Eating Europe - Entrées to Smörgåsbord
The Structure of a European Meal
|Guido Veloce Explains Europe to You - Issue #2|
Here's another example of those weird things Americans do to food words. The French put out a perfectly good cognate (a word that sounds in French pretty much like what the word means in English: Entrée=Entry) and then Americans take the word and make it mean the opposite. So instead of being the First Course or the entry to the meal, the Entrée in America gets elevated to the Main Course. Got it?
So now that you've become proficient in reading the menu in French....oops, wait a moment, you're probably not reading the menu in French. That's beause the menu is a particular combination of plates that make up a meal, as in the menu du jour, (the menu of the day, a fixed price combo of dishes). You can ask for and perhaps even read the carte, as in à la carte. The concept of the menu is pretty sound in American, actually, because you don't get as many choices in how you structure a meal at an American restaurant. But asking for a menu in many countries will get you a blank stare instead of a sheet of paper with the list of dishes served on it.
And that brings us to:
II. The Structure of a European meal
Around the Mediterranean folks have a lot of time to dawdle over a meal, especially in summer. In France or Italy dinner is an event in itself; you don't need to be doing something afterward to justify eating out. Thus, the meals tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with many courses.
You may wonder how people eat at home like this. I mean, how do you get all these courses coming out of the kitchen at the right time so the cook can sit down and eat without worrying about the next course becoming a lump of charcoal in the oven?
The answer is, of course, Italian mothers. You've seen those women in black sitting in the street gossiping to another hanging out a window? Sure, they've lost their husbands and are in mourning. But you can bet they cook for the family. There are times I think there must be a black market in these little women, given the fact that they are so fundamental to eating a true Italian meal at home. What they do is cook and serve and nibble. I've never seen one sit at the table. Such a deal.
In any case, a typical Mediterranean meal consists of several courses. The first course can be soup or a hot or cold appetizer. The second course is usually meat or fish (unless there's both a meat and a fish course, not so untypical in fancy French joints). You generally have to select a vegetable extra, especially in Italy. Vegetables (and often the salad) are generally served with the the meat course.
This insistence on courses used to be adhered to with much more vigor in Europe. One of my fondest memories of food rage came about in the late 70's, when an American woman commenced eating one of the great trout dishes in Spain, trucha a la Navarra--trout stuffed with ham. Soon after the first bite all hell broke loose.
You see, in Spain, the vegetables, when you could get them, came as a separate course after the fish course. Well, this woman didn't think that was right, so she demanded her vegetables from a poor waitress who didn't understand a single word of English. The American's voice rose in pitch and timbre with each repetition of demand, her vocal cords strained to the max and threatening to snap like Bluto's suspenders after a big meal, the waitress looking more befuddled with every terse sentence, "I want my vegetables and I want them now!"
She never got them. It was a standoff. I'm thinking the whole time, "just be nice, eat the danged trout and maybe you'll get your veggies. Sheesh."
Don't want multi-course meals in these countries? Here are some solutions:
The French Plat du Jour. This is a meal like an American one, with all the stuff on a single plate. Desert or a bit of cheese usually follows. At noon many French bars and cafes that aren't actually restaurants might serve a single Plat du Jour. There's no menu, you get exactly what's on the chalkboard--no substitutions. The meal is often something that can be cooked in a single pot--like a stewed fish or meat dish. It's usually a hot meal that tastes good and is a fraction of the price of a real restaurant meal.
The Italian Piatto Unico. Same deal as above, a single plate with all you'll need. It may be a huge pasta with a load of stuff in it, or a big meat and potatoes sorta deal. When you see Piatto Unico on the menu it means that Uncle Vito won't come charging out of the kitchen with a cleaver mad because you don't know how to eat things right in Italian--so you can rest assured that things will be ok if you order only the piatto unico instead of a pasta followed by meat and vegetables.
In the north meals are structured more like they are in the US. Exceptions are the Scandinavian Smörgåsbord, a wonderful buffet of scandinavian dishes that started off in the 18th century as an appetizer course but is now considered a full meal. Note that a buffet in Europe usually is what we call a cafeteria, with steam table food served up by uniformed servers rather than a take-what-you-want, all-you-can-eat extravaganza.
Well, I'm getting hungry, so I'm outta here. Next week the topic will be odd combinations--food that you wouldn't think you could combine in a dish but the Europeans have managed to pull it off somehow.