French Tea Time, Glorified After-School Snack, Crosses the Atlantic
Europeans know: we all need to relax with a hot drink, a little bite to eat and someone to talk to at the end of the day. This deep human need is one Americans have underestimated, but it’s a simple matter to give it its due.
The French tea time is a more sacred, more cherished form of our after-school snack. It is sanctified by certain civilizing traditions.
I first discovered this custom in 1989 at my husband’s parents’ farmhouse in a tiny French village. They call it le gôuter (“to taste”)—it is not a full meal—or “les quatre heures,” literally “the four o’clock.” Taken any time between 4 and 6 p.m., it is reinforcement for the dairy farmers there before the evening milking. A light dinner is served later in the evening.
Far less varied than dinner or lunch, le gôuter is based on tea, hot chocolate, or café au lait (with raw milk there on the farm). A hot drink taken at ease is simultaneously capable of picking you when you’re down and relaxing you when you’re tense.
Next is some form of bread, with accompaniment. One of the best gôuter foods is saucisson, hard salami. Then there are the hundreds of amazing French cheeses. Tartines (bread-and-butter or open faced sandwiches), maybe some jam, preferably homemade. A standard favorite is tartine et chocolate, a few squares from a plain tablet of semi-sweet. Yogurt and other scrumptious dairy products unknown in American are other staples of les quatre-heures. You may also find some leftover pie (simple, dry affairs compared to American pies: open-faced like tartines and little more than fruit slices on crust). Or maybe some homegrown, slightly wrinkled, rubbery yellow-pink apples, or compôte, homemade applesauce.
But le gôuter is not just about the food, but also about the experience. It begins as a spontaneous descending on the kitchen (rather than the dining room), as the first rustlings are heard beginning there and others make their way in.
In the dying light of the late afternoon, we find a cozy informality and familiarity in this daily social event. Far from a throwing down of food in front of kids, it’s an eating with rather than feeding of children.
The process of finding what’s to be eaten, in cupboard, fridge, or sideboard is part of the pleasure. The foraging, the setting out, the finding of more, the assembly of tartines, the spreading, the cutting, the steeping and the stirring, all lend themselves to engaging children in the enjoyment of that process.
The point is to take it slow and savor the time, tastes and togetherness. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.