Service à la française

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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Affluent French seventeenth- and eighteenth-century menus most commonly consisted of three courses (services) made up of platters both large and small, each multidish course served more or less simultaneously buffet-style. This type of presentation was referred to as service à la française (even though it was commonplace all over Europe). Generally more and more sweet dishes were served as the meal progressed. In the first course they were rare, while the second course contained a scattering of side dishes called entremets (literally, “between the dishes”), which could be both savory and sweet. See entremets. In a menu from 1690, listed in François Massialot’s Le cuisinier roïal et bourgeois (1691), members of the royal family and guests could choose among entremets of ham or pheasant pies but also blancmange, fritters (beignets), and apricot marmalade–filled tarts. See blancmange and fritters. These sweet items were interspersed among 22 platters of roast beef, mutton, suckling pig, and “all sorts of poultry.” Other menus suggest entremets of sweet omelets, fruit custards, crème brûlée, even a sugared artichoke custard. See crème brûlée. It was only once this service had been fully cleared that the dessert course was served. The 1690 Dictionnaire universel defined dessert as “the last course placed on the table … composed of fruits, pastry, confectionery, cheese, etc.” This final course was the responsibility of the office or pantry, whereas the earlier dishes came from the kitchen. Accordingly, what characterized the dessert course was not so much that it was sweet, but that it was cold. It was also the most visually exciting part of the meal. Though some degree of spectacle distinguished every course, the final dessert service deployed the color, texture, and sculptural potential of confectionery with sometimes fantastic results. See sugar sculpture. Broadly speaking, the confectioners followed the current style in the other applied arts. Thus, seventeenth-century dessert tables featured baroque pyramids of sparkling sweetmeats; eighteenth-century displays were replete with neoclassical statuary often set on a mirrored surface; the Romantic period saw pièces montées resembling crumbling classical ruins; and the Victorian period brought a ponderous historicism. With the arrival of service à la russe, these spectacular displays largely ceased to exist as table decoration was limited mainly to flowers and individual servings were brought to each diner in turn. In bourgeois homes, a fancy dessert might be displayed on the sideboard throughout dinner, but it was a shadow of its ancien régime ancestors.