France is famous for producing some of the most sublime food in the world, whether it’s the rarefied delicacies of haute cuisine or the robust, no-nonsense fare served up at country inns. Nevertheless, French cuisine has taken a bit of a knocking in recent years. The wonderful ingredients are still there, as every town and village market testifies, but those little family restaurants serving classic dishes that celebrate the region’s produce – and where the bill is less than €25 – are increasingly hard to find. Don’t be afraid to ask locals for their recommendations; this will usually elicit strong views and sound advice.
In the complex world of haute cuisine, where the top chefs are national celebrities, a battle has long been raging between traditionalists, determined to preserve the purity of French cuisine, and those who experiment with different flavours from around the world. At this level, French food is still brilliant – in both camps – but can be astronomically expensive: at a three-star Michelin restaurant, even the set lunch menu is likely to cost €90, though you might get away with less than half that at a – still very impressive – one-star restaurant.
As for foreign cuisines, North African is perhaps the best bet, but you’ll also find Caribbean (known as Antillais), Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian, though French versions of spicy favourites tend to be more bland than you may be used to.
A croissant or pain au chocolat (a light, chocolate-filled pastry) in a café or bar, with tea, hot chocolate or coffee, is generally the most economical way to eat breakfast, costing from €4. If there are no croissants left, it’s perfectly acceptable to go and buy your own at the nearest bakery or patisserie. The standard hotel breakfast comprises bread and/or pastries, jam and a jug of coffee or tea, and orange juice if you’re lucky, from around €6. More expensive places might offer a breakfast buffet or even hot dishes cooked to order.
The main meal of the day is traditionally eaten at lunchtime, usually between noon and 2pm. Midday, and sometimes in the evening, you’ll find places offering a plat du jour (daily special) for €8.50–13, or formules (or simply menus), limited menus typically offering a main dish and either a starter or a dessert for a set price. Crêpes, or pancakes with fillings, served at ubiquitous crêperies, are popular lunchtime food. The savoury buckwheat variety (galettes) provide the main course; sweet, white-flour crêpes are dessert. Pizzerias, usually au feu du bois (baked in wood-fired ovens), are also very common. They are somewhat better value than crêperies, but quality and quantity vary greatly.
For picnics, the local outdoor market or supermarket will provide you with almost everything you need, from tomatoes and avocados to cheese and pâté. Cooked meat, prepared snacks, ready-made dishes and assorted salads can be bought at charcuteries (delicatessens), which you’ll find even in most small villages, and at supermarket cold-food counters. You purchase by weight, or you can ask for une tranche (a slice), une barquette (a carton) or une part (a portion) as appropriate.
Outside tourist areas the opportunities for snacking on the run are not always as plentiful or obvious in France as in Britain or North America; the local boulangerie is often the best bet. Popular snacks include croques-monsieur or croques-madame (variations on the toasted cheese-and-ham sandwich) – on sale at cafés, brasseries and many street stands – along with frites (fries), crêpes, galettes, gauffres (waffles), glaces (ice creams) and all kinds of fresh-filled baguettes (which usually cost between €3 and €7 to take away). For variety, in bigger towns you can find Tunisian snacks like brick à l’œuf (a fried pastry with an egg inside), merguez (spicy North African sausage) and Middle Eastern falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls served in flat bread with salad). Wine bars are good for regional sausages and cheese, usually served with brown bread (pain de campagne).
French cooking is as varied as its landscape, and differs vastly from region to region. In Provence, in close proximity to Italy, local dishes make heavy use of olive oils, garlic and tomatoes, as well as Mediterranean vegetables such as aubergines (eggplant) and peppers. In keeping with its close distance to the sea, the region’s most famous dish is bouillabaisse, a delicious fish stew from Marseille. To the southwest, in Languedoc and Pays Basque, hearty cassoulet stews and heavier meals are in order, with certain similarities to Spanish cuisine. Alsace, in the northeast, shows Germanic influences in dishes such as choucroute (sauerkraut), and a hearty array of sausages. Burgundy, famous for its wines, is the home of what many people consider classic French dishes such as coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. In the northwest, Normandy and Brittany are about the best places you could head for seafood, as well as for sweet and savoury crêpes and galettes. Finally, if you’re in the Dordogne, be sure to sample its famous foie gras or pricey truffles (truffes).
For more on which regional dishes to try, see the boxes at the start of each chapter.
On the whole, vegetarians can expect a somewhat lean time in France. Most cities now have at least one specifically vegetarian restaurant, but elsewhere your best bet may be a crêperie, pizzeria or North African restaurant. Otherwise you may have to fall back on an omelette, salad or crudités (raw vegetables) in an ordinary restaurant. Sometimes restaurants are willing to replace a meat dish on the fixed-price menu (menu fixe); at other times you’ll have to pick your way through the carte. Remember the phrase Je suis végétarien(ne); est-ce qu’il y a quelques plats sans viande? (“I’m a vegetarian; are there any non-meat dishes?”). Vegans, however, should probably stick to self-catering.
