Anyone who is really into food inevitably ends up having a lifelong relationship or at least a torrid love affair with France. The birthplace of haute cuisine and the home of artisanal everything, France offers a cornucopia of culinary delights to suit every budget.
In order to live, we must eat. In order to live well, we must eat well. In other countries, this is often confused with eating expensively, but in France, good food is for everyone. It is a right and a privilege, and it should also be yours. If you can afford to splurge, gourmet food is a treat, but it is by no means necessary for enjoying the pleasures of eating French food.
Many of the French classics, like coq au vin or bœuf bourguignon, are dishes that developed out of a desire to make inexpensive cuts of meat or poultry taste better. When you slowly simmer less-than-prime proteins with spices and sauces, they become tender and tasty. In French cooking, anything can be made to taste good with a little TLC.
We apply the term “rustic” to simple, inexpensive dishes from the countryside, and often those very dishes end up becoming the most comforting and pleasing to eat. In addition to slow-cooked stews and roasts, one of the highlights of life in France is the ritual of regularly stopping for food at little specialty stores or markets filled with fresh produce and letting the shopping guide the cooking. Instead of stocking up on prepackaged items at big supermarkets, many French people buy only what they need and buy the best quality they can afford, which in turn makes cooking a breeze. In France, it’s easy to enjoy the little luxuries, like a triple-cream cheese served at just the right temperature or a boule of freshly baked bread.
But you don’t need to become an expat in order to enjoy the French way of eating. It’s all about taking the time to make delicious dishes and to really enjoy them. Just like fashion designers who get bored with the scene often adopt a uniform of all black or jeans and white T-shirts, those at the highest echelons of the food world constantly return to the basics. Whether that means developing an interest in foraging or seeking out authentic recipes from the countryside, top chefs and epicures always seem to move past the fancy stuff and idolize the home cooking of grandmas around the world.
The food we eat is very important because it nourishes us and makes us feel healthy and happy, when done right. It is an important part of culture because it bonds communities. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously declared, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
Fromage is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It can really enhance a meal, adding an interesting texture and a savory taste that just rounds everything out. Or it can be a meal (or dessert) on its own. Every good cheese offers a long-lasting, satisfying finish.
Just like wine, a good cheese should have complexity of flavor that represents the place it comes from. The actual number of different types of French cheeses is one of the great mysteries of life, like disappearing socks or men’s inability to remember to put down the toilet seat. While no one can seem to agree on even a ballpark figure, everyone agrees that the cheeses of France are numerous and plentiful. This means that there is a seemingly never-ending supply of new flavors for you to try, so take advantage of France’s bounty. The United States has strict laws in place for unpasteurized foods, so if you’re eating French cheese here, you’re not necessarily getting the real deal. Yes, it’s still good—tasty cheese is tasty anywhere—but if you do go to France, make sure to take advantage of the unpasteurized lait cru situation. (Just make sure not to touch the cheese when in a fromagerie; it’s a big no-no.)
Cheese experts have a lot of opinions on how to choose your cheese, but just choose whatever calls out to you. Once you find a few that you love, challenge yourself to find a few more, and so on. If you’re making a regular effort to try new ones, then the way you choose your cheese is really not that important as long as it’s real cheese from a reputable market. What is important, though, is serving temperature. Outside of France, we often serve cheese way, way too cold. Even some good restaurants make this mistake. If your kitchen is at a normal room temperature, pull the cheese out of the fridge about two hours before serving, and it should be good to go. This makes a huge difference. Kind of like the way ice cream is not good when melted, cheese is not good when cold.
If you’re putting together a cheese plate, a classic way to go is to have one goat’s milk cheese, one cow’s milk, and one sheep’s milk. If you’re entertaining, it’s always a good idea to have one that’s mild to please a variety of palates, and then you can experiment with the sharpness and barnyardy-ness of the others. Three cheeses work well for a small group, and five for a larger party. Playing with textures is nice too, so you can pick one that’s really soft or almost runny, one that’s hard, and then something in the middle to bridge the gap. When you serve them, soft cheeses should be oozing, and medium cheeses should be pillow-like to the touch.
