climbing on Mont Blanc or somewhere in the Alps, which feature some of the best ice climbs during peak season. While you’re here, be sure to check out the cuisine, and this guide in our Travel & Culture column will prepare you for what you’ll encounter if you’ve never gone there before. (See our Explore/Europe column for more great articles about this region.)
France is renowned for its savory cuisine, but it also has a plethora of sweet and tart desserts that are a symbol of their diverse tastes. French chefs are known to not serve anything unless it’s absolutely perfect, so, you know that no matter what you order, it’ll be the best it can be on that day. Each meal of the day follows different rules and patterns, this guide will help you navigate the courses of breakfast, lunch and dinner and what they usually consist of.
Breakfast in France
In France, breakfast is very simple. While in America you may see more greasy and heavy options, breakfast in France is usually consisting of a light croissant, some fruit, or some bread. In many cases, breakfast is served along with a café au lait, meaning “coffee with milk,” or a hot chocolate; most individuals either eat breakfast in their home, or you’ll have that option at your hotel if you’re traveling. Alternately, you can always visit a café at any time of day to have yourself a light pastry and a coffee. This meal is referred to as le petit déjeuner, or “small lunch or meal.”
Lunch in France
Breakfast is referred to as a small lunch or meal, usually, because lunch begins so early in France; you can expect to be served lunch starting from 11:30 AM all the way up to 1:00 p.m. and the meals are much more filling.
Lunches in France can have similarities with dinners in America; they usually consist of four courses:
- Starter Course – A “starter,” which is similar to an appetizer, is served first. With your starter, you will usually get soup, salad or paté.
- Main Course – The next course is your “main course.” Expect to have a dish of either meat or fish accompanied by a heavy starch, like potatoes or rice, and some vegetables.
- Cheese Course – During the third course, your waiter will serve you a plate of cheese, this is simply called the cheese course. The cheese used will usually be of local origin.
- Dessert Course – The final course consists of the dessert; during lunch, desserts are not listed on the menu. So you’ll have to listen closely to what the waiter says. Often, restaurants offer a fruit tart, some ice cream or a form of cream caramel for dessert.
Dinner in France
If you’re worried about your lunch meal being so large, that’s okay, because dinner is not going to start until late in the evening, around 7:30 p.m. In France, meals are spaced out properly so that you are perfectly filled throughout the day and don’t overindulge. In French homes, a family will start eating dinner at around 7:30 pm and usually end around 8:30 pm or 8:45 pm. Meals are so important in France, that mainstream television programming networks only start their prime-time television shows after 8:45 pm when they know dinnertime is over in local homes.
In restaurants, however, dinner will start at about 8:00 pm and end closer to 9 o’clock or 9:30 pm. Your dinner experience will look as follows:
- Hor d’oeuvres – Your first course will consist of hors d’oeuvres. These are small eloquently wrapped and designed food dishes; each one fits nicely in between your fingers.
- Fish Course – Your next course will consist of a fish course; unlike during lunch, the fish course does not come with any heavy starches, as these are too filling. Instead, your fish course will come adorned with vegetables on the side. You will be given some lemon or sorbet to cleanse your palate before your meat course arrives.
- Meat Course – Your meat course will either consist of beef, chicken or lamb. This dish will be elaborately cooked, garnished, and presented to you. You can expect to have some vegetables on the side. Note that during dinner, you don’t see is many starches as you do during lunch. This is usually because you’ll have two protein meals – your meat course and your fish course. Cuisine in France is all about proper balance, too much protein together with too much starch would be too filling for the patron to be able to eat any of the other courses.
- Salad Course – After your main course, you will be served a light salad course, which is usually just vinaigrette served over greens. During dinner, your salad plate comes towards the end of your meal as opposed to lunch, when it is presented at the beginning.
- Cheese Course – Your cheese course is second to last. Here, your waiter will bring you a cheese plate consisting of three or more local cheeses accompanied by ripe fruit and served on a wooden board with more wine.
- Dessert Course – Your final course is your dessert. Dessert courses in France are very rich and full of flavor and heavy ingredients. You can expect something very heavily baked with rich chocolatey toppings, a sweet tart, or a rich and heavy cream-inspired dish, like a crème brûlée. As it does in many European cultures like Spain and Italy, your dessert course optionally comes with a small coffee to complement its flavor.
There, that was quite a bit of info, but when you get there, the only thing you’ll have to worry about is climbing and making it back in one piece. What to expect during dining in such a food-oriented place, shouldn’t be a jigsaw, and this guide helps break it all down. Stay tuned for our mountain article on Mont Blanc coming soon.