The scent of freshly baked baguettes wafting down cobbled streets; the feel of a still warm croissant melting in your mouth; the pop of a champagne bottle; the intense smell of cheeses in a fromagerie to the salty tang of just caught oysters.
Food is more than just a passion in France, it is part of their cultural identity. Quality is significantly more important than quantity, and in-season is always number one. Long lunch breaks are standard so that staff have plenty of time to either go home or to a bistro for a proper sit-down meal – do not even consider eating a sandwich at your desk!
From regional dishes with matching wines, to incredible markets with locally grown produce and boulangeries on what feels like every corner, and culinary schools aplenty.
World Intangible Heritage Status
The relationship between the French and their way of combining food with family and friends is so important that in 2010, UNESCO granted it World Intangible Heritage status.
Given the name “the gastronomic meal of the French” (le repas gastronomique), it describes the social practice of celebrating special occasions and important moments over a meal.
There is a process the meal must follow in order to be considered le repas gastronomique… UNESCO list the steps as:
- the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes;
- the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together;
- the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table;
- and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table.
The meal should also follow a specific structure:
- starting with an apéritif (drinks before the meal)
- containing at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert
- ends with liqueurs
Traditionally, there will also be an individual called a ‘gastronome’ who will be there to witness and preserve the memory.
The reason it is so important to follow these rules is that the entire process is steeped in tradition, and it is believed that it strengthens the bonds between family and friends.
Every region has its own traditional cuisine
Each region of France has its own unique local cuisine and wine/beer that it produces. While some may overlap, generally speaking no two are the same.
Along the Atlantic, fresh seafood dishes are the standard – such as Normandy’s moules marinieres (mussels in white wine sauce), in the Alpine region hearty dishes such as Tartiflette rule the menus. Head to Provence at Christmas time to try Navettes, orange blossom biscuits originally from Marseille. Or try the French version of a focaccia – the fougasse.
Of course, the easiest way to sample local delicacies while also learning about them is to take a food tour in which every region you are in. This is perfect for wine tasting as you won’t have to worry about getting between venues, just sit back and enjoy!
Some ideas to inspire you include:
Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC)
The Appellation d’origine contrôlée is a label given to specific products to show the “controlled designation of origin” and is incredibly important to protect the quality of the products – and to show you they are legitimate.
In France the AOC is granted to certain products to show their geographical locations. From cheese, wine, meats, butters, cheese and even some produce, this label is critical to prevent copy-cats from creating poor quality products and selling those items under the French label.
An easy example is Champagne. Only sparkling wine grown in the exact region of Champagne, France, are allowed to be called Champagne. It does not matter if the wine is made with the same grapes, in the same methods, if the grapes were not grown there and the process did not occur there – the sparkling wine cannot be called Champagne. This protects the producers and ensures a high-quality product for consumers.
It is the same with Roquefort cheese, Poulet de Bresse (poultry from Bresse), Printemps honey from Corsica, Armagnac, Calvados, Cognac and over 300 distinct wines from all over France.
You might notice that most of the regions have wines or cheeses named after them, this happened naturally over the centuries as an easy way to identify products. Not that different to how surnames were originally an indication of the persons trade (i.e. ‘Smith’ for ‘Blacksmith’).
Take a Wander Through Neighbourhood Markets
I absolutely love going to local markets – local markets are found in every town and village across France.
Markets are a staple of French life, and you will find everything you need there from produce, meats, eggs, fish, bread and flowers. Visiting the market is not just an errand that needs to be done, but a social occasion where customers discuss with the vendors what they plan to make, and the vendors provide the produce that matches… down to the correct level of ripeness?
These markets are also the best place to sample local specialities in just the perfect portion sizes for you. Try socca in Nice, blue cheeses in Auvegne, canistrelli in Corsica, lavender studded biscuits in Provençal just to name a tiny few.
Bonus, if you like to cook or need some healthy snacks for when you are out exploring, you can easily pick them all up here!
I will strongly recommend you try to speak French, even if it is basic. The store holders will appreciate it, and they will be more likely to let you try a sample before you purchase.
Take a cooking class
Whether you are a beginner or an expert, you prefer deserts to savoury or want to pick up some recipes to try at home, there is a cooking class for you in France.
Learn to make croissants in Paris
or spend the day with a chef, including visiting a local market and cooking class before enjoying a delicious lunch?
Or if you if have a sweet tooth, consider a macaron class where you can make 2 different flavours
Follow the Michelin Stars
Michelin Stars are the ultimate accolade a restaurant can be awarded. To be awarded a star means the restaurant is of a particularly high standard, and chefs around the world covet this award.
It is a simple 3-star system – 1 star means a very good restaurant, 2 stars means it is worth the trip, and 3 stars means the cuisine is exceptional and worth a journey.
Great food is found all over France, simply because their love for high quality food demands it, so you will rarely find a place that is not good. But if you are looking to try something truly exceptional, then a Michelin starred restaurant in France is not to be missed.
As of 2020 France alone has 628 Michelin starred restaurants, the highest for a single country in the world. Of that, 513 are one-star restaurants, 86 have two and 29 have the highly coveted three stars.