Hello and Welcome to PART 4 of “The French Holiday Challenge!”
Today we’re going to go beyond the meal and discuss the table decor as well as other elements that will make this French Holiday Meal a great experience for you and your guests.
There are two elements in today’s training: a video and this blog post. Please watch the video below:
If you missed PART 3 of the Holiday Challenge or would like to review it, there’s a link provided at the bottom of this blog post for your convenience.
Part 4 – French Holiday Table Decor
The types of recipes you choose will determine the cutlery and dishes placed on the table.
As I mentioned in PART 1 of the Holiday Challenge, table decor is very important for any French meal, but particularly during a French holiday meal for Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
France is known worldwide for its fine china from Limoges, its crystal houses like Baccarat and St. Louis, and the beautiful silverware produced by Christofle and Puiforcat, among others.
France is also known for its exquisite table linens.
The finest of them are still embroidered by hand, like those from D. Porthault, a favorite brand of Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duchess of Windsor.
The French believe that you can’t enjoy a meal, no matter how good the food, if the table is a mess and unattractive.
During a special holiday like Christmas or New Year’s, the table decor is considered as important as the food.
A beautifully decorated table keeps the family at the table, enjoying the meal and their time together.
So today, we’re going to look at how the French set their table and the elements they add to it for special holiday occasions.
I’ll be covering the classic, old-world style used in many French households.
For an elegant French Holiday Meal, a tablecloth, not placemats would be used.
Placemats are for less formal occasions in traditional French households.
The French feel that a tablecloth is warmer than a table partially covered by placemats where glass or bare wood is exposed.
So we’re going to use a plain white tablecloth.
The white table linen leaves you room to vary the colors of your plates, glassware, and table decorations.
Napkins are either matching or closely matching the tablecloth. White linen napkins in this case would be used, not paper napkins. Linen napkins mark the special holiday occasion.
At Christmastime, many table decorations incorporate red into the color scheme, either in the tablecloth or the plates.
For New Year’s Eve in France, there’s often a white-gold-and silver color scheme.
But to keep things simple today we’ll go with a plain white tablecloth and white linen napkins.
Protective table mats:
Before placing the tablecloth, a “Bulgomme,” or a protective rubber mat, is added to the table. A “molleton,” or felt cloth, can be used in place of a rubber mat before placing the table cloth.
I’ve placed on my glass dining room table a rubber mat that I’ve cut to size before placing the tablecloth.
Michelin-starred restaurants also do this because it not only protects the table but also absorbs the sound from dishware or glasses and so creates a cozy atmospere.
You’ll feel and hear the difference when you have either one of these protective underlayers on the table before placing your tablecloth.
Attention in France is paid to the quality of the dishware. The fine china that French families save for special occasions comes out of storage for the holidays.
The color harmony is also taken into consideration for a holiday table. Colors and style need to be harmonious. The tableware doesn’t need to match perfectly in color or be from the same pattern, but it should go together nicely.
First, place a protective rubber mat or “bulgomme” or a protective felt mat called a “molleton”
Then place a white tablecloth
Iron out creases in a square or rectangular tablecloth lengthwise (not on the width, however)
Iron out all creases on a round tablecloth
Use linen napkins matching the tablecloth and folded simply. (They’ll be placed to the left of the plate and forks or underneath the forks. Napkins can be placed on the top plate for a luncheon).
Placement of the Plates:
Aim for 24 ” of space between each guest at the table so they won’t feel crowded.
No more than 3 plates are placed on top of each other at once, including the charger plate if you’re using one:
-Leave one inch between the edge of the table and the edge of the charger plate, or if you’re not using one, then the dinner plate.
-(optional) A felt round piece of cloth to absorb noise on top of the charger plate before placing the main course plate (or fold a piece of paper towel so it doesn’t show)
-Main course plate
-Bread plate – placed above to the left of the dinner plate with a butter knife. In France there is often an individual butter dish presented, otherwise, you can put the bread, butter pats, and knife on the bread plate)
-Try to have several salt and pepper shakers around the table (ideally 1 set per 2 guests, otherwise one set at each end of the table)
-Leave a pitcher of water on the table throughout the meal.
-Wine is placed ideally on a coaster and in front of the host, as he/she is the one who serves it.
If the wine has been poured into a wine decanter, then the original bottle can be left near the table-perhaps on a sideboard -so guests can see what they’re drinking.
If several wines will be served during dinner, then wine glasses are filled only one-third full: this allows the wine to breathe (and the guests to pace their alcohol consumption!).
Otherwise, if only one wine is served during the meal then its glass is filled halfway
Champagne is always the exception to the rule: a champagne flute is filled 3/4 full so that it can deploy its bubbles.
Cutlery Placement for a French-style table
Cutlery is placed in the order it will be used according to the dishes served, starting from outside with the first dish served then progressing towards the inside:
No more than three pieces of cutlery are placed at each side of the plate
Fork tines are placed facing down, and the rounded outer bowl of a soup spoon is placed facing up. Traditionally, this was done to show the family’s coat of arms engraved on the back of those cutlery pieces. However, this is now part of tradition whether the cutlery has been engraved on not.
Knife blades are facing inside towards the plates.
The cheese knife and dessert cutlery are brought in separately if there is someone helping to serve at the table.
Otherwise, they are placed above the plate in the following top to bottom order, ending at the top of the plate:
- cheese knife at the top with the handle to the right
- chees fork (optional) with the handle to the left
- dessert or “entremets” spoon (for desserts with sauce or liquids) in the middle with the handle to the right
- dessert fork is placed closest to the plate with the handle facing to the left
If you don’t want to change the cutlery for each dish, then place a knife rest (“porte-couteau”) to the right of the plate. This lets guests know that some cutlery won’t be changed so they need to keep them for other dishes.
