Staple Diet: Bread, Charcuterie and Cheese

Bread, meat and cheese make up the basis of French food throughout the country...

Bread

Consumed with virtually every meal, bread is integral to the French eating ritual. Freshness is calculated in hours not days, and most boulangers will bake at least twice a day to ensure both lunch and dinner are accompanied by fresh bread. The French like their bread crusty: the baguette was an innovation designed to get more crust from your loaf. Although bread consumption fell steadily in France during the 20th century (the French eat one fifth of the bread they did in 1900), the modern taste for produits du terroirs has seen baking traditions regain ground in the last decade. In bakeries across the country the humble baguette, its even slimmer cousin, the ficelle, and the fatter pain increasingly share shelf space with crusty and chewy pain de campagne, rye breads and others made with nuts, wine, olives or meat.

Bread Etiquette:

  • Don’t nibble at your bread before the first course has arrived
  • Use your fingers to break the bread – don’t cut it with a knife
  • It is okay to mop your plate with the bread
  • Don’t ask for butter to spread on your bread – the French rarely do
  • You’re unlikely to get a separate plate for bread – put it on the table.

Charcuterie

In France, the traditional necessity of preserving meat bred such creativity that it seems harsh to describe charcuterie as a mere staple foodstuff. Sausages, tripe, pâtés, blood puddings, cured hams, terrines, rillettes: charcuterie encompasses all manner of meat products, straying well beyond the traditional pork boundaries to embrace everything from goose to wild boar, veal to chicken. Charcuterie, like all French food, is a patchwork of regional tastes, a mélange from which a few choice cuts have emerged as nationwide favourites. And, in common with all traditional French produce, charcuterie is also enjoying something of a renaissance, from the boudin blanc (a pork or chicken sausage) of the north to the jambon de Bayonne (salted, air-cured ham) in the south-west.

Best of the wurst: unusual charcuterie

  • Jésus: air cured saucisson sec from Lyon supposed to resemble the swaddled baby Jesus
  • Fromage de Tete: take a pig’s head, strip off the meat and set it in a thick, flavoured aspic to make a popular brawn
  • Crépine: white, lacily veined fat encasing a pig’s stomach, removed and often wrapped around sausagemeat.

Cheese

At first glance cheese seems emblematic of the nation, but in truth it’s a food defined by local variation. When de Gaulle grumbled about governing a country with 246 different cheeses, he alluded to the trials of presiding over the different regions and the French themselves. The parallel is apt: mass production and regulation attempt to harness the spirit of great French cheese, yet consumers retain most affection for the rule breakers, for the unpasteurized (lait crufermier cheeses so important in the prevailing taste for terroir.

Today, around 500 variations of cheese are produced in France, from the cooked and pressed Beaufort of Savoie, to the soft and creamy Gris de Lille, rind-washed for three months. Factory-made cheeses are exported around the globe; others (most will tell you the best) are produced on family run farms, in monasteries or even mountainside huts, and sold on local markets. Certain varieties of cheese can fall within more than one of these categories. For instance, the anodyne factory Brie has its cottage industry cousin.

Getting it right: five slices of cheese etiquette

  • Going back for seconds of cheese is very poor form: it’s about taste, not quantity
  • When the cheese tray comes round, only sample up to three different cheeses
  • The biggest faux pas of the lot is to cut the nose off a soft cheese. Cut slices from the rind of the cheese to the centre, as if carving up a pie
  • Use wine to clean the palate between cheeses
  • Don’t remove the rind from a cheese before serving; connoisseurs won’t be impressed.
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