French Food & Recipes
France is internationally recognized for its exceptional cuisine and famous chefs. But France did not earn this recognition overnight.
Food historians credit the ancient Romans for initially bringing cooking to the level of an art form. But the pre-Renaissance food of France was heavy and highly spiced. Ironically, it was Italian-born Catherine de Medici, whose arrival in France in 1533 was pivotal in the development of France's culinary arts. De Medici and her cooking staff introduced delicacies previously unknown to the French, as well as strict etiquette policies. Her presence in France not only elevated the civilized dining experience, but also influenced the future of French cuisine.
In the 1600's, chef Francois de La Varenne made great strides in the development of French cooking. He created sauces that would later become the basis of haute cuisine. Haute cuisine is precise, skilled artistry, as opposed to cuisine bourgeois which, loosely translated, is home cooking.
In the early 1800's, Marie Antoine Careme set the standards for classic French cooking with a 5-volume publication. Georges Auguste Escoffier later modernized and perfected Careme's work. He created thousands of recipes, and helped publicize French cuisine. Both Varenne and Escoffier have prestigious cooking schools named after them: La Varenne in Burgundy (directed by Anne Willan), and the Ritz-Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Francaise in Paris.
In modern times, American Julia Child is distinguished not only as a chef and cookbook author, but also for her passion and respect for French cuisine. She was the host of a television cooking show, "The French Chef", in the early 60's. Through this relatively new medium, Julia Child revealed the skill and glamour of classic French cuisine to the rest of the world.
The country of France, although slightly smaller than the state of Texas, has been described as having as many as 30 diverse food regions! This is partially the result of geographical diversification. To fully appreciate the differences between some of France's major food regions, it is best to look at a map of Europe.
To the southeast of France lies Italy, which has strong ties to Provencal cuisine. Basque cooking results from the wonderful fusion of French and Spanish cuisines to the southwest. Belgium influences are particularly evident in the northern regions of France. In the northeast, Alsacian food prevails, with obvious German influences. The French countryside that borders Switzerland in the east is best known for its cheese specialties. And southern French food even reveals north African influences from across the Mediterranean.
The development of France's regional cuisines result also from locally available ingredients. Thus, seafood dishes predominate along France's coastal regions of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. A bounty of fruits and vegetables are harvested in Central France, in the fertile Loire River valley. Meat dishes prevail to the north, where the land provides the best grazing for lamb and sheep. Those infamous truffles have created unique food specialties in southwestern France. And, of course, France's regional cuisines are also uniquely defined by the various wine regions in France, as well as local cognacs, champagne, liqueurs, and cordials.
But to enjoy French cuisine is to eat it. Leave the work to the food historians and indulge, for that is what French food offers — true indulgence!
What to Eat
French cooking is about extremes. From haute cuisine to provincial cuisine. From subtle flavors to bold flavors. From complicated recipes to the most simplistic. And French food is pretty food. Even when the meal is simple, it is elegantly presented.
French cooking has, over the years, become the norm to which we compare other cuisines. This is partly because France's famous culinary schools have made cooking a highly respected profession. But it is also because France is so bountiful. If you want to cook, French cooking has it all.
Few international cuisines compare to the elegant food prepared and served at the countless Michelin-starred restaurants of France. But nothing quite compares to the less familiar home cooking of France — food prepared in the farmhouses and country homes of locals. This is "peasant" food in its purest form — made from native vegetables, fruits, herbs, local cheeses, fresh milk and cream, freshly baked breads. This vast array of high-quality ingredients defines French food.
French cooking is the ultimate in"herby" cooking (as opposed to spicy). From sultry bay leaves to aromatic lavender, herbs further define French cuisine. The list is endless — basil, tarragon, rosemary, fennel, chives, savory, oregano, chervil, thyme, sage, parsley, marjoram, etc.
The French are also experts at using foods to their full potential. A cow is not simply steak and ribs. It is brains, pancreas, kidneys, and much more. A pig, similarly, becomes pigs feet, smoked ham, and saucisson (sausage). Goose parts include the delicacy foie gras (liver) as well as an integral part of cassoulet (multi-meat and bean stew). Forests are foraged for les truffes (truffles), mushrooms, and wild boar. Oceans, lakes, and rivers provide fish, mussels, eel, and shellfish. And there is more — rabbit, frogs legs and snails...
French people consider eating well a necessary part of their birthright. Although eating habits have changed over the last couple decades, primarily as the result of the introduction of fast food, the French way of eating remains steadfast.
Meals are an important part of French leisure activity. Meals are more about culture and tradition than simply food or drink. They are about relaxing, good conversation, friends, and family.
