Updated on 18 February 2021
Reading time: 6 minutes
What better place to learn an art form once celebrated by the French Royal Family than a chateau? The 18th-century Château de Chantore overlooking the iconic Mont-Saint-Michel offers its guests masterclasses in table setting à la française, so now you can spend the weekend in a Normandy chateau and pick up some tips for hosting your own formal dinner party once you get home!
A revered art form
In France, arts de la table goes far beyond its English equivalent, ‘table setting’ – it is to present and serve a meal for your guests with the ultimate elegance and flair. To enjoy a meal in France is not just to eat it, oh no. It is to revel in the whole dining experience, to unwind and spend time with family and friends. Arts de la table lend a certain je ne sais quoi to special occasions, with diners seated at an expertly curated table showcasing crisp napkins, pristine glasses and spotless cutlery, with everything in its correct place. When dinner is served, it’s time to savour all of the delicious smells as dishes are served to guests following a strict etiquette, refer to the elegant menu provided to see what you are about to eat, and finally, taste it. In short, if you want to host a formal dinner like the French, you really need to pull out all the stops.
My husband and I were already familiar with the Château de Chantore, having visited its gardens last year. This time around, we decided to spend a weekend there and book an experience available only to guests staying the night; a table setting masterclass with one of the chateau owners, Inako. Arriving at the chateau, we are greeted by four curious peacocks then the other chateau owner Bernard, who welcomes us with a big smile and shows us up to our room. We are staying in the Chambre ovale, which boasts what we are told is a Polish-style four-poster bed, and a huge Hollywood-esque bathroom! Before our table setting masterclass, we decide to take a stroll in the chateau grounds, and have fun identifying many of the exotic plants that grow there, such as sequoia, ginkgo biloba, Louisiana cypress, Virginia tulip and lebanese cedar, while admiring the views of the nearby Mont-Saint-Michel.
The history of table setting
Invigorated by our walk, we return to the chateau and are shown into the Salon bleu by Inaki, where we are offered a welcome drink (Normandy cider, naturally). Then it’s into the chateau’s ornate dining room with its wood-panelled walls and red upholstery. The dining table is strewn with items we’ve never seen before; vestiges of a dining etiquette which is no longer the norm (more’s the pity). It looks beautiful and we start to see why table setting in France is referred to as an art form! Inaki starts the masterclass by telling us all about the history of tableware, and how the bourgeois classes used to bring back items like plates, knives and forks from their travels. As a result, a new fashion for using all of these items in one specific room of the house gradually replaced the old, more informal habit of sitting anywhere when it was time to eat. Inaki is clearly passionate about table setting and the important role the dining table plays in French culture. He talks us through the order in which the cutlery should be placed, which cutlery to use based on the menu being served, where to put the different glasses, how much space to leave between items, how to serve dishes correctly and even the rules that the host or hostess must follow. There’s a lot to take in but at last we feel ready to set the table ourselves!
etiquette in action
Grinning mischievously, Inaki directs Dominique and me to the end of the table, where everything we need to set the table ourselves is waiting for us. First I position the plates, then set the cutlery around them, taking into account the hypothetical menu Inaki has told us will be served. Cutlery should be arranged so as to highlight the coat of arms of the silverware, I remind myself. I then position the knife holders, which prevent the knives from potentially staining the tablecloth. Then it’s on to the glasses. My husband reminds me that the larger water glass goes on the left, then the wine glasses go on the right. The glass for the post-meal digestif goes on the far right. The champagne glass goes on the far left. Wines and sauces will be served to diners from the right, but dishes from the left. As the hostess, I sit at the middle of the table, and my husband directly opposite me. Any high-ranking or important guests are seated to my left.
I finish setting my table by placing the napkins and bread dishes to the left of each place. In the middle of the table, I place a surtout, a display dish on which sit little figures made of biscuits. Tasteful flowers and a few candles finish everything off nicely. I step back and study my finished table. I think I’ve done pretty well! Inaki nods approvingly and looks pleased as he gives us both a beautiful menu adorned with the chateau’s crest, and a document detailing all the rules of table setting. We thank him for his time and leave the dining room elated. Learning the ins and outs of table setting from an expert like Inako has given us the bug for hosting our own formal dinner party, and we just can’t wait to dig out all our finest tableware, put our new skills to the test and impress all of our friends!
* Covid-19: Please follow local government guidelines in your country before making any travel plans *
Château de Chantore
The chateau is open all year round. Table setting masterclasses take place one Saturday a month until the end of June 2021 – see dates below. Masterclasses are only available to guests staying at the chateau.
Confirmed masterclasses: 27 February, 27 March, 24 April, 29 May and 26 June
The chateau has five rooms, with prices ranging from €190 to €270/night (including breakfast)
Les arts de la table masterclass (90 minutes): €30/person
2 personnes minimum et 6 personnes maximum.
If no guests have booked onto a masterclass eight days prior to the scheduled date, the class will be cancelled
2021 visits to the Chateau gardens
Entry by advance reservation only (individuals and groups) until April 2021
Tickets can be bought on the day during the following times:
– Weekends in May and June 2021 (2:30pm-6:30pm)
– Every day in July and August 2021 (2:30pm-6:30pm)
– Weekends in September 2021 (2:30pm-6:30pm)
Outside the above times, the gardens can only be visited by advance reservation
– Adults (15 years+): €7
– Children under 15: Free
– Groups (10+ people): €5/adult