When I think of an appetizer in the US, I think of finger foods, or else the first course of a meal. In France, finger foods are more likely to be served at an apéro dinatoire – apéritifs (alcoholic drinks) and food around or before the dinner hour, which in the Southwest of France tends to be late. The first course, called l’entrée, (as in “entrance”) or premier plat (as in “first dish”), is generally served at sit-down dinner parties.
Finger foods at French “apéro” parties begin with the savory and end with the sweet. Bacon-wrapped prunes are a good example of these. Bordeaux is where I first tried them. You wrap half a slice of bacon around a prune and bake until the bacon is crispy (about 15 minutes at 365˚F/180˚C, depending on your oven). Small pitted dates wrapped in bacon is a variation on this theme. (What doesn’t pair well with bacon?)
Another easy finger food is rillettes de poisson – spreadable fish dip with crudités.
Crudités are raw sliced vegetables, and the dip is made with baked fish, like mackerel, and mixed with a little salt, a pinch of herbes de Provence, and tartar sauce. Simple but filling. Often, the apéro dinatoire is in lieu of dinner, so filling up on nutritious fish dip is not a bad thing! Similarly, rillettes de porc is essentially pulled pork preserved in its own fat, that can be spread (usually at room temperature) on crackers, toasted bread, thinly sliced baguette, or slices of cucumbers.
I learned of a delicious and nutrient dense chicken liver dip in Bordeaux from a winemaker friend. And if you follow my work at all, you know I’m all about nutrient density for health. In France, it’s easy to find premade pâtés of all kinds, including pâtés en croûte (baked in a dough crust) at the local butcher, charcutier, or épicerie (gourmet shop).
Check with your nearest butcher shop, as they usually have these kinds of offerings. Charcuterie (sliced salami, ham, or sausage) with crackers or little kebabs of grilled squid or meat are often served at an evening apéro, along with red or white wines. An apéro is just not an apéro in France without the wine, or a local alcoholic drink, like Lillet in Bordeaux, or a local sparkling wine.
As for the first course of a sit-down meal, you will often be served a soup, or a smaller version of what could be a main course, such as a small cut of meat or fish, scallops, oysters, or a slice of pâté. Fish is very often a first course in France, and what’s on the menu depends on where you are. In the Basque country you might have grilled squid or sardines in garlic. In Brittany it might be sea snails (bulots) or other shellfish. In Paris, it could be anything! Salmon tartare is often on restaurant menus as a first course. If you make your own, sourcing your raw salmon is of course important, so find a reliable source or fishmonger near you.
Soup of the Season
In warmer months, the soup of the day may be a cold gazpacho, borrowed from neighboring Spain. In the Fall it may be a pumpkin or mixed vegetable purée or potage. In the winter, I love a good, rich French onion soup, but this, topped with cheese and a piece of bread or crouton, is pretty much a meal in itself, rather than a starter. As for the venerable selection of French cheeses, one is more likely to encounter these at the end of a sit-down meal, either before the sweet dessert or as the dessert itself. Also, of course, with an accompanying wine. Bon appétit!