Vive la France, le pique-nique, et le banquet! Set your table French style in the country air or in your formal dining room. Whether you're serving mousse de saumon or mousse au chocolat, a beautiful table will make your guests feel as if they've stumbled into the court of the Sun King just in time for le gouter, a very late-afternoon royal snack.
Sur la Table
The table is pre-set for French dining, with as many utensils, dishes and glasses as the menu requires. In classic French service, the food is brought to the table, so you may have a service plate or charger, topped by a dinner plate and a salad plate. Or dinner plates may arrive with the main course and the charger removed at that time. The salad plate may be placed to the right and the bread plate to the left; without a bread plate, you are free to put your dinner rolls on the tablecloth.
Naturally, in all but the most extreme picnic settings, the table will be covered with a fine linen cloth. Napkins are simply folded and placed next to or on the stack of plates. Glasses are lined up left to right: large water balloons, a red wine goblet, white wine tulip and champagne flute or liqueur glass.
Utensils are laid out in the order they are used, outermost first: to the left, a salad fork and dinner fork -- tines down is a la francaise, tines up is a l'anglaise; to the right, the soup spoon -- face-up or face-down -- with the dinner knife closest to the plate. Options include an oyster fork next to the knife or snail tongs next to the fork. The dessert spoon goes above the plate with the bowl pointing left and below it the cheese knife with the blade pointing right. A butter knife is on the bread plate, if there is one.
A French table is laid out in its particular style because Louis XIV's Versailles tables set the standard for civilized dining in the 18th century, and Westerners have never quite gotten over the elite elegance of Versailles pomp and practicality. French service today means that waiters bring choices of dishes for each course to your table, serving you from a formal cart and sometimes preparing or cooking food at the table. In Louis' day, the dishes were placed on the table in a specific pattern, and diners helped themselves to whatever they could reach without moving the serving dishes. This necessitated careful orchestration, so every diner would have a varied selection, even if not all the diners sampled all the dishes.
En Plein Aire
Outside dining, manger dehors, can be as formal or informal as you like. Spread a linen bed sheet over a picnic table under a shady tree and set it with a mismatched assortment of fine porcelain dishes. Line up a motley collection of wine and water glasses across each place setting and put chilled glass -- not plastic -- bottles of water and wine within reach of guests. Place your odd lots of real silver utensils in their correct order, for whatever courses you'll serve -- and serve the food buffet-style, but down the center of the table. Divide dishes into pretty serving trays so each area of the table has access to all the goodies. A couple of handy children with rolling carts will be thrilled to clear dishes and wheel around a dessert tray, as long as you bribe them with first pick of the brownies or choux a la creme.