In France, drinking is done at a leisurely pace whether it’s a prelude to food (apéritif) or a sequel (digestif), and café-bars are the standard places to do it. By law the full price list, including service charges, must be clearly displayed. You normally pay when you leave, and it’s perfectly acceptable to sit for hours over just one cup of coffee, though in this case a small tip will be appreciated.
French wines, drunk at just about every meal and social occasion, are unrivalled in the world for their range, sophistication, diversity and status. With the exception of the northwest of the country and the mountains, wine is produced almost everywhere. Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux are the most famous wine-producing regions, closely followed by the Loire and Rhône valleys and the Languedoc region.
Choosing wine is an extremely complex business and it’s hard not to feel intimidated by the seemingly innate expertise of all French people. Many appellations are mentioned in the text, but trusting your own taste is the best way to go. The more interest you show, the more helpful advice you’re likely to receive.
The best way of buying wine is directly from the producers (vignerons) at their vineyards or at Maisons or Syndicats du Vin (representing a group of wine-producers), or Coopératifs Vinicoles (producers’ co-ops). At all these places you can usually sample the wines first. It’s best to make clear at the start how much you want to buy (particularly if it’s only one or two bottles) and you’ll not be popular if you drink several glasses and then fail to make a purchase. The most economical option is to buy en vrac, which you can do at some wine shops (caves), filling an easily obtainable plastic five- or ten-litre container (usually sold on the premises) straight from the barrel. Supermarkets often have good bargains, too.
The basic wine terms are: brut, very dry; sec, dry; demi-sec, sweet; doux, very sweet; mousseux, sparkling; méthode champenoise, mature and sparkling.
Familiar light Belgian and German brands, plus French brands from Alsace, account for most of the beer you’ll find. Draught beer (à la pression) – very often Kronenbourg – is the cheapest drink you can have next to coffee and wine; un pression or un demi (0.33 litre) will cost around €3. For a wider choice of draught and bottled beer you need to go to the special beer-drinking establishments such as the English- and Irish-style pubs found in larger towns and cities. A small bottle at one of these places can set you back double what you’d pay in an ordinary café-bar. Buying bottled or canned bear in supermarkets is, of course, much cheaper.
Spirits, such as cognac and armagnac, and liqueurs are consumed at any time of day, though in far smaller quantities these days thanks to the clampdown on drink-driving. Pastis – the generic name of aniseed drinks such as Pernod and Ricard – is served diluted with water and ice (glace or glaçons). It’s very refreshing and not expensive. Among less familiar names, try Poire William (a pear-flavoured eau de vie) or Marc (a spirit distilled from grape pulp). Measures are generous, but they don’t come cheap: the same applies for imported spirits like whisky (Scotch). Two drinks designed to stimulate the appetite – un apéritif – are pineau (cognac and grape juice) and kir (white wine with a dash of Cassis – blackcurrant liqueur – or with champagne instead of wine for a Kir Royal). Cognac, armagnac and Chartreuse are among the many aids to digestion – un digestif – to relax over after a meal. Cocktails are served at most late-night bars, discos and clubs, as well as upmarket hotel bars and at every seaside promenade café; they usually cost upwards of €8.
You can buy cartons of unsweetened fruit juice in supermarkets, although in cafés the bottled (sweetened) nectars such as apricot (jus d’abricot) and blackcurrant (cassis) still hold sway. Fresh orange (jus d’orange) or lemon juice (citron pressé) is much more refreshing – for the latter, the juice is served in the bottom of a long ice-filled glass, with a jug of water and a sugar bowl to sweeten it to your taste. Other soft drinks to try are syrups (sirops) – mint or grenadine, for example, mixed with water. The standard fizzy drinks of lemonade (limonade), Coke (coca) and so forth are all available, and there’s also no shortage of bottled mineral water (eau minérale) or spring water (eau de source) – whether sparkling (gazeuse) or still (plate) – from the big brand names to the most obscure spa product. But there’s not much wrong with the tap water (l’eau de robinet), which will usually be brought free to your table if you ask for it. The only time you shouldn’t drink the tap water is if the tap is labelled eau non potable.
Coffee is invariably espresso – small, black and very strong. Un café or un express is the regular; un crème is with milk; un grand café or un grand crème are large versions. Un déca is decaffeinated, now widely available. Ordinary tea (thé) – Lipton’s, nine times out of ten – is normally served black (nature) or with a slice of lemon (limon); to have milk with it, ask for un peu de lait frais (some fresh milk). Chocolat chaud – hot chocolate – unlike tea, lives up to the high standards of French food and drink and is very commons in cafés and bars. After meals, herb teas (infusions or tisanes), offered by most restaurants, can be soothing. The more common ones are verveine (verbena), tilleul (lime blossom), menthe (mint) and camomille (camomile).