A common inclusion on cheese plates is a bold blue. Roquefort, Fourme d’Ambert, Saint Agur, and Bleu d’Auvergne are common choices that are widely available. Saint Agur is my favorite; it’s a cow’s milk cheese that contains 60 percent butterfat, making it the best of both worlds between a blue and a Brie. Roquefort makers made the first attempts at securing legal protection for a food product in France. In the 1400s, they got an official monopoly on making the cheese, as declared by Charles VI, but imposter Roqueforts were still appearing centuries later. This struggle eventually led to the government protection that evolved into the system of AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, which is a certification recognizing a product’s origin that is granted to certain items in France, such as butter, lentils, meat, and honey.
The origins of two of the most seemingly French things of France—croissants and baguettes—are much debated. While historians can’t seem to agree upon whether or not these iconic baked goods are indeed authentically and traditionally French, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that bread in general is deeply embedded in the country’s cultural identity.
The collective French mentality strongly emphasizes the protection of the working class, and bread is directly tied to this because it was historically such a major part of the everyday diet. Bread was not the sole cause of the Revolution, but it was inextricably linked to it.
The Revolution was certainly French; croissants, not so much. A crescent-shaped baked good called a kipfel dates back in Vienna to the 1200s, and moon-shaped breads in general date back even earlier. Croissant is the French word for crescent.
Many historians and food writers agree that the precursors to croissants as we know them today first appeared in France thanks to an Austrian. The innovation of the puffed-pastry version of the kipfel occurred in France, but since it was Austrian, which country gets credit? Either way, today there are few things more emblematic of Parisian life than a warm, buttery croissant and its aftermath of crispy fallen flakes.
But one of those things is the baguette. It is interesting that something so powerfully symbolic is a relatively recent addition to the culinary landscape, the so-called baguette not appearing among the French breads of the nineteenth century. There is even an entire book about its history, and the only conclusion was really that there is no conclusion.
So no one can definitively say where the baguette originated or exactly why the baguette—as opposed to other types of long bread loaves—has become so emblematic of French culture in the last century. Why not those delicious round boules? Boule, as in boulangerie? But we can say that baguettes have become an important part of daily life in France, regardless of reason. We can also say that you should probably avoid getting into any arguments about the origins of French baked goods with an Austrian, in the same way that one avoids using the term “french fries” in front of a Belgian.
Baguette is the French word for a sticklike object (e.g., a wand, drumstick, or chopstick), so at least it’s clear where the name comes from. And the ingredients are clear: wheat flour, water, yeast, and salt. The state of French baguettes went into a bit of a slump at one point, but now they’re back, and high-quality, all natural, artisanal baguettes can be found all over France (and even all over the world).
Sandwiches made from half baguettes or mini baguettes are everywhere. The most traditional kind seems to be jambon beurre (ham and butter), but there are numerous combinations of meats and cheeses and other things that can be had on a baguette on just about every corner in Paris. Another popular Parisian daytime staple is a tartine, which really just translates to a slice of bread with one or more things on top. (But doesn’t the French word sound so much better?)
In America, omelets are standard breakfast or brunch fare, but not so in France, where they’re saved mostly for lunch. But the French are on to something, because an omelet served with a green salad is light, easy, and satisfying. If you had a big lunch and aren’t superhungry at dinnertime, this is an ideal meal. Add in some goat cheese and fresh green herbs or whatever you’d like. Frites often accompany the omelet in cafés and brasseries, but you can always ask for a salade verte instead. Or have a little of both because it’s a tasty combination.
A common offering from street vendors in Paris, crêpes are the ideal hot treat for cold days. They are also one of the few food items that are culturally acceptable to eat on the street if you are standing near the street vendor where you bought them.
The buckwheat version, galettes, have been a specialty of the Bretagne (Brittany) region of France for centuries. A delicious buckwheat galette can be found on Sundays at the organic farmers’ market on Boulevard Raspail in the sixth arrondissement; it’s open in the morning until about 1:00 p.m. or so. There’s a stall that offers freshly made ones with a slice of ham, a little cheese, a fresh egg, and a healthy dash of black pepper. It’s the perfect breakfast to enjoy while walking around the market and doing a little shopping (or people-watching and food ogling).
