Regional food of France
I have been travelling to France for nearly 25 years- usually on holiday- to most of the main regions. I so enjoyed all my trips, that I decided to move lock, stock and 2 smoking barrels to start my new life actually living in this great country. I bought a 300 year old house, part of which was the original ramparts of the walled town. I am in heaven- the weather is 38 C as I write this article, the cicadas are screeching outside, and soon I shall walk the 30 yards to the river and swim in mountain water at a temperature of 20 C. Bliss.
Before I can frolic, let me share some stories, myths and information about one of the French’s and also its visitors favourite pass times. Food, glorious food. What is perhaps less widely recognized is that France's reputation for fine food is not so much based on long-held traditions but on constant change. In fact, the general expectation of good eating is a relatively new experience for the French. At the time the Bastille was stormed in 1789, at least 80% of the French population were subsistence farmers, with bread and cereals as the basis of their diet, essentially unchanged since the time of the ancient Gauls nearly two millennia before. In the mid-nineteenth century, following the demise of the aristocracy, food was a conspicuous symbol of social position, swiftly adopted by a new ruling class of bourgeoisie, who recreated the sumptuous meals of the very aristocracy they had once criticized. At the same time, two-thirds of Parisians were either starving or ill-fed, five times more likely to be nourished from vegetable proteins than from any meats or dairy products. The golden age of haute cuisine benefited only those at the very top of the social ladder. It took a world war at the beginning of the twentieth century to halt the gross inequality of wealth at the table, and to bring about a more even distribution of the nation's produce. The advent of improved transportation, especially by train, brought culinary revolution to the regions, and slowly the spreading affluence could put a chicken on every peasant's table. Eventually, tourism fanned the flames of change in France's commercial kitchens, as chefs were obliged to create dishes appealing to an ever-widening audience of British, Japanese, Middle Easterners, and Americans, as well as French travellers hungering for new experiences. In some instances the reasons for change in regional products were a pragmatic reaction to a decline in other industries (such a silk) or to the economic disaster brought about by the Phylloxera pest, which wiped out most of France's grape vines at the turn of the century.
Today, eating is very regional. There still is a strong culture of seasonal eating, which is very well reflected on menus. Each region has its own dishes that history shows, or has been adapted to show, that certain popular dishes stem from. Here is a small list of some of the most popular ones:
Brittany and Normandy
Tarte Tartin, Moules Mariniere, and the drink Calvados. Brittany is famous for its crepes. These can be savoury or sweet. Buckwheat flour is used to prepare galettes- a savoury pancake usually eaten with ham, cheese and an egg as its filling
Champagne and the North Champagne's main contribution is obvious, but being on the Belgian border there are also rich dishes of Flemish influence; the region's cooler climate also lends itself to growing potatoes, cabbages, beets, watercress, endive and leeks. Flamiche is a simple dish of leeks cooked with cream and eggs in a pastry crust, and endive flamande is made by wrapping endives in ham and serving them with a white sauce. Carbonnade de boeuf is another classic dish, where the beef is slowly braised in onions and beer. A stew called chaudrée (hence the word chowder) makes good use of the region's fish. The cosmopolitan city of Lille is a big producer of charcuterie and beer. Pastries are quite basic with gaufres (waffles eaten with sugar and fresh cream) being among the best known. In Champagne, biscuits de Reims are sweet and delicious paper-thin macaroons.
Alsace and Lorraine
They both have been under German rule more than once in the past and this influence is evident in many of the local dishes, in which pickled cabbage and pork are common. Baeckeoffe is a stew of marinated meat and vegetables and choucroute alsacienne is pickled cabbage flavoured with juniper berries and served with sausages, bacon or pork knuckle. The locals also enjoy all kinds of savoury pies and tarts, the best-known being tarte flambée or flammekuche which is a thin layer of pastry topped with cream, onion and bacon and cooked in a wood-fired oven. From Lorraine comes the most famous of all, quiche lorraine. Originally, this dish was made without cheese, but most recipes now include it and also add vegetables, seafood or ham to the basic mix of eggs and cream. Burgundy and Bordeaux. Dishes make liberal use of their famous red and white wines. Burgundy provides the best beef in France and is famous for its boeuf bourguignon. It's also home to Dijon mustard which is used to enhance the flavour of many dishes. Coq au vin (chicken in red wine) is another perennial favourite, and in this region you'll find the biggest escargot (snails) in France - because they're raised on grape leaves they're also meant to be the tastiest. Bordeaux is carnivore country and its most celebrated dish is entrecôte marchand de vin - rib steak cooked in a rich gravy made from Bordeaux wine, butter, shallots, herbs and bone marrow. Sweet treats include cannelés (caramelised brioche-style pastries) and the famous marrons glacés (candied chestnuts).
Languedoc-Roussillon, Gascony and the Basque Country.
These regions lie on the Spanish border and, using an abundance of tomatoes, peppers and spicy sausage, their food shares many similarities with that of Spain. Cassoulet (a casserole with meat and beans) is Languedoc's signature dish; Roussillon has a similar dish called ouillade. There are strong Spanish and Catalan influences in Roussillon too, with tapas-style dishes served in many wine bars. Gascon dishes are kept simple but hearty with lots of meat, fat and salt. Garbure is a thick stew made with vegetables, herbs, spices and preserved meats. Poulet Basque is a chicken stew with tomatoes, onions, peppers and white wine and piperade is Basque comfort cooking - peppers, onions and tomatoes cooked with ham and eggs. The locally prepared Bayonne ham is usually eaten sliced with bread but is also the basis of jambon à la Bayonnaise (ham braised in Madeira
Provence and the south of France.
The region has glorious weather to thank for its colourful, flavoursome specialities like ratatouille and salade Niçoise. It is often called the garden of France because of the high quality of its herbs, fruit and vegetables. Dishes here rely on tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and plenty of fresh herbs. It's not an area famous for its meat dishes, but a winter staple is boeuf en daube - beef stewed with red wine, onions, garlic, vegetables and herbs. Perhaps its most famous dish is bouillabaisse, a hearty fish soup brimming with lobster, crab, mussels or clams, served as a main course and accompanied by rouille - a spicy mayonnaise made with olive oil, garlic, chilli and fish broth - and warm bread.
I am now hungry from sharing all this information with you. I shall have a small slice of quiche lorraine, and then have my swim. Bon apetit.
All from pure gastronomic pleasures.
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