Breakfasts are small — often une baguette (long, skinny French bread) or croissant (flaky horn-shaped pastry) with butter and jam, accompanied by cafe au lait (coffee with milk).
The leisurely mid-day meal has traditionally been the largest meal. It is typically a family meal that involves multiple courses designed in harmony. It is not about excess or extravagance.
The first course is meant to "whet" the appetite. It is called the hors d'oeuvre (appetizer), although different what what Americans think of as "finger food." It can be sausage, pate, raw vegetables (crudites), soup, or even sardines.
The second or main course (les plats) might be a seafood stew, fried steak, or a tart filled with tomatoes, sausage, and olives — depending, of course, on the region seasonal ingredients. Simple salads of tender greens tossed with oil and vinegar, are served to refresh the palate following the main course, And finally, cheese and fruit to finish.
The evening family meal is smaller, but not necessarily less elaborate. The main course can include fish, roasted chicken, or lamb stew, all served with vegetables. This course can be preceded by complementary soups, salads, or egg dishes. Cheese and fruit follow as well.
In America, the meat course would be considered the meal's focus or entree. However, each course of a French meal commands equal respect . Braised veal, therefore, would not demand any more attention than the fresh watercress salad or a quiche. It is almost as if the French meal is a lovely, harmonious string of side dishes.
Bread always accompanies a meal, and French bread is famous for good reason. It is tasty, hearty, and crusty. Traditional long skinny loaves can be purchased daily from family-run bakeries in all towns.
In French restaurants, dinners tend to be more substantial, and lunches have become lighter and simpler to serve the demands of today's busy diners.
"Prix fixe" (fixed price) menus are common in French restaurants. These are often the best deal, and offer the finest in regional specialties. Dinners tend to be more substantial, and lunches have become lighter and simpler to serve the demands of today's busy diners.
When cheese is served at a restaurant, a wonderful selection of cheese is presented to the diners, who typically eat their selections with a fork. Restaurants commonly offer desserts with their meals instead of fruit. Depending on the season, these can include clafoutis (fruit tart), creme caramel (caramel custard), sorbet, or chocolate mousse.
When food shopping in France, it is advisable to look into local specialities. Shop for breads, charcuterie (delicatessen items), and the numerous varieties of cheese for which France is world known.
Also shop farmer's markets for fresh produce that you can take along on a picnic. Basic picnic items (bread, fruit, cheese, sausage or pate) are inexpensive when purchased at les epiceries (markets) and a French picnic is just as unique and wonderful a French dining experience as a meal in local cafe.
Bifteck au poivre: Steak with pepper sauce
Blanquette de Veau: Veal stew
Bouillabaisse: Fish and shellfish stew -- specialty of Provence
Boeuf Bourgignon: Beef stewed in red wine
Caneton a l'Orange: Roasted duck with orange sauce
Cassoulet: Beans stewed with chicken, sausage, and goose, or any variety meats
Clafoutis aux Cerises: Cherry cake similar to a dense, upside-down cake
Coq au Vin: Chicken cooked in wine
Creme Caramel: Egg custard with caramel sauce (caramelized sugar)
Crepes Suzette: Dessert crepes (thin pancakes) drenched in orange sauce and flamed with cognac and Grand Marnier
Crudites: Variety of fresh, raw vegetable salads
Escargots a la Bourgignonne: Snails in garlic butter
Moules a la Mariniere: Mussels cooked in wine-based broth
Mousse au Chocolat: Rich chocolate dessert made with eggs and cream
Omelette aux fines herbes: Omelet with herbs
Pate: Ground meats seasoned with cognac and herbs and baked firm
Pommes Frites: French-fried potatoes (also called frites)
Potage Creme d"Asperges: Asparagus soup
Poulet Roti: Roast chicken
Quiche a Lorraine: Eggs and cream baked in a pie crust topped with cheese and bacon — specialty of Alsace
Ratatouille: Provencal vegetable dish based primarily on eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes
Ris de veau: Sweetbreads (from veal)
Salade Frisee: Endive salad
Savarin: Molded yeasted cake soaked in rum syrup
Sole Meuniere: Sole baked with butter sauce
Sorbet: Fruit-based ice similar to sherbet
Soufle au Fromage: poofy, baked egg custard with cheese
Soup a l'Oignon: Brothy onion soup topped with bread and cheese
Steak Frites: Fried steak typically served with"french-fried" potatoes
Tarte aux Fraise: Strawberry pie
Tarte a l'Oignon: Onion pie — specialty of Alsace