Art de Table is the French expression to describe setting a beautiful table, one of the major elements of a French meal. In 2010, UNESCO declared the gastronomic meal of the French a “World Intangible Heritage”. It is described as “a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking”. So it stands to reason that the French have perfected the art of the table setting.
One of the things that most impressed me when I first moved to France was how effortlessly my friends seemed to make a beautiful looking table – even if it was just for a casual lunch. An occasion such as Christmas presents a lovely opportunity to try to set a spectacular table.
Over time, I learnt that it’s easy to set your table ‘à la Française’ as long as you follow a few basic rules.
Step 1: La Nappe – The Tablecloth
The French tend to use a double tablecloth. The undercloth serves as a table protector, but also dampens the noise of the cutlery and plates on the table. The double layer is also more comfortable for guests to rest their arms. The undercloth should be pulled flat to provide a perfect foundation for the outer tablecloth. Most often a crisp white table cloth is chosen, as this not only looks very elegant, but shows off the porcelain and silverware to the best advantage, and allows for more creativity with the decorations.
The outer tablecloth should be crease free – this can be achieved by ironing the cloth once it is on the table. Don’t worry if all the creases can’t be eliminated - clever placement of decorations can hide a multitude of sins!
Step 2: Les Assiettes - The plates
Plate placement is important to make sure that everyone has enough elbow room and you are not trying to seat too many people at one table. Allow about 80cm per guest, with never less than 60cm.
Align the plate in front of the chair and leave about 2 – 5 cm of space between the edge of the plate and the edge of the table. If you are using square plates, make sure they are also aligned parallel to the edge of the table. Additionally, make sure the plates align with the one opposite.
Step 3: Les Couverts – The Cutlery
Place the cutlery 1.3cm from the edge of the table. The forks should go to the left with the tines pointing down. The French tradition of having the forks with the tines down stems from the family crest being traditionally engraved on the back of the cutlery, so placing the tines down showed off this crest. In Britain, the crests were engraved on the front, so the tines were turned face up.
The knives are placed to the right of the plate, with the sharp edge towards the plate. The spoon goes to the right of the knife, face down.
Place all of the cutlery required for the meal on the table, in the order with which they will be used. The utensils which will be used first are placed the furthest from the plate.
Step 4: Les Verres – The Glasses
Glasses should be arranged to the right of the plate above the knife. They should be placed in order from largest on the outside to the smallest on the left. Traditionally, a very large wine glass was used for water, so this was placed on the outside, then a red wine glass, a white wine glass, a champagne flute and/or a liquor glass. Nowadays stemless wine glasses are used more often for water, and it is acceptable to place the glasses in a triangle with the smaller water glass in front. But still stick to the rule of the tallest glass placed the furthest to the right.
Glass should be sparkling clean. The easiest way to clean them is to hold them over a pan of boiling water with the bowl of the glass down. Once it steams up, clean it gently with a polishing cloth.
Step 5: Les Serviettes: The Serviettes
Simple is best with napkins, except if you have very good folding skills, and they are a key part of the table decoration. White linen napkins folded with two or three folds and placed to the left of the dinner plate gives a very refined look to the table.
Step 6: Les Condiments: Condiments
It is important to distribute the condiment bowls evenly around the table. A good rule of thumb is one salt and pepper shaker, mustard bowl (if required), gravy boat per every three to four guests. This avoids people having to reach over the table.
This applies also for empty bowls that may be required for seafood shells, or ramekins with butter portions.
Step 7: Décorations de Table : Table Decorations
The final decorations are the ‘pièce de restistance ‘ of your table. Try not to clutter your table and avoid large centre pieces that make it difficult to see other people at the table. Small vases of low scent fresh flowers, fragrance-free candles and some pine cones for Christmas, for example. Try to use no more than three colours in your colour scheme.
The main thing to remember is elegant simplicity is what the French excel at. As Coco Chanel said : “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” If you are wondering if you have overdone the decorating, you could also look at your table setting and think ‘Before you serve the food, take one thing off!’