Foods of France

Find out about the regional specialities, from bouillabaisse and cassoulet in the south to galettes and jambon d'Ardennes in the north...

It is perhaps misleading to talk about a national cuisine when, like much of French life, produce and cooking are subject to extensive regional variation. True, certain staple dishes appear on most menus (cassouletbouillabaisse etc), but local landscape and climate still determine many of the dishes served up in restaurants and homes. For instance, in Brittany the sea yields clams, perfect topped with shallots, parsley, butter and breadcrumbs (praires farcies); while in Burgundy, the famous vineyards attract luckless snails, to be simmered in wine and then bathed in garlic and parsley butter (escargots à la Bourguignonne).

Attitudes to food have changed in the last 20 years. Fewer people now linger over the two-hour lunch, a reduced share of income goes on food and the diet tends to be less calorific than of old. Such are the pressures of modern life. Some cite new eating habits as indicative of the French battle between modernity and tradition. Yet the passion remains and French cooking continues to evolve. The late 20th century fad for nouvelle cuisine has abated, but its taste for innovation and for fine fresh produce is increasingly applied to the traditions of country cooking (cuisine du terroir), now back in fashion. Supermarkets have latched on to the rediscovered taste for seasonal, small-scale food production. Of course, on local market stalls and in the small town charcuterie or boulangerie the trend never went away.

What is Terroir?

The word may have ancient connotations but terroir is a fashionable, if hard to quantify, facet of modern French cuisine. The term embraces land, climate, culture and produce, an intangible catch-all for that sense of place so important to the regions’ food and wine. So, that wild boar stew from just south of Orléans only tastes as good as it does because the ingredients flourished in the physical and climatic conditions unique to the Sologne forest. More traditionally, the term terroir has been applied to wine, used to describe the unique combination of soil, climate and topography that generates a particular vintage.

AOC Standards

One downside of having so much great food is that everyone else tries to rip if off. In an effort to safeguard regional produce from pale imitation, the French government devised the complex Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Any food bearing the AOC standard will have been traditionally made with ingredients drawn from a specific area and will conform to set standards. Only such produce can bear the name of its locale. Butter from Poitou-Charentes, walnuts from Grenoble and mussels from the bay at Mont St-Michel all wear the AOC badge with pride. As with terroir, the use of standards like the AOC has lapped over from the world of French wine.

Five Key Dates of French Food

  1. 1533: Italian aristo Catherine de Medici marries into French royalty and, under her guidance, the Court gets passionate about its food for the first time.
  2. 1691: François Massialot reveals the recipes of Louis XIV’s kitchen in Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois, effectively launching haute cuisine.
  3. 1765: When Parisian soup maker Monsieur Boulanger offers customers at his tavern a choice of dishes, the world gets its first restaurant.
  4. 1902: Auguste Escoffier pens La Grande Culinaire; 500 recipes of the rich, sauce-based cooking that would dominate 20th century French cuisine.
  5. 1969: Food critics Millau, Gault and Gayot identify 48 chefs creating lighter food focused on fresh produce, recognizing nouvelle cuisine for the first time.
Extract from Speak the Culture France, a Thorogood publication, recommended by the Institut Français Speak the Culture series website Buy online Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing