La bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur – Auguste Escoffier
Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness.
Nothing can describe the French love for good food better than this quote by Auguste Escoffier, the indisputable “the King of chefs and the chef of Kings”. The French have perfected the art of fine dining as no one else – that food is a sensory experience, one that should be relished at a leisurely pace. That is why lunch and dinner in France are unhurried affairs, taking as much as two hours even on weekdays – a concept you cannot hope to digest unless you are a foodie.
Speaking of which, the French were “gourmets” way before the word ‘foodie’ was even coined. Let’s explore French cuisine, its contribution to the world, the local cultures that make French food so divine, and a small guide on France’s best local dishes.
French cuisine – a brief history
Did you know that the word “cuisine” is French? Yes, ‘cuisine’ is the French word for “kitchen”. France has always been the spearhead of excellent food, new cooking techniques, and the art of presentation. Since the medieval period, when French food started evolving, the emphasis has always been on fresh produce – fresh meat, seasonal fruits and vegetables, plenty of spices, and locally sourced seafood, were combined using novel cooking techniques to make meals fit for kings.
If you’ve read Asterix comics as a child, you will remember huge French banquets with people sitting around enormous tables in a community gathering, eating plenty of meat and wine. Cereals and fresh vegetables were also a part of the table, with stews being a part of the celebration. Animal sacrifices were common as offerings to God and were later feasted on by druids.
La Viandier is among the first cookbooks of haute cuisine, written by the most popular French chef of that period, Taillevent. The book offers a detailed insight into French cooking styles, the spices and meat used, their sauce preparations, and how the food was to be presented attractively to make it appetizing to the eye before it reached other senses. Apart from chefs, the ruling monarch was also interested in food; King Louis XIV made sure his guests were served with silverware and it was he who introduced courses such as starters, main course and desserts.
The French revolution led to a revolution in the restaurant scene too. With the abolition of the guild system that had previously restricted entry of people into the field of cooking, new restaurants sprang up throughout France. Auguste Escoffier is credited with introducing modern haute cuisine in the 20th century. He established order in the art of cooking and pioneered novel techniques in his kitchen.
France’s contribution to the world food scene
Since the time fine dining became a part of its history, France has always been at the forefront of the international food scene. The word “restaurant” itself has French origins – it means ‘to restore with food’. Braising, poaching, broiling, confit, sauteing, preparing a marinade, flambéing, sous vide – these are but just a few techniques from French gastronomy that have been adopted all over the world. While these seem just a part of our daily routine now, such techniques were revolutionary when they were first introduced.
From arranging the kitchen before starting the cooking process (mise en place) to cuts of vegetables such as juliennes to using the right cooking vessels, French cooking techniques are so specific that it’s almost a science. French colonies across the world have adapted to the cuisine with their influences to create completely new and delicious dishes. France’s culture of bringing people together for a meal to enjoy delicious food and drink has even earned it a place in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Here is a round-up of regional specialities of France to relish when you travel there.
Start your French food journey at Lyon, for this charming city is considered the food capital of France. The city’s prime location near places like Savoy, Charolais, the Rhone Valley, Dhombes and Drome ensure a steady supply of super-fresh ingredients. The French take pride in buying fresh food from their local market; and the Les Halles de Lyon, Lyon’s mythic indoor food market with an international reputation for offering the very finest gourmet food, is among the best you can find. So, whether you are looking for the country’s best cheese, or wine, or fresh ingredients, you know you’ll find it at Lyon.
When visiting Lyon, go in for authentic culinary experiences that you cannot find elsewhere, even in France. For instance, Lyon has a heavy breakfast tradition called Mâchon – start your meal with pate, proceed to a meat main course with sauce, and end the meal with rich cheese or a glass of Côtes du Rhône wine. Lyon has these quaint family-owned bistros called Bouchon – these again are typical to Lyon and specialize in serving the best of local recipes. Speciality dishes include La Quenelle, a fish in sauce dish that is unique to Lyon, Cervelle de canut (fresh cheese with herbs), Andouillette (pork or veal sausage with wine and seasoning), Le saucisson Lyonnais à cuire (sausage with Lyonaisse sauce), and pink praline tart.
