Regional Specialities: Truly Local Tastes

From the cold, moist north to the hot dry south: understand the origins of some of the finest French specialities...

North and North-west

Lush, fertile Normandy, laced with orchards and grazed by brown and white Normande cows, is the milk churn of France. The region abounds in fine cheeses such as Camembert, Pont-l’Evêque and Livarot, while rich butters and creams infuse the local cuisine. Seafood is another staple: nowhere in France catches more oysters or scallops. Normandy is also the home of brioche.

In Brittany, the diet is similarly guided by fish and seafood. Towns have become famously allied to their catches: oysters in Cancale, crabs in St Malo and lobsters in Camaret. Primeurs (spring vegetables) grow well ahead of globe artichokes and leeks where the soil allows, and cereals are used for crêpes and their buckwheat cousins, gallettes. Saint Paulin and Campénéac, both semi-hard cheeses of monastic origin, are made here too.

Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais are largely overlooked in the gourmand’s France, yet both harbour some worthy local fare. Cuisine from the Nord takes its lead from vegetables and fish. In Picardy, highly prized pré salé lamb is reared on the salt marshes of the Somme Estuary for a distinct flavour, while the region’s opulent summer fruits are used to make sorbets.

Three AOC foods from the North-west:

  1. Carrots from Creances (Normandy)
  2. Coco de Paimpol – white haricot beans (Brittany)
  3. Oysters from Belon (Brittany)

North-east

In Alsace, with its strong Germanic flavour, cuisine reaches furthest from the French norm. This divergence hasn’t stopped the recent rise in popularity of the region’s robust food across France. The fertile landscape is regal veg territory and, in the plains around Strasbourg, the white cabbage is king. Cured pork and sausage are also fundamental to the diet – charcuteries sell some 200 local specialities – while the pungent rind-washed Munster Fermier is the AOC cheese of choice. Forests yield fruits and berries that end up in breads and tarts.

In the wilds of Lorraine and the Ardennes the woodland serves up wild boar, venison and mushrooms, while carp, pike and trout are all caught in the rivers and lakes. Pork here comes in many forms, from pâté to suckling pig, salt cured belly pork to saucisson, but the most famous remains the dry salted, air cured jambon d’Ardennes.

Paris and Île de France

Paris, despite what people from Lyon may tell you, is the gastronomic mecca of France. Although the city doesn’t retain a definable menu of its own, it soaks up produce and culinary expertise from across the country, bringing together a wealth of excellent markets, delis, bistros and restaurants. Migrants have also brought Paris the flavours of world cuisine (especially North African and Vietnamese) – tastes that are gradually spreading out to the rest of the country. The capital’s hinterland clings to its shrinking agricultural backcloth. Market gardens and orchards support fruit and vegetables, and the celebrated likes of Montmorency cherries and white Argenteuil asparagus still grow in the region, even if the towns that gave them a name have been largely swallowed by the suburbs of northern Paris. Salad vegetables provide the principle crop of the Île’s main agricultural area, Seine-et-Marne, to the east of the city. Here too, the ancient province of Brie continues to make its famous cheese.

Centre and East

The realities of rural life in the Massif Central emerge in the Auvergne’s unpretentious cuisine. One-pot cooking blends humble ingredients like cabbage, green lentils, potatoes, bacon and game into hearty stews. Cured meats and smoked and blood sausages are local specialities. While terroir is similarly pivotal to Burgundy’s famous cuisine, recipes here enjoy the subtleties of wine, mustard and cream. The strong Burgundian cheese, Epoisses de Bourgogne, washed in the marc de Bourgogne spirit, is eternally popular, and the region is also home to that national treasure, coq au vin.

In Lyon, French produce reaches its apex. Myriad eastern elements – from Charolais beef to Bresse chicken and, above all, charcuterie – collide and the city takes full creative advantage to stake its claim as the nation’s gastronomic HQ. In Franche- Comté and the Savoyard and Dauphiné Alps, the upland herds produce some of the country’s finest cheeses and cured meats.

