What Do the French Talk About at Dinner Parties?

Last night, we were invited to dinner with French friends with whom we socialise regularly. The SF and I have christened our group ‘the Gang’. There were nine of us yesterday. Some of them were born in the region and have retired here; others live in Paris in the winter and spend the summer down here. These are enjoyable social occasions but they also provide the chance to dig ourselves deeper into French culture and to find out what makes the French tick.

Conversation French style

Sometimes we hang on to the conversation by the skin of our teeth. Everyone talks at once and they do it at breakneck speed. We regard it as a compliment that they give us no quarter. They are endlessly patient when we get tied up in knots with the language, although it must be irritating for them. Often, though, I get the impression that they forget we are not French, which is fine by us.

Last night, the pre-prandial conversation ranged widely from the rotten weather to a recent spate of fatal car accidents. This led to a discussion about the differences between the UK and French driving licence systems: they lose points for infractions, we gain them. Our friends often express interest in how things work in England compared with France. They were surprised to learn that we had to hand over our UK driving licences and get French ones when we moved here.

Food, glorious food

However, the French always return to one particular topic of conversation: food.  I know I’m generalising here but stereotypes are usually grounded in truth. After 14 years and quite a few dinner parties I feel I can speak with some authority. There must be French people who don’t talk about food, just as there must be British people who don’t talk about house prices. But I haven’t met them yet.

Moving to the dinner table after apéritifs is normally the signal for the food conversation to begin, although it started well before that last night. Jean, our host, had prepared a delicious guacamole dip to go with the apéros. Everyone wanted the recipe. Marie-Jo and Elsa then had a lively, extended discussion about whether you should include yogurt in hummus. For dinner, Jean had made a couscous with lamb chops and merguez sausages. This sparked off a debate about the respective merits of local lamb suppliers.

Before long, we were chewing over the virtues of tripes and tête de veau (calf’s head). I haven’t eaten either of these delicacies but these were clearly serious matters. Jean deplored the use of tomatoes in tripes à la Lyonnaise. He then extolled his great-grandmother’s tête de veau, which was simmered over the fire for four days. He had never tasted its equal. She lived to 104, so perhaps I should try it after all.

Fasten your seatbelts

These considerations kept us going to the cheese course. There followed some discussion about how the French regard rules and regulations as a kind of framework within which you can interpret the details pretty much as you like – or ignore them. This prompted Claude to ask the SF if he had retained the Swedish tendency to do as you are told or if he had been ‘contaminé’ (his word) by the French contempt for authority. I chipped in quickly to say that it was definitely the latter.

‘For example,’ I said, ‘He now drives like a true Frenchman. He doesn’t use the indicators and he drives as closely as possible to the car in front.’

It was as if I had lit the blue touchpaper. Far from leaping to defend the honour of the prudent French driver, however, our friends began a heated argument about the correct way to drive on the autoroute. They split into two camps. One maintained that it was okay to drive in the middle lane all the time. This avoided getting boxed in behind slower drivers in the right-hand lane. The other held that you should always drive in the right-hand lane unless overtaking slower vehicles. Cutlery and table mats were press-ganged into service to illustrate the opposing viewpoints, accompanied by cries of ‘Mais non!’ and ‘Écoute bien!’

The SF and I felt it was better not to get involved and left them to it. Eventually, the argument burnt itself out without reaching a conclusion. We moved on to less controversial topics. But the evening was a fascinating insight into what gets the French going.      

See also my posts How to Drive Like the French and French Social Customs: Table Manners Part 1.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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11 Responses to What Do the French Talk About at Dinner Parties?

  1. Deborah says:

    I’m afraid I have to talk about food – and the Tete de Veau at that. It has passed into legend in our circle that old friend Nigel once recklessly ordered T de V in a mountain restaurant without the first clue what he was about to receive. In particular, it was the moment the Ear floated across his bowl…

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    • nessafrance says:

      I expect Tête de Veau is an acquired taste – but not one I am in a hurry to acquire. Our friend Jean gave a very interesting account of how it used to be made, simmered over the fire for 4 days, in the days before ovens.

