A-Z of etiquette
Part one of our guide to life in France
Although France and the UK are separated by a mere 35km stretch of water, moving to France sometimes involves more of a culture shock than many newbies expect. With this new A-Z series I’ll take a light-hearted look at the quirky side of life in France in a guide that will be handy for anyone contemplating a property purchase in France, as well as those keen to blend in with the locals.
A is for apéritif The apéritif, or apéro if you want to sound properly French, is a veritable French institution and a handy one at that. Now I am a sociable person and like an evening with friends as much as the next man, but I don’t always fancy going the whole hog with a dinner party. It’s not that I’ll be slaving away over a hot stove – my wife does the cooking in our house, not because I am a sexist pig but because we prefer to eat food that is actually edible – but an entire evening of French conversation over a three-course meal (and the French will expect nothing less from dinner!) can be a bit exhausting after a day of visiting houses with clients!
The apéritif is the French equivalent of a couple of after-work drinks at the pub in the UK. You get a few friends together at home early in the evening, have a few sherbets and then disperse in time for everyone to go their separate ways for dinner. Well, that’s the idea although just as a few drinks at the pub can turn into a beer-fest and wobbling home at kicking-out time, so an apéro can also extend into a longer-than-expected evening which may involve scouring the fridge for enough to make an impromptu meal for the increasingly merry crowd.
A few apéro pointers to bear in mind: No drink without food – the French are a bit cannier than us when it comes to lining a stomach in preparation for alcohol intake and never generally indulge without something to mop up the booze. Your French friends are unlikely to limit the offering to a tired selection of nuts and crisps either – you may get a sumptuous table of charcuterie and cheese, pain de campagne and tapenade, pâté on mini toasts, olives or even mini cubes of bizarrely flavoured Laughing Cow (believe it or not, not every French person is a gourmet in the kitchen). If you’re hosting, make sure you offer something in the way of food. You can officially upgrade your apéro by calling it an apéro dînatoire which will signal to your guests that they will be getting a more substantial feast but without the inconvenience of cutlery or the formality of sitting around a table involved in an actual dîner. While it may take you some time to get your head around the subtle differences between these French social events, they are simply useful shorthand for the French who will immediately know what to expect from each. If you are invited to an apéro, don’t turn up empty handed. Take something to eat (suggestions as above but avoid the Laughing Cow) and a nice bottle of wine, Muscat, craft beer or fresh juice.