Not for nothing is France known as a center of culinary excellence, and a tour through this European country will open your mind and palate up to a veritable wealth of food dishes and alternative cuisines.
Famous French dishes
France is a little like Italy in that it offers a diverse range of cuisines depending upon which region you are in. Many of the classic French dishes that have been exported around the world are actually based upon one-pot peasant dishes, such as Boeuf Bourguigon, which is essentially a beef stew with red wine, and Coq au Vin, a chicken casserole, again with wine as a major ingredient. Various regions are famous for using certain ingredients. For example, Brittany uses seafood for many of its dishes, while Provence is famous for producing almost Mediterranean-style dishes due to the abundance of herbs and vegetables such as olives, tomatoes, red peppers and lemons in this region. The south-west of France is renowned for its dishes of duck, such as Cassoulet, while Alsace and the surrounding areas feature pork quite heavily.
Famous French chefs
France has been a producer of some of the world’s most revered chefs, most notably during the 18th and 19th century when the aristocracy ruled France with great decadence, demanding incredible and fantastical dishes for their dining tables.
Possibly the most famous French chef of all was Georges Auguste Escoffier, who made gourmet cooking an art form. Many French chefs of today, including the famous Roux family, cite Escoffier as their inspiration, and many of the world’s finest dining establishments base their dishes on his original recipes.
A typical French diet
First, it is fair to say there is no such thing as a typical French diet; as already explained, these differ from region to region. However, just as in any country, there are always food staples, and for the French, this means bread, cheese, and wine. Once a nation who shopped at the market and specialist shops for their fare, the supermarket is rapidly becoming the way for French people to do their food shopping; many, however, will still pay a daily visit to their baker to pick up the freshest baguettes for their breakfast tables. The French are also famous for their pastries, most notably the croissant.
Of course, there are some dishes that you can have in France that you are unlikely to get anywhere else. These include escargot, the humble snail, and in France these are usually cooked in a garlic butter sauce with chicken stock and wine; frog legs, usually deep-fried and tasting, so many people claim, as a cross between fish and chicken; and lastly, horse meat, which though not eaten quite so often as it once was in France, is still quite popular and often likened to beef or venison.
As befits a capital city, Paris does indeed have some of the most gastronomically delightful restaurants you will find in Europe, perhaps in the world. You can combine sightseeing and a fantastic bird’s-eye view of Paris at Le Jules Verne, a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower that puts a modern twist on French classics, with a chocolate dessert shaped as a bolt, a homage to the 2.5 million metal bolts that hold the tower together. You can have an altogether modern dining experience at Georges, located at the top of the Centre Pompidou amidst futuristic architecture. It serves up cosmopolitan, brasserie-style food, with one delight being the tigre qui pleure, a sliced steak flavored with Thai spices. Close to the Elysee Palace and a particular favorite with French politicians and people in power is Laurent. This not only has an indoor dining space but an outside one too, and serves modern haute cuisine. Special dishes here include spider crab jelly, hake with seaweed and samphire, and a side selection of seasonal vegetables, all matched with a to-die-for wine list. While in Paris, make sure you have the not-so-haute-cuisine fare as well and settle down at a patisserie for a pain au chocolat and a cup of French coffee.
Lyon, in the south-eastern Rhone-Alpes region, has bouchons, casual dining establishments decorated in a motley, rustic style. In these bouchons, the menus rarely vary and may not appeal to all palates, but here you can dine on tete de veau, a poached calf’s head, and tablier de sapeur, crumbed tripe. Lyon’s most famous dish is the quenelle de brochet, a dumpling in the shape of a soccer ball that is served in a shellfish-infused sauce called Nantua.
Brittany is famous for its crepes and practically every village in this region will have their own creperie. The capital of Finistere, Quimper, has the finest of finest creperies, Place au Beurre, and here you will be served crepes with wonderfully spongy centers and tasty, crisp edges. Fillings for these crepes include local cheeses, bacon and mushrooms cooked in cream. Not a great combination for those who are watching their weight, but a real treat for the taste buds.
Provence is a land of abundance, producing rich olive oil, goat cheeses and lavender honey. From here comes ratatouille and soupe au pistou, as well as the very famous bouillabaisse, a fish stew made from leftovers. A very fine bouillabaisse can be found at Chez Gilbert served up with the theatrical pomp of a huge tureen full of the broth at your table and a waiter poised with a ladle to put it into your bowl, while a less expensive version is dished up at La Poissonerie, whose restaurant was once an old fish shop.
Of course, Quebec is not in France, but it is a predominantly French-speaking province in Canada, and therefore, deserves a place in a review of French cuisine. The cuisine of Quebec can be said to be as varied and diverse as Quebec itself, with an equal balance of traditional and contemporary fare. Perhaps Quebec is famous most of all for its meat pies, known as tourtieres, and one pot dishes of beans and ham, reminiscent of France’s peasant food heritage. Sugar also features highly in French Quebec cuisine with residents’ enjoying a traditional meal of eggs, baked beans and ham covered in maple syrup.
People in Quebec can experience some of the finest French-inspired food by visiting Le Paris-Brest, nicknamed the ‘best restaurant on Grand-allée’. Here, you can dine on French onion soup and brie gratin, while at L’Échaudé, you will be seated in a grand, mirrored dining room and treated to their special dish, cuisse de canard confit with frites and salad. If you are staying in Quebec City, why not try the Hotel Clarendon, situated in the heart of Old Quebec? It is the oldest working hotel in the city, and being built in 1870, you can really feel the history, outside and in, due to the beautiful architecture. The Hotel Clarendon is home to Le Charles Baillairgé, an elegant and charming restaurant, which takes you back in time to rich woodwork, sparkling chandeliers and delicately designed furniture. Here, the food is nothing short of an art form, with sumptuous dishes on the menu such as a Quebec game terrine, and venison skit steak, mushroom sauce and an oven-grilled mushroom gratin.
Rather than just having one cuisine, France has a broad spectrum of regional dishes to enjoy; it’s essential to experience some of these most famous dishes in their original and charming eateries. Moreover, remember to take your time over your French meals. While many of us rush our breakfasts, lunches and dinners, this is a big no-no in France. Meals in France, dinners especially, are long affairs with the diners taking the time to savor the food and drink before them and thereby enjoying every mouthful.