When you see beautifully photographed features in interior design magazines of people entertaining guests in their Provençal homes, there is always something magical about those images. The Southern French light is one thing but sitting around a chunky wooden table under olive trees, probably with a burnt-orange-hued house with blue shutters in the background, is something else. Okay, so, unless you are extremely lucky and own one of those dreamy French country retreats, you cannot copy the location, but you can go a long way in emulating the special, relaxed atmosphere of French al fresco dining.
If there is one thing I learned when living in France, it is that the French pay more attention to the friends and family that come and join them for dinner than fret about whether the table is laid out perfectly. I learned to pay more attention to easy food that will not distract the host from socializing (and they cheat, but more about that later), and that dressing down — both the clothes and the table, adds that certain charm.
Here are some easy tips on how to entertain the French way in your backyard.
1. Start With Champagne
Whether you go to a restaurant or a private dinner, chances are that you start with a glass — or two — of champagne. Go to any supermarket on a Friday, and the vast majority of shoppers will have a bottle of their favorite bubbly tipple in their trolley. It sets the mood, it is welcoming, and a lovely start to an evening. There is never a glut of champagne, and you will notice that when the food arrives, the champagne glasses will be cleared away and make room for wine glasses.
Pro Tip: If you have cocktail skills, you can also welcome guests with an Apéro, an aperitif, something along the lines of an Aperol Spritz, a negroni, a Lillet, or a Kir. To accompany the initial drink, offer some bowls of olives or a small selection of charcuterie.
2. Keep It Casual
Unless you have your boss around for dinner, more often than not, outside dining is kept casual. That includes the dress code — light summer clothing, Bermuda shorts for men, light floral dresses, etc, are perfect — as well as the setting. You’ll find that tablecloths are usually conspicuous by their absence, or if used, often come in vintage form. Old linen tablecloths found on flea markets or handed down in the family set a relaxed mood.
3. Mismatch The Crockery
Remember shabby chic? Is that still a thing? As long as you keep that in mind when setting your table outside, you can’t go too wrong. Don’t try and make it perfect — leave the fine wedding china for an important dinner with said boss. If you are entertaining friends, mismatch your crockery and cutlery. Here is where you can flaunt your various flea market finds and have plates and bowls of a similar design, such as floral to match the outside setting. Otherwise, they can be all different from each other, as it just adds to the charm. The same goes for glasses and cutlery, although a whole, matching set per person makes it easier to know whose spoon is whose.
4. Put Hand-Picked Flowers On The Table
Instead of professionally putting together floral arrangements, go for a walk around the countryside, or to the bottom of the garden and opt for a bouquet of wildflowers. If you don’t have those on hand, put a couple of bunches or bowls of sunflowers on the table. Place some tendrils of ivy or pretty leaves, olive branches, or even sprigs of rosemary on the table, or in little, individual vases. In (Southern) France, you will even encounter these very laid-back flower arrangements in restaurants and cafés, and they tend to be so much lovelier than an over-styled bouquet.
Pro Tip: Remember, dinner is all about chatting to friends and having a relaxing time, so don’t arrange the flowers too high so that they might obstruct the view of the guest sitting opposite you.
5. The Light Touch
A great ambiance is best achieved through lighting. Candles and fairy lights cannot be beaten for the atmosphere. For eating outside, citronella candles are perfect, giving off soft light and at least trying to keep the mozzies at bay. However, the loveliest light for an al fresco meal is provided by twinkle lights, and now that they come with batteries and solar panels, you can string them anywhere you want. Set up your table below a tree canopy if you can, then weave a roof of lights; or string them along a hedge, or whatever you have in your backyard. Then, place some strings in vases or empty bottles for some extra light, the ambiance immediately changes into something cozy and friendly, rather than a formal dinner. If you have a path your guests will walk along, place some candles along the way there. I saw this just outside of Aix-en-Provence, and it was simple but so effective.
Pro Tip: Remember to buy soft yellow LED lights, not those glary white ones.
6. Mind Your Bread Etiquette
Having a basket full of fresh baguettes is essential for any French dinner party, formal or relaxed, inside or out. Cut the baguette into small chunks, and, when you help yourself, place the bread on the table next to your plate. Even in fancy restaurants, you rarely ever get a bread side plate. Don’t worry about the crumbs, they are part of eating in France. To eat cheese, or pâté, or even butter (although the French rarely use it), you place a helping on your (main) plate, and then tear a small piece of bread, put the pâté on it, and eat. Never smear the pâté on the entire piece of bread in one go, please.
Pro Tip: If you are serving something with sauce (the French love their sauce), then don’t be surprised when people mop up the last bits of sauce with their bread. This might not happen in Michelin-starred restaurants, but it is generally seen as a compliment to the chef.
7. Plan The Menu
Generally speaking, when you entertain the French way, people will expect three courses. A starter, main, and dessert, but also usually a cheese course, served between the main and dessert. When you are entertaining al fresco with friends, it is fine to have sharing plates and huge bowls full of salads for starters. (Please note that in France, it is seen as bad manners to cut salad with a knife, instead, try to fold leaves onto the fork.) For the main, it is important to serve something that does not tie you up in the kitchen, as you want to be with your guests, and not be away for too long. Stews such as boeuf bourguignon are perfect. Prepare as much as you can in advance, and then just pop into the kitchen to collect the food. The cheese platter is easy, a selection of four or five cheeses, ranging from hard (Comté), medium (St. Nectaire or a Tomme), to softer (brie or camembert), and maybe a blue cheese will ensure there is something for everyone. Serve with honey, fig confiture, and figs on the side; there is no need for crackers.
Pro Tip: They might not readily admit it, but the French — the Parisians, anyway — often cheat and go to Picard, a freezer store, to pick up starters or desserts. The food there is of good quality, and so much easier to prepare, leaving them time to spend with their guests.
Make sure you have the perfect playlist for your French summer evening dinner. The French tend to like to sing along (after a few glasses of wine for sure) and tend to know all the words to old favorites. Make sure you include some Johnny Hallyday, Zaz, Louanne, Julien Doré, France Gall, and maybe some Jacques Brel for the end of the evening.
For information on traveling to Paris, check out these articles: