Food is one of the ultimate pleasures of life. The diversity of the world’s countries, especially in terms of geography and climate, made a vast range of edible things available, from plants and animal products to seafood, algae and even fungi. When those were combined with human creativity, an ever-evolving supply of super tasty dishes broke open and added more joy to our lives.
The different types of foods were not the only thing that has been under ongoing development. The way food is served was reshaped over and over by the constant change in world cultures and cuisines. Now, meals consist of multiple items, and each has a name, category and a specific job to do in order to offer a complete and satisfying eating experience.
These different items a meal has are called meal courses, and they are typically served in stages and not simultaneously. In this article, we are going to explore the history and composition of a full-course meal and what impact serving in such a way has on the way we consume food.
Simply put, a full-course meal is one that consists of multiple items served separately, not primarily for etiquette as much as it is for digestion-related reasons.
Eating many courses also gives the chance to try a variety of tasty dishes in only one meal and expand the pleasure of eating. This could be something we are terribly missing in the era of workaholism that leaves us with the guilt of wasting time if we spend more than 15 minutes eating lunch.
Many cultures around the world serve complete courses, but it is the number of courses per meal that differs. The most common type of a full-course meal, the basic one that most people could be familiar with, is the three-course meal. This is a meal structure that is often associated with Western cuisine.
Following this structure, a dinner traditionally starts with an appetiser. An appetiser for the stomach is like a warm-up prior to a workout. Appetisers are served to stimulate the appetite and basically evoke more hunger to pave the way for the second item or the main course.
The main course is the most important part of the meal, featuring the main dish. It is typically the most complicated and probably the longest to take to cook. The main course is the one item responsible for satisfying hunger and providing fullness.
After the main course is consumed, it is time for the third and final item that completes the meal. This is often a dessert or a drink, basically tea or coffee, and they are consumed to wrap up this fulfilling experience with something nice.
By now, you might have pictured a man in a fine black suit indulging in a meal that features small portions in some fancy restaurant and served by a very prestigious, handsome French-speaking waiter.
Although this is quite a stereotype, it is still true. Full-course meals are usually served at upscale restaurants specialising in high-class dining. They are also served on formal occasions, such as weddings or receptions, typically taking place either in the afternoon or evening. However, they are not limited to these contexts. Many people like to serve a meal in three courses even if they are having it at home.
Speaking of that, full courses are not served with every meal but only with the most important one of the day. For instance, it is pretty unlikely to see someone eat their breakfast in courses, let alone have the time to cook a single course in the first place. Full courses are usually saved for either lunch or dinner, depending on the culture.
There might not be a definitive story of the origins of meal courses or who came up with them. Instead, they are often thought of as a process that started probably in ancient civilisations, such as the Roman and Persian empires and was influenced by the changes in and trends of the world’s cuisines.
Unlike what many may think, meal courses did not originate in France, yet they were developed by the French when they reached them.
The 18th Century
A huge part of the development of the current formal meal structure is often attributed to King Louis XIV, who ruled France from the mid-17th century to the early 18th century. He was known to love sophistication, extravagance, luxury and nobility, and he made many changes that helped place France as the cultural centre of Europe.
One of those many changes was establishing the structure of formal meals and creating new culinary traditions as part of a bigger system of etiquette.
Because his court used to hold many feasts as well as banquets, King Louis XIV wanted the meals to be utterly sophisticated, highly structured and featuring a specific sequence of service. He himself was known for his eternal love of food and someone who found so much delight in it.
So, the new formal meal structure offered the King the chance to try many different dishes to satisfy his huge appetite—Louis XIV was an overeater. When he died in 1715, the doctors performed an autopsy to discover the cause of his death, and they found out that his stomach was three times as large as that of an average adult!
At the time, a meal served at a feast in the Palace of Versailles consisted of four courses.
First, there was the hors d’oeuvre, which is what we know in English as an appetiser.
Appetisers mostly feature salads, French pate or shellfish. The second course was potage or a thick soup. After that, the entrée was served. This was the main course, which included complex dishes, often comprising roast beef, salmon or chicken. Finally, the meal was wrapped up by a super delicious French dessert.
On other occasions, meals had even more than four courses.
The 19th Century
The French meal structure and all the other French culinary traditions started to stabilise, solidify and influence other cultures. By the 19th century, formal dining in Europe had a fixed structure of seven courses served in sequence, introducing separate ones for fish, salads and desserts served at various times during dinner.
This structure was then followed by the elite and upscale restaurants. While French cuisine continued to evolve, that new meal structure sank in more and was then standardised. As time went by, more and more European countries were influenced by this structure and followed it.
The 20th Century
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the entire world and Europe, in particular, entered a new era of modernity thanks to the American influence that invaded the devastated continent.
It was around this time when what was later known as the contemporary cuisine movement started to emerge in France, where a group of prominent chefs called for a more simplistic approach to cooking while dedicating more focus to quality. Many chefs started leaving behind the heavy traditions of French cuisine and embraced lighter, creative dishes.
This call for simplicity also reached the formal meal structure that had been there for over three centuries. Many sought to modernise the way meals were served by excluding what they saw as unnecessary. Gradually, the rigid multiple-course meal structure became more flexible and simplistic.
After the emergence of the fast food culture and the introduction of casual dining experiences that offer a one-course meal as quick service, combined with the general acceleration of life, the popularity of multi-course meals started to retreat.
12 Meal Courses
Although multi-course meals are now often associated with formal occasions, many people, maybe out of habit, still serve their most important homemade meals in courses. Soups and salads are a staple on many tables, and many love to conclude a meal with a nice dessert or a cup of coffee. So a total of three courses is usually the basic.
However, there is still more to meal courses than just three, even during the era of single-course meals. Traditionally, there are up to 12 courses in a meal that make an utterly pleasing, and long, dining experience. In the next section, we are going to explore all of those 12 courses, some of which we had already mentioned briefly beforehand.
We will also provide you with a few dish suggestions for each course in case you would like to incorporate them into your next meal. Please note that not all multi-course meals must have those 12 courses, but you can rather think of it as the ultimate structure.
Given that the human stomach has a limit to expansion, it can be hard to imagine that even those with the largest appetite can take 12 courses per meal. Even if they are served separately, they are still consumed in the same course of time occupied by the meal. That is why all of these 12 courses are served in small portions.
1. Hors D’Oeuvre
An hors d’oeuvre—do not try to pronounce it—is literally translated to ‘outside work’. In a food context, hors d’oeuvre refers to the very first course of a multi-course meal. It is typically a small dish that is most commonly served right after the guests arrive on an occasion and before they get seated.
Hors d’oeuvres are usually associated with the dinners people get invited to, such as receptions and cocktail parties, rather than those ordered in a restaurant. On these occasions, there usually is a wait between the arrival of the guests and the serving of the food. So, this small, hard-to-pronounce dish is offered to sustain the guests until the food is served.
Since they are served at the very beginning and while guests are still standing, hors d’oeuvres are usually finger foods, easy to eat by hand. They can be served either hot, at room temperature or cold. Some of the very famous hors d’oeuvres include deviled eggs, mini pizza bites, potato bites, finger sandwiches, and Italian bruschetta.
An amuse bouche is the second course and is sometimes considered a type of hors d’oeuvre. Amuse bouche means to amuse the mouth in French, and it serves to fulfil this very purpose. It is not ordered from a menu but rather served free of charge, like a special gift from the chef once the guests are seated.
Amuse bouches are usually smaller than hors d’oeuvres, with only one or two bites. They also give a glimpse of the chef’s styles and the flavours of the upcoming main course.
Some examples of amuse bouches include smoked salmon with cream cheese, pesto scallops and lobster toast.
Next, soup is served. This is usually a flavoured soup, served in small portions and is delicate enough to whet your appetite and get you a little more stimulated and hungry but not full. Soups can be of any type, but they are mostly related to either the main course or the season.
Although they should traditionally precede the main course, it is perfectly fine to consume soups as the main course itself. However, in this very case, soups should be more complex and thick with extra ingredients to provide the fullness a main course should provide.
Gazpacho, cream of brie soup, French onion, butternut squash, carrot and tomato soups are some common examples.
As simple as it can be, a salad served before the main course is a regular combination of fresh raw vegetables with a tasty dressing. Again, it should be lightly served in small portions to stimulate the appetite and not to cause fullness.
A salad can incorporate raw vegetables only or other ingredients as well, such as chicken, beef, salmon, or tuna. Green salad, Caesar salad, lentil salad, and antipasto salad are different examples of salads serving as the fourth course of a complex full-course meal.
The fifth course is the appetiser, which is just another small pre-main-course dish intended to whet guests’ appetite. In Europe, appetisers are often known as entrees since they pave the way for the actual dish. Unlike amuse bouches and hors d’oeuvres, appetisers are ordered from the menu and served after seating. They also kind of give a hint of the main dish that is soon to be served.
Appetisers usually feature small pieces of meat, vegetables, bakery and sauces. They are a little bigger than hor d’oeuvres but still generally small. Meatballs, tortilla pinwheels, roll-ups, spring rolls and egg rolls are famous appetisers typically served with various dipping sauces.
For some reason, the French love to serve fish, not any other seafood, whatever the main course is going to be. Again, this is usually a light seafood dish in small portions. Salmon, Tilapia and Trout are some fish types used to make this course.
7. First Main Course
After what seemed like a long journey, we finally got to the main course, the most important dish of this 12-course meal. This one typically includes poultry, whether chicken, turkey or duck, but not animal-based meat.
There is an enormous variety of poultry main courses. However, they are most commonly stir-fried, roasted or baked. Poultry is often served alone without other things, like potatoes, rice or vegetables.
8. Palate Cleanser
Yet, the meal does not stop here, and there are still five more courses to go!
So, to prevent flavours from overlapping, which can ruin the entire dining experience, a palate cleanser is served in between the main courses—yes, there is another main course—to remove the previous flavours and reset the taste buds for what is coming.
A lemon squeezed in iced water with a little bit of mint is perfect to clean the mouth. Another common palate cleanser is Sorbet, which is a frozen mixture of ice and fruit.
9. Second Main Course
After the guests have reset their taste buds and officially got ready for the second round, the second main course is served.
The second main course could be the highlight of this 12-course meal. It typically features red meat, either beef or lamb, cooked very sophisticatedly and served with other items but still in small portions.
The tenth course is basically a platter featuring small pieces of cheese with different flavours and textures. They can be soft or firm, fresh or aged.
Cheese is also served with accompaniments to eat it with, such as bread or crackers.
A few hours must have passed, and the guests have probably gotten full by this stage after all these savoury courses. But we all know that no matter how much we eat, there is always room for dessert.
A sweet, indulgent dessert is usually served after the cheese, often with a drink such as tea or coffee, to complete the heaviness of the entire meal.
Last but not least, mignardise is served.
Like the beginning, this 12-course meal is concluded with a bite-sized dessert called mignardise that is different from the one served earlier. It could be small pieces of chocolate, miniature cakes, biscuits or macarons. Mignardise is also served with coffee or an alcoholic drink as a light way to bring this prolonged yet surely royal meal to an end.
For a long period of time, multi-course meals were the way to truly indulge in a meal. Although such a structure has retreated a lot recently, following at least a four-course meal from time to time can offer a break from the accelerated lifestyle we are living and provide an ultimately pleasing dining experience.