Soufflés are most definitely French in origin, dating back to the eighteenth century. There’s a restaurant (appropriately named Le Soufflé) on Rue Mont-Thabor in the first arrondissement of Paris that offers an entire prix fixe menu of soufflés, so you can eat a starter, main course, and dessert entirely of the French specialty, with a salade verte thrown in for good measure. If you’re a fan and you’re headed to Paris, make sure to check it out.
A croque monsieur is a baked sandwich comprising ham, cheese, and a buttery béchamel sauce. It is also available with a fried egg on top, which creates a croque madame. The sandwich actually originated in Wales. These days it’s a popular lunchtime dish in Paris.
A salade verte is just a green salad, but in France, it can actually be exciting. The best ones are composed of bright-green mâche, pale-green butter lettuce, nearly white frisée, and purple-and-white-striped radicchio. The salad will be topped with the establishment’s vinaigrette of choice. If you’re in a run-of-the-mill café in Paris, this will probably be bottled vinaigrette and might even be a bit artificially sweet, which is a shame. A great Parisian vinaigrette should be whisked by hand and should comprise Dijon mustard, sunflower oil, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, chopped garlic or shallots, and chopped fresh herbs. In the South of France, olive oil replaces the sunflower oil, and fresh lemon juice replaces the vinegar.
Everyone—tourists and Parisians—seems to love le chèvre chaud, or warm goat cheese salad. Consisting of goat cheese melted on toast, a green salad with vinaigrette, and the occasional tomato wedge, it is a wildly popular dish that feels light but also satisfying. You can sometimes get away with ordering just that if it’s for lunch, but at dinnertime, it’s always served as an appetizer.
Le tartare de bœuf is perfect for enjoying in a restaurant, but it’s not really something to try making at home because the primary ingredient is raw beef. There are many variations, but a classic version might mix the chopped raw beef with capers, chives or parsley, shallots, Dijon mustard, egg yolk, olive oil, salt, and pepper. It’s delicious.
The most classic Parisian meal for locals and tourists is probably steak frites (steak with fries). It’s everywhere, it’s tasty, and it’s easy to order.
Steak, and beef dishes in general, did not originally come from the region but from England. French fries don’t come from France either; they are actually from Belgium. When eating frites, try to forgo the ketchup and dip them into Dijon or mayonnaise, or enjoy them plain. They really don’t need the ketchup. In addition, note that it is considered polite to eat them with a fork instead of with your hands.
Roast chicken can be found pretty much everywhere in France. When walking down a market street, you’re guaranteed to see a place with a large, warm, aromatic rotisserie filled with glistening golden-brown chickens rotating on metal rods, their juices dripping and skins crackling. Buy one and some good lettuce, and you’re set for lunch or dinner.
If you’d like to make it at home, you don’t need a rotisserie, just your oven. The most important thing is to buy the best chicken that you can find (free-range, hormone-free, etc.) from a good butcher or your favorite trusted market. Here is a simple, tasty way to roast it.
Sole has been a staple of elegant French dining for centuries, but it wasn’t widely known in the United States until Julia Child freaked out when she first tasted sole meunière. (Later Meryl Streep recreated this moment while playing Julia Child in the film Julie & Julia.) This version has a lot less butter than those in Paris, but it still feels rich and satisfying.
Served all over Paris, moules marinière are salty and satisfying, and particularly great to make during fall and winter. Serve with a good baguette and a green salad.
CONFIT DE CANARD
Duck confit and many other duck dishes are big-time staples of bistros and brasseries in Paris. Recreating this classic dish at home is easy because legs of duck confit are widely available in the United States from D’Artagnan or Trois Petits Cochons, and they’re really good. All of the hard work is done for you. They are individually wrapped (so they’re good for cooking for one or two people), and they last for a long time in the fridge, so they’re nice to have on hand for the next time you feel like making a fancy meal that takes all of ten minutes. All you have to do is heat up the duck confit and serve it with a salad, or with a salad and potatoes if you’d like to make it more substantial. Duck confit is salty, savory, and most definitely satisfying.
