One of the most beloved aspects of France is probably French cuisine. The gastronomy of France is one of the world's greatest treasures. From festive meals to high-class, four-star restaurants and locally-based cuisine using the finest possible ingredients, France is a delight for all those who love food.
If you plan a visit to France or like to recreate some of these fabulous dishes at home, it's a good idea to understand what people mean when they speak of French cuisine delights.
The regions of France
One of the most important things to keep in mind when talking about French gastronomy is to bear in mind France is not just a nation but a collection of areas. Many parts of France have distinct regional variations on food. For example, the cities of the coast are home to the classic seafood stew known as bouillabaisse. Different parts of the coast use different seafood types and certain vegetables, but the net result is the same in each place: a rich mélange of deep flavours that come together in the mouth.
France's regions extend from the north, where it touches Germany and the south, where France slides into Italy, Spain, and Basque. The result is a cuisine that takes influences from all over Europe and makes them their own. The French take pasta from Italy, add creamy Gruyère cheese, and the thick bacon slices are known as lardons to turn into pasta aux lardons. When Catherine de Medici came from Italy to become Queen of France, she brought Italian food with her. Her influence has been there ever since.
The French also look at other places. For example, Spain is there for beans and makes them into a dish that slowly boils them in oil and tomatoes. This is one of the foundations of classic French cuisine. It is the ability to borrow ideas from other places and turn those ideas into something uniquely and entirely French in every way.
Using the basics to cook a great meal
Another hallmark of French cooking is the use of specific techniques. These are techniques that other countries and cultures have adopted over time, and yet they remain entirely, classically French. Herbs play an integral role in the creation of many French dishes. The bouquet garni is a collection of herbs that are often added at the last minute and removed before a dish is served. Herbs and other vegetables can also be finely chopped and then added. This process is known as a chiffonade. It allows the herbs to reach every part of the dish and create a uniform look.
Of all the techniques that mark France's foods, perhaps the use of sauces is among the most noteworthy. French sauces are legendary. In general, there are five basic sauces. The following are called mother sauces because they can be used for a base: béchamel, velouté, Espagnole, tomato and hollandaise. These are used in themselves or to create other sauces with ingredients like various herbs or chopped onions. The béchamel uses dairy and flour while velouté and Espagnole bring the stock to the flour. Tomato sauce uses tomato, while hollandaise is about the use of butter and egg yolks. Each sauce can be used in a variety of preparations ranging from poached eggs to grilled meats. Every sauce shares a single thing in common. The aim is to bring in as much flavour to what an otherwise bland result might be. A little bit of sauce adds brightness, colour and effects designed to delight the eater.
Sauces can be created in other ways. Coulis are usually made from a single ingredient, such as strawberries. The sauce is boiled down until it's thick and then lightly thinned with some water. The French like to spread it out on desserts such as a chocolate soufflé or show off a medium-rare steak's taste. The French also make the most of everything they cook. One way to make a flavourful sauce is to take meat remains after being in the pan. Add a bit of butter and wine, boil it again, and you'll have a French technique adding additional flavour to any meat you cook.
Fresh ingredients to sublime each meal
While technique and regional favourites mark much of French life in the kitchen, there's another factor that makes it even more special. The French want to keep it as local as possible. Locally based cuisine means making the most of all France has to offer. One of the many joys of living in France is having access to tasty ingredients. Many French people try to shop at least several times a week. They'll grab a pain au chocolat from a boulangerie (bakery) in the morning. Then it's time to hit the local market for a selection of charcuterie and a baguette prepared only an hour earlier. At dinner, the French like to linger and savour the food in front of them. A stew might have been in the slow cooker for hours, waiting for the end of the workday. Ingredients like veal made from free-range cows and then simmered with vegetables grown in a garden a short distance away perfume the entire house with memorable scents and make eating with the whole family a real joy for everyone.
The French like to work with small places that adhere to food traditions that have been developed over generations. Specialty producers create products like extra virgin olive oils and broths that make even the most ordinary dish special.
The French also love a celebration. Festive meals are on the menu at certain times and are widely celebrated across the country. During Christmas, the main meal is known as the Réveillon. This is usually eaten after Christmas services on Christmas Eve or the day of the holiday. Turkey and goose that have been slowly roasted and then glazed are popular as a main course. Celebrants also love adding foods considered to be luxuries, such as venison, oysters and foie gras. A yule log cake, known as the bûche de Noël, brings in cream and chocolate at the end of the meal. Marrons chauds or glazed and roasted chestnuts are served as a special treat designed to warm up cold hands.
Celebrating the moment
To get to know meals in this part of the world is to get to know food and a way of life. The French love to eat three meals a day. They also know that part of the joy of eating is making every aspect of the dinner excellent. Everything must please all of the senses. That includes taste, smell and the use of colour to draw the eye to the plate.
France's cuisine is ultimately about honouring everything that goes on the table and the needs of everyone present each time. French ingredients are cherished and tended carefully using age-old techniques that have been honed over generations. The result is a much-appreciated cuisine that everyone can get to know and explore even far from France.
UNESCO added the traditional French multi-course meal to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.