Charles de Gaulle famously commented “How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?” For serious cheese-lovers, France is the ultimate paradise. Other countries may produce individual cheeses which are as good as, or even better than, the best of the French, but no country offers a range that comes anywhere near them in terms of sheer inventiveness. In fact, there are officially over 350 types of French cheese, and the methods used to make them are jealously guarded secrets. Many cheese-makers have successfully protected their products by gaining the right to label their produce AOP (appellation d’origine protégée), covered by laws similar to those for wines, which – among other things – controls the amount of cheese that a particular area can produce. As a result, the subtle differences between French local cheeses have not been overwhelmed by the industrialized uniformity that has plagued other countries.
The best, or most traditional, restaurants offer a well-stocked plateau de fromages (cheeseboard), served at room temperature with bread, but not butter. Apart from the ubiquitous Brie, Camembert and numerous varieties of goat’s cheese (chèvre), there will usually be one or two local cheeses on offer – these are the ones to go for. If you want to buy cheese, local markets are always the best bet, while in larger towns you’ll generally find a fromagerie, a shop with dozens of varieties to choose from. We’ve indicated the best regional cheeses throughout the book.
The most obvious guide to the quality of wine is its classification. It can be quite tricky to get your head around, especially if like most people you find enjoyment in simply drinking the wine. In 2012 the system used to classify French wines changed and made it easier for growers to provide information on vintage and grape variety.
At the lowest level is now vin de France, suitable for everyday drinking, replacing the old vin de table. Then there’s Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP), a new intermediate category indicating quaffable fare. IGP replaces the old Vin de Pays category. The highest category; AOP – appellation d’origine protégée, takes the place of the old AOC classification. Within this category a number of exceptional wines qualify for the superior labels of Premier Cru or Grand Cru.
Within each wine region there’s enormous diversity, with differences generated by the type of grape grown (there are over sixty varieties), the individual skill of the vigneron (producer) and something the French refer to as terroir, an almost untranslatable term meaning the combination of soil, lie of the land and climate.
Burgundy’s luscious reds and crisp white wines can be truly sublime. The best wines come from the Côte de Nuits, which produces Burgundy’s headiest reds, made from the richly fruity Pinot Noir grape, and the Côte de Beaune, which yields the region’s great white burgundy, made from the buttery Chardonnay grape. To the south, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais also produce good-quality whites, while further south still the Beaujolais region is famous for its light, fruity reds. Out on its own, further north, is the Chablis region, known for its wonderfully fresh, flinty whites.
The Bordeaux wine-producing region, three times the size of Burgundy, produces a huge quantity of very fine, medium-bodied reds, delicious sweet whites, notably Sauternes, and dry whites of varying quality. The best-known area is the Médoc, known for its long-lived, rich reds, including such legendary names as Margaux and Lafitte, which are made from a blend of wines, chiefly the blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon. Graves produces the best of the area’s dry white wines, while St-Emilion, where the Merlot grape thrives, yields warmer, fruitier wines.
Champagne’s status as the luxury celebration drink goes back to a time when it was used to anoint French kings, and at its best is an extraordinarily complex and rich sparkling wine. This far north – Champagne is just an hour from Paris – where good weather cannot be relied on year in year out, the only way to achieve consistent quality is by blending the produce of different vineyards and vintages. The leading Champagne houses, known as maisons, such as Bollinger and Moët et Chandon, blend up to sixty different wines and allow them to age for some years before selling. Needless to say, they produce the best and most expensive champagnes; those of smaller growers are more variable in quality.
The Loire’s wines tend to be rather overlooked, probably because their hallmark is subtlety and elegance rather than intensity and punch. Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant white grape variety, as manifested in the dry, fragrant Sancerre and the smoky Pouilly-Fumé, arguably the region’s finest whites. Steely Muscadet, made from the hardy Melon de Bourgogne grape, is not to everyone’s taste, but the best (try Sèvre-et-Maine) make a great accompaniment to seafood. The region’s top reds include the light, aromatic Chinon and Bourgueil.
The Rhône is best known for its warm, flavoursome reds such as the blackberry-scented Hermitages, the peppery Gigondas and most famously of all the rich, spicy Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The Languedoc is one of the largest vine-growing regions in the world, although the emphasis in recent years has been moving towards quality over quantity. There are so many different grape varieties grown here that the vineyards are often described as a “patchwork”, and consequently many producers here make creative blends rather than single variety wines. Look out for the heady, full-bodied reds from Faugères, Fitou and Collioure, or pick up a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux, the region’s economical answer to Champagne.
Top Image: Wines © Africa Studio / Shutterstock