Three AOC foods from the Centre and East:

  1. Poulet de Bresse - chicken (Lyon, Burgundy and Jura)
  2. Lentille verte du Puy - green lentils (Auvergne)
  3. Noix de Grenoble - walnuts (Alps)

Three great upland cheese dishes:

  1. Raclette (Franche-Comté and Savoy): Traditionally, the Raclette cheese is melted in front of the fire (most people now use a Raclette machine) and then smeared over boiled potatoes, onions and gherkins. It’s that easy.
  2. Fondue Savoyarde (Savoy): A warm mixture of Beaufort, Comté and Gruyère cheeses cooked with white wine. Simply douse your hunk of bread in the bubbling pot and enjoy.
  3. Tourte au Reblochon (Savoy) A round Reblochon cheese baked in a pastry crust. Reblochon was first made when 14th century farmers cheated the milk tax inspectors by not fully milking their cows. The second, secretive milking turned out to produce great creamy cheese.

West

French cooking took shape in the Loire’s royally connected kitchens and tradition has it that you still find the nation’s purest palate amid the region’s fertile landscape. In Anjou and Touraine the Loire Valley’s protective climate is perfect for apples and pears, and the sandy soil ideal for asparagus. Perch, shad, zander, pike and salmon are all served fresh from the region’s rivers, often bathed in a beurre blanc(wine, butter and shallots) or simple sorrel sauce. The Loire’s legendary goat’s cheeses include Crottin de Chavignol. On the coast, the peninsula of Guérande offers up a rich harvest of sea salt. Further south, the Dordogne dribbles foodie class. Pigs (or more likely dogs these days) snout for elusive black truffes and duck and geese livers are fattened for foie gras and confit. Duck and goose fat flavours everything, from soups to sautéed vegetables. Autumn brings the region a rich walnut harvest. Foie gras, confit, cèpes mushrooms and truffles spread into the Bordelais where the warm Garonne valley also supports plums, peaches and pears. Shellfish flourish on the coast west of Bordeaux, as they do along much of the Atlantic seaboard.

Three AOC foods from the West:

  1. Walnuts from Périgord
  2. Butter from Poitou- Charentes
  3. Selles-sur-Cher – Loire goat’s milk cheese dusted with ash

South

French cuisine finds its bite in the country’s southwestern corner. Petulant red chillies are an essential ingredient in Les Pays Basque, used to flavour everything from jambon de Bayonne to ttoro, an Atlantic answer to bouillabaisse. Across the Pyrenees, the scrubby, sun drenched lands around the Mediterranean support a colourful crop. Provence, with its tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, olives and figs, enjoys a southern European diet. Traditional peasant soups and stews, often fish-based, are flavoured with the region’s bountiful wild herbs. Pieds et paquets is famously Provençal: lambs’ ‘feet’ and tripe ‘packets’ slowly cooked with garlic, wine and cured pork. Languedoc, similarly blessed with fresh produce, reputedly cultivates the best garlic in France, while neighbouring Roussillon digests paella in accordance with its Catalan spirit. In Corsica, rosemary, lavender, fennel and thyme, sourced in the island’s wild maquis undergrowth, blend with tomatoes, olives and lemons to flavour mountain-reared mutton, pork and beef.

Three AOC foods from the South:

  1. Olives from Nyons (Provence)
  2. Chasselas de Moissac table grapes (Midi-Pyrenees)
  3. Piment d’Espelette chillies (Les Pays Basque)

Three southern stews:

  1. Cassoulet: Languedoc’s humble stew has become a French legend. Soaked haricot beans are cooked with wine, garlic, tomatoes, onions, herbs and pork (duck if your luck’s in), and then topped with breadcrumbs. Three inland towns – Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary – all claim the superior version.
  2. Stufatu: In Corsica, the traditional peasant’s casserole contains beef, mutton or wild boar, languidly cooked in wine and tomatoes to create a thick sauce. As befits Corsica’s Italian ancestry, Stufatu is often served with pasta or polenta.
  3. Bouillabaisse: Another national icon born of humble origins, the soupy Provençal stew originated among Marseilles’ fishermen who would throw the small, unsellable characters of the catch into the cooking pot. Garlic, tomatoes and saffron usually find their way into the stock, served with bread and a chilli mayonnaise called rouille.
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