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    • frenchie says:

      Sorry to burst your bubble here, Deb, but Nigel’s legend is just that.
      TdV is actually more of a pâté — well, an aspic, if you want to get technical — made with mostly veal tongue and cheek (no ear… come to think of it, I think the Ear-floating-across-the-bowl thing is lifted from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), and some skin to help the aromatic broth it’s cooked in congeal. So what you would receive if you ordered it is a slice of pressed cold meats on a plate, doused in an oil, vinegar, mustard, shallot and parsley sauce.
      And you really should try it. As far as offal horror goes, tête de veau is really quite tame. And delicious.
      BTW, great blog, Nessa !

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      • nessafrance says:

        Thanks for the explanation. I think you are describing sauce gribiche, which I understand is the traditional accompaniment to tête de veau. I will eat most things but haven’t tried this yet. I also understand that andouillette is more horrifying!

        Thanks also for your kind words about my blog. It doesn’t please everyone, as you’ll have noticed from the comments on this post, but hey life would be dull if we all agreed with each other all the time.

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  2. Mikal says:

    I don’t see why food can’t be part of an “interesting life.” And when you get into the ethical, historical and environmental aspects of it, it can be very thought provoking as well. In fact, I would go so far to say that any civilised dinner conversation should contain at least some discussion of food!

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    • nessafrance says:

      This is my thinking, too. I was fascinated to hear our friend Jean’s description of how his great-grandmother made tête de veau. It gave an insight into social history and how people lived in France in the not-too-distant past. We learn a lot about French history and culture from hearing French people discuss food.
      Perhaps I should have made that clearer in the post.

      Brillat-Savarin, who can hardly be described as uninteresting, turned the study of gastronomy into an art form. He said, ‘Dis moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai qui tu es’ (tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are).

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  3. phildange says:

    Well lady, it depens on which kind of people you meet, really . I’ve had a lot of friends in my life, and I’ve lived thousands of dinner parties . I can tell you food has mostly been absent from all conversations, and when it was a topic it never lasted long . When you deal with people with rich and interesting lives or thoughts, food is seldom important, even in France .
    But for sure you need to be slightly out of a conventional course of life and interests for that . And believe me, there are lots of French people like that . To be able to achieve collective revolutions now and then, you need a good part of population at least partly able to get free of all chains, specially of any consensus .
    I don’t know, I only see people who don’t think food is a major subject, and I regularly see a lot of people . Pardon me, but I noticed about 2/3 of English speaking blogs about Frence or French talk about French food . I find it’s a pity for all those foreigners if they always miss what France has to offer in worthy matters . OK I know some French speak mainly about food, but those French are not the French who made France, the one I love anyway .

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’m sorry to have offended you. You should have guessed that what I wrote was mostly tongue in cheek but it does reflect our 14 years’ experience here.

      P.S. We also talked about quantum mechanics and finding the Higgs boson at the same dinner party.

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      • Oscar says:

        I think you just try to impress with your topics. I am pretty sure that you don’t even understand a piece of what the both quantum mechanics and Higgs boson stand for… do you? if so, please explain me… I am curious…

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      • nessafrance says:

        We did genuinely talk about this at the dinner party, starting with the Large Hadron Collider, which was built among other things to detect traces of the Higgs boson – the particle that is believed to give mass to the other particles. I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on these matters: I have had no training in physics. However, my husband is pretty knowledgeable about it and has shelves-full of books on theoretical physics and cosmology, some of which I have read myself. I don’t think anyone could claim to understand these topics fully. After all, they have not yet been able to reconcile quantum mechanics with relativity theory, despite considerable time, effort and brainpower spent on it.

        One should never underestimate other people’s knowledge and understanding, especially when one doesn’t know them personally.

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      • Oscar says:

        ups my message is x phildange

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