Fancy some ratatouille prepared by human chefs (as opposed to a rat chef in the Disney movie)? Provence is the place you should head to. With its proximity to the Italian border, especially Tuscany- which is also known for its great food, the flavors of Provence are an exquisite blend of Italian and French influences.
If you’re here during summer, don’t miss the Beignets de fleurs de courgettes – courgetti flowers deep-fried in batter and stuffed with cheese. For the main course, the Bouillabaisse made with scorpionfish comes highly recommended. Ratatouille (a stewed vegetable dish using bell peppers and eggplants) is an excellent option for vegetarians, as is the Tian Provencal (an aubergine dish). End the meal with the Tarte Tropézienne – a tart flavored with orange essence, or the Provencal nougat. Savor the richness of spices in the anise-flavoured Pastise, an apéritif typical to this region.
The sight of lush and colorful apple orchards in Normandy should give you an idea of what to expect when you visit Normandy. However, apples are not the only attraction at the dining table. With fresh seafood, exquisite varieties of cheese, and a rich gastronomic culture, the culinary delights of Normandy will keep you locked to the bistros; here, your sightseeing may only be to fill the gap between two meals.
You will see a wide range of apples here – while some are for snacking, others are cooking ingredients, and yet others are used to make cider and Normandy’s famous calvados. Normandy is also famous for its cheese – camembert, Pont l’Evêque, or Livarot. When you’re here, enjoy the Marmite Dieppoise- a delightful combination of every seafood you can think of; the Tripes à la mode de Caen – a beef dish; or the fluffy Omelette à la Mère Poulard- an omelet speciality of Mother Poulard. End your meal with Teurgoule-a rice-based pudding, or of course, a Normandy apple tart.
If fine dining is what you like best, your first stop in France should be Burgundy. Exquisite wines and the finest of cattle ensure the best ingredients for an opulent meal at one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants that occupy a place of pride here.
Slow-cooked beef bourguignon – a stew of beef in red wine and spices, and coq au vin-chicken braised with wine and mushroom, are regional specialities that use the rich red wine special to Burgundy. Escargots (snails) are an essential part of the Burgundy food scene; these are cooked in their shell with butter, garlic and parsley, and served as entrée with fine white wine. Other dishes like the jambon perille, which is a ham dish flavored with parsley, and pachouse – poached fish doused in white wine and cooked with onions and garlic in butter, are other must-eats here.
Of course, when it comes to wine, you will find some of the best wines of the world in Burgundy. The same applies to cheese – don’t miss the white Chaource and the orange Epoisses when you are here. Also recommended is the gougere, a cheese pastry that tastes heavenly with Chablis.
How can we discuss French food without mentioning the epicurean delights offered at the French capital? Apart from typical French cuisine, Paris has a wide range of fusion food with influences from Japanese, African and Mediterranean cuisine to make it even more fascinating for foodies. Yes, the food here can also get incredibly expensive, especially if you prefer fine dining. But, if you’re on a budget, just go with the flow, and enjoy scrumptious street food, which is sure to taste just as good as the fare you get elsewhere, sometimes better.
Eating out in Paris is more of a social experience than just plain dining – enjoy sharing your table with strangers and bond over food with the locals here. The thing about Paris is, no matter where you eat, food tastes good – it may surprise you that even the simplest of Parisian cuisine tastes much better than the same dish back home. Baguettes, for example, taste great in Paris, as do crepes or croissants. When you are in Paris, go for simple delights like the French onion soup, steak with frites, eclairs and duck confit. And of course, macarons – these are gluten-free and melt-in-the-mouth delicious, especially in Paris. An insider secret – taste hot chocolate in Paris, and you may stop drinking it anywhere else in the world because nothing compares to that taste!
Culture and Cuisine in France
When in France, do as the French do, relish your food, savor the wine and cheese, keeping in mind that your holiday is as much about food as it is about the sights or experiences. So, take along your appetite and make the best of it. Bon appétit!