June 14th is a very special day for us because it is the anniversary of our engagement party. Le Chef and I celebrated with a close group of friends and family over a long and luxurious lunch on the terrace of L’Auberge de la Vignette Haute, a 5* Hotel in a Medieval village behind Cannes named Auribeau sur Siagne.
The crickets were singing, the wine was flowing and musicians serenaded us with “La Vie en Rose” and “L’hyme de l’amour” as we overlooked the vine-covered rolling hills of the French Riviera hinterland.
There was something so luxurious about that celebration that sticks with me to this day. As a career Hotelier I have seen and have partaken in my share of fabulous events, however I do think that there was something very special about that day, and about that and many events that I attended in the South of France, that I see less of in North America. A certain “je ne sais quoi” that made the event feel deliciously French. Well, 15 years spent with a French Chef and I think I have figured out a few of the things that make up the elusive “je ne sais quoi”!
L’heure – The Time:
Our engagement party was at lunchtime. Not in the evening as many of our special events tend to be in the US. A lunch time event felt especially decadent because there was less pressure. Less pressure to be decked out in cocktail or formal wear. Less pressure to stay until the end while fighting fatigue. No pressure whatsoever to dance or to drink.
In North America we tend to want to stylize a table to the max to make it feel “special”. Name cards, matching linens, special chairs, color scheme, the works! On the French table you see a lot less of this sort of decorations. Good china, your best wine glasses, white napkins, et c’est tout. The food takes the center stage with conversation being the second most important feature. Any decorations that get in the way of guests conversing would be seen as “un peu trop” – a little too much.
Les Invitées – The Guest list:
We had 12 people attending our engagement party. Not 25. Not 50. The French will always choose quality over quantity. Better to serve oysters and rack of lamb with decadent wines to your favorite 12 people than to feed 50 with less “noble” food and wine.
Le Repas – The Meal:
L’Appéritif – the cocktail:
A chic French event starts with Champagne. The cork popping and bubbles flowing opens your palate and sets a festive tone to the event. Déja, ca commence bien! The cocktail is often served standing so that guests can mix and mingle before sitting down to eat. This breaks the ice and creates for a much better ambiance once everyone sits down. Prepare to serve a glass of champagne for each guest (you can get about 6 glasses to a bottle) and then switch to whichever wines you are serving – white or rosé, then red.
L’Entrée – Appetizer:
Le Chef and I love serving the appetizer family style. For our engagement party we enjoyed an assortment of shellfish that was shared amongst the guests, but it works just as well to have a charcuterie platter and some grilled vegetables to pass around. Again, this breaks the ice and facilitates conversation.
Le Plat – The main dish:
For the meal we chose to have 2 main dishes – first a seared scallop and then a rack of lamb, but one main dish is largely sufficient. Choose your favorite dish, and serve what you really love. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone with chicken or steak – choose your favorite food and have confidence that those who love you will love the food too. If they don’t, tant pis (too bad) , that is what the cheese course is for!
Le Fromage – Cheese:
Wether it be a full cheese cart with 15 different cheeses that have been matured in a cave or simply a slice of Whole Foods camembert next to a sliver of comté, cheese is such a wonderful way to finish the meal. Serve with a selection of fresh fruits, a light salad, some crusty baguette and you almost don’t need dessert… almost!
We had a Pièce Montée, a rather spectacular dessert which is a cornerstone of French Fêtes. Envision a mountain of puff pastry filled with vanilla, chocolate or pistachio cream and covered with spun sugar. Really, what could be better? Perfect for sharing – plan for 2 to 3 choux per person. In the absence of a Pièce Montée a selection of pastries works perfectly.
Pour conclure – Conclusion
Our party ended with a rousing game of Pétanque (the Provençal version of Bocce ball). The highlight was certainly when my international friends started playing with Sebastien’s Mamie – she takes the game VERY seriously and we had had way too much wine…catastrophe!
I truly believe it is the absence of stress that makes entertaining “à la Française” so decadent. Once you have the formula down, it is so easy to have a fabulous event – stress free.
Le Chef’s Wife