Hosting a dinner party sounds like a great idea—until you actually have to plan it. Then, the sweat breaks as you consider all the variables, from cooking to serving wine to creating atmosphere. But hosting a dinner doesn’t need to be stressful. If there is one culture that can teach you how to throw an elegant, but simple dinner party that highlights wines, it’s the French.
Somehow, the French make entertaining seem effortless, yet elegant at the same time. Traveling in France as a wine journalist, I’ve picked up a few tips on hospitality and casual dining along the way. Here are some of my observations from dining with French winemakers and sommeliers and experiencing their hospitality and bonhomie.
Keep It Simple
At the beautiful, 17th century estate of Domaine Weinbach, our host Catherine Faller served an entirely homemade meal that demonstrated the art of simplicity. It was a slightly chilly day, perfect for an Alsatian specialty called baeckaoff, essentially a stew of different kinds of meat. It was simmering on the stove all day, so Catherine didn’t have to do any preparation once we were there. She had the table all set for us—a classy move—and once we were seated and had our glasses full of her dry Riesling, she spooned the tender meat and potatoes into our bowls, letting the meaty aromas provoke salivation. The stew was followed by a simple green salad—just freshly torn lettuce, with a bit of olive oil and vinegar—and then, cheese. None of that is complicated, yet it was flavorful, delicious, and filling. The simplicity of the meal allowed our host to actually be with us, enjoying the wine and conversation, rather than running around dealing with details like garnishes, last minute chopping, or frying something. So, next time you plan a menu, perhaps veer away from those complicated recipes, and go for simplicity. Remember, the food is important, but the company is more so.
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Know When To Buy Pre-Made
After a morning spent studying the soil of his vineyard and tasting through his various bottlings, winemaker Hervé Villemade invited me to sit down to lunch. “It’s not much,” he warned as he stepped away, leaving me to re-taste his beautiful Sauvignon Blanc. Hervé returned with a bowl of the brightest, freshest green beans, which he had blanched and then dressed with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. He also carried plates with cold slabs of pork, prepared two different ways, from a local butcher. It was so nice to have something he had made, with beans from his own garden, but also it was great to sample local goods. And being a winemaker, busy tending the vines all day, it was easier for him to just focus on one homemade dish, and pick up the other items. It didn’t make the lunch any less special.
Be Specific About What People Should Bring
The French tend to be very direct, and it’s quite refreshing. The lesson here is: When you are hosting a dinner, it’s OK to ask your guests to bring something, especially if they are people you know. (And hopefully, if they are polite guests, they will ask you, “What can I bring?”) When you tell people to bring something, do so directly and specifically. And be strategic. For example, if you already have some special bottles of red wine you plan to open, you could suggest that guests arrive with “starter” wines, like sparkling or rosé, or a crisp white for the first course. Beyond wine, you can ask people to bring appetizers like olives and nuts—easy things that can be grabbed at a store on the way over—or flowers to make a decorative centerpiece.
Serve Cheese Rather Than Dessert At The End Of A Meal
Rich, stinky cheese is the finale of choice on tables across France, and has been for centuries. Cheese is rich in vitamins and protein, full of flavor, and satiating in a way that sweet dessert just isn’t. You only need a little bit of it to feel content, rather than wanting another slice of sugary cake. Plus, serving cheese is simple. Arrange the hunks or circles of cheese on a plate, aiming to have an assortment of styles—one tangy goat’s cheese, a funky washed-rind cow’s milk, a hard and nutty Alpine style cheese like tomme. Just keep in mind these two rules: cheese should be served at room temperature, rather than straight out of the fridge; and you should put out a different knife for each cheese so as to not mix flavors. Pair the cheese plate with some kind of fortified or late harvest wine—like a sweet Pedro Ximénez or nutty Amontillado sherry, or a Ruby or Tawny port, or an off-dry “Kabinett” or “Spätlase” German Riesling. Your guests won’t want to leave the table.
Follow A Few Simple Pairing Rules
You don’t need to be a trained sommelier to find the perfect wine to accompany your meal. There are a few simple tips that will help you find balanced pairings without too much fuss. But most importantly, don’t feel that you have to adhere to any “rules” about serving white wine with fish, or full-bodied reds with steak. The French way of pairing is to think about terroir. Meaning, consider where the food you’re serving is from, and then ask what people would drink there.
Another common sense rule that can help guide you through the meal: go from light to heavy. Not sure where a wine registers on that scale? Look at the color. Very light whites will probably be high in acid and lean, and are great for spring vegetables like asparagus. White wines that are more golden are fuller bodied, and can actually be paired with fatty fish or meat rather than shellfish. Darker hued rosés are excellent accompaniments to roast chicken, salty pasta dishes, or lamb. Light reds can work well with some fish, especially if the sauce is rich, and they are killer with pizza. Dark, inky reds demand strong flavored dishes, or fatty foods they will complement with their tannins.