In very formal meals the cutlery is changed for each course and a knife rest would not be placed on the table.
If you don’t have knife rests but would like to use them:
You can easily use decorative objects as knife rests and integrate them as part of your table decor: flat stones, shells, or any thin, rectangular, small object.
The napkin is traditionally placed to the left of the plate (to the left of the forks) for a dinner- or on the top plate if it’s a lunch.
The most important aspect is that the order of the glasses is declining in size from left to right
-Glasses are placed above the plates starting in the middle and going in a straight line from left to right
-The tallest glass is first then the next glass is placed in descending order in size in a straight line from left to right
-The largest glass is for water (this can be a colored glass), the second-largest is for red wine, the smallest glass is for white wine (wine glasses should be transparent to see the color of the wine)
-The last glass is the row is aligned above the dinner knife
However, more often than not today, glasses in France are placed diagonally off to the right side of the plate, with the Champagne flute behind the first row of glasses, as shown below:
-The water glass should be filled before guests come to the table. This is done so that if anyone needs to take medication before dinner, they can do so discretely without having to ask for water
-If the water glass isn’t a stemmed glass it will most likely be shorter than the stemmed wine glasses, so place it at the end of the line of glasses to the right
-In the modern style, the Champagne flute or “coupe” is placed behind the first line of glasses as champagne is served with dessert (see photo above)
-There are no more than 3 glasses aligned in a row, otherwise, additional glasses are placed in a row behind the first
-If glasses for the digestif are placed on the table at the beginning of the meal, then they are placed in the back of the first row with the champagne glass. Otherwise, they are placed on the table after the dessert and hot drinks are served.
-At the Presidential Palace in France, glasses are placed “en losange” – a lozenge or diamond formation at the top of the plate. And the napkin is often placed on the right, not the left (see photo below).
-If you are 8 or more at the table, it may be useful (and a nice decorative touch) to have attractive place cards set out with each guest’s name on them.
It’s easier to let everyone look for their name when coming to the table instead of trying to explain to each guest where they’re sitting.
The height of any centerpiece must be above or below eye level or it will block the view between those sitting on opposite sides of the table
If you are using flowers to decorate your table then follow these two guidelines:
- Flowers used to decorate the table should be unscented or their aroma will interfere with tasting of the food.
- Choose flowers that don’t drop pistils as that will stain the tablecloth. For example, avoid placing fresh hibiscus flowers on a table as their pistils can leave permanent yellow stains.
Place one large bouquet in the center that is either above or below eye level
Place decorations on each side of the central bouquet – either smaller flower arrangements or candles
Think about how will you be serving the food during the meal:
For a small table: will there be a serving dish placed in the center of the table for the main course, then placed on a sideboard after everyone is served? Or will you be plating everything for each course in the kitchen?
This will determine how much room you’ll need in the middle of the table for serving dishes where decorative elements would have otherwise taken up space.
It is a Christmas tradition in French Catholic families to place three candles along the center of the table (to represent the Holy Trinity).
Candles should be higher or lower than eye level and unscented (like the flowers) or the scent will interfere with the flavors of the food.
You can also use battery-operated votive candles if you’re concerned about the flame or wax dripping on the table.
Music will create a pleasant atmosphere for a holiday dinner, provided it’s not too invasive.
It’s also practical because it fills any lulls in the conversation among guests.
Beginning with the aperitif and throughout the meal, you can have very low music playing in the background.
Relaxing holiday music, mainly instrumentals would be appropriate.
-The starter course can be plated before serving.
-The main course is traditionally served from a serving platter and everyone takes turns serving themselves or is served from that platter.
-Once the main course is finished, all savory condiments like salt & pepper should also be removed from the table with the main course plates before the next course.
-The charger plate is removed along with the main course plate.
-If serving cheese, a separate plate is then brought out along with the cheese platter.
-Salad can be placed on the salad plate from a central bowl that everyone passes around to serve themselves.
-Otherwise, you can move the salad plate to the center after the main course and charger plate are taken away and serve the cheese and salad on the same plate.
-Once the cheese and salad course is finished, everything pertaining to that course is removed- including the cheese platter- before the dessert plate is brought to the table.
-The dessert can be served from a central presentation plate or plated individually, depending on what is being served.
-Coffee and herbal teas are usually served separately from the dessert in France, but if you prefer, you can serve hot drinks with the dessert.
If the hot drinks are served separately after dessert, then chocolates and candies (like dates stuffed with walnuts) are served. They can then be served in the living room along with the “digestifs” that are presented afterward.
-Once the dessert plates and hot drinks have been cleared away, then the “digestifs” can be served. If their glasses are already on the table, then they are brought to where the plates were.
If not, they can be brought in separately when the “digestif” bottles are placed on the table.
Congratulations on completing the French Holiday Challenge!
I hope this Challenge has given you insight into what makes a traditional French Holiday meal special so that you’re inspired to bring French style to your holiday table.
Don’t hesitate to go back and review previous parts of the Challenge if you wish.
Let me know if you served a French Holiday Meal and how it turned out!
Send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m here to answer your questions and to guide you
If you’d like guidance on how to make all this come alive for your holidays, then join me in “The Finest of France Cooking Essentials Course.“
I’ll go in-depth about how to use typical, high-quality French ingredients to enhance your home cooking and give you direct links to finding products online.
You’ll also get a Bonus FREE 1/2 hour call with me in Paris to ensure your holiday meal is successful!
Find out more about “The Finest of France Cooking Essentials Course” here…