This supremely comforting dish is not from Paris, but it can be found all over Paris during the colder months. A regional specialty of Southern France, cassoulet comes from the three towns of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, and Toulouse. The dish is named after the glazed earthenware pot in which it is traditionally cooked, called a cassole.
Though the three towns argue over whose version is the best or most authentic—similar to heated arguments about barbecue in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas or about Chicago versus New York pizza or chili across the United States (except this debate goes back to the 1300s)—Castelnaudary is generally regarded as the king of cassoulet. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that though there are many variations, a typical cassoulet might include white beans, potted duck, sausage, various cuts of pork, garlic, and herbs.
Before you begin buying ingredients, know that this is not an inexpensive dish to make, especially if you are in the States. Things like duck leg confit, bouquet garni, and the right sausage can also take a lot of time to find. But it’s a great dish for holiday entertaining or for your family to enjoy a few nights in one week. Plus, it freezes well. Oh, and it’s unbelievably delicious.
Cassoulet is a stick-to-your-ribs, now-it’s-time-for-a-nap kind of one-pot meal. It’s also great for entertaining because not only can you make it ahead but also it tastes much better that way, and it can be heated and reheated over and over without drying out.
Although making the cassoulet in two parts over the course of two days might seem laborious, it is really the only way to get that savory delicious crust on top. People who are really into food will surely be aghast that this recipe calls for canned white beans instead of the traditional dried Tarbais ones, but the end result tastes just as good, without all of that overnight soaking business.
Another controversial thing that this recipe includes is tomatoes—and canned ones at that—which are not traditional, but declicious. If you’re going for authenticity, skip the tomatoes and any canned products. As long as you don’t have anyone from Carcassonne or Castelnaudary coming for dinner, you should be fine.
Other than as pommes frites (fries), potatoes are found everywhere in Parisian eating establishments, from the most casual brasserie to Michelin-starred restaurants. Potatoes are called pommes de terre and can be found everywhere. Be prepared; there is a ton of butter in French mashed potatoes. That is not a bad thing, but just know that a little goes a long way.
A perennial potato favorite is the classic dish gratin dauphinois. It is so creamy that you’ll swear there’s cheese in it, but there’s not. It dates back to the eighteenth century, but it is still a staple on Parisian bistro menus today. Here is an easy recipe.
Good-quality dark chocolate—not the kind with long ingredient lists, but the real stuff—is smoky, nutty, slightly sweet, and a bit spicy. And Paris is a chocolate lover’s paradise. It is rare to walk more than five minutes without seeing some beautifully displayed cocoa-dusted truffles and perfectly formed bonbons in the vitrine of a pastry shop or chocolate shop. Or those sticky candied orange slices enrobed in a thick layer of dark chocolate, hitting just the right balance of sweet, sour, gooey, and crunchy.
Other than tablettes, bonbons, truffles, and candied fruits covered in chocolate, a great way to get your chocolate fix at home is via mousse au chocolat. Here is an easy version.
Another delicious way to get your chocolate fix is through a gâteau moelleux, called molten chocolate cake or lava cake in the United States. Made from butter, sugar, chocolate, and eggs, this brownie-like cake with a gooey chocolatey center is available as dessert practically everywhere in France. Jean-Georges Vongerichten says he accidentally invented the cake in New York in 1987 when he was serving hundreds of people a chocolate cake that was mistakenly undercooked in the center. He says that he was very upset, but then the entire crowd loved the dessert so much that it became an instant hit. Jacques Torres disagrees, saying that the cake was invented in France much earlier. Whoever invented it, bravo.
A sort of French version of an apple pie, tarte tatin is another staple of Parisian cafés and bistros. It is basically an upside-down apple tart baked with a buttery, flaky crust placed on top of a caramelized apple filling, which is inverted after baking.
The creation of the dessert is credited to two sisters named Stéphanie (Fanny) and Caroline Tatin, who lived in a little town called Lamotte-Beuvron. In the 1880s, their apple tart became quite popular. It was then regularly served at Hotel Tatin, which the sisters opened in 1894, thus the name. Some scholars have pointed out that upside-down tarts were a specialty of that region before the sisters started serving theirs, but everyone seems to agree that the sisters perfected the recipe, paving the way for the tarte tatin loved around the world today.