Ah French food. It has the ability to induce a full range of emotions. From disgust at the contents of that stew, to delight at that equally smelly soft cheese; longing for a croissant as the smell wafts from a Boulanger early in the morning and satisfaction after a perfectly balanced meal. While you can rightly enjoy a meal of almost every French dish you please in a Parisian bistro, there’s nothing quite like sampling a dish in the town from which it hails, where the produce is local and fresh, the flavours refined and the passion unbridled.
France’s far western department is something of a secret culinary haven, though many of the local specialties are far from secret. The famous French crepes we love, salted caramel, the dry, barely alcoholic cider that pairs with French dishes? All come from Brittany. When in town, be sure to order a savoury buckwheat crepe stuffed with eggs, ham and cheese, then sweet crepe with lemon and sugar for dessert. For a sweet treat, try the delicious, syrupy pastries called kouign amann. The name literally means butter cake, but less a cake and more a coiled pastry flavoured with salted caramel, chocolate or nuts, you’ll soon wonder why you ever chose a pain au chocolate over one of these.
Usually mentioned for its pretty apple orchards and long coastline abundant with seafood, Normandy is in fact the home of arguably the most famous French cheese: camembert. Of course shellfish is the favourite in coastal towns, and the apple orchards produce the much loved Calvados apple brandy to wash it all down.
Lorraine and Alsace
The food in this corner of France has a markedly German influence, thanks to centuries of the region changing sovereignty between the two countries. Pork, goose, sauerkraut and heavy stews feature often on menus, as does quiche with bacon, or as we aptly like to call it quiche Lorraine. The French delicacy that is fois gras also comes from this region, as does the always loved apple pie.
The mountains are where you’ll find cheese, cheese and more cheese. From the cows pastured on the lower slopes to the goats and sheep at higher altitudes, you can get the full spectrum of cheeses from here, the mild hard kind to the stinky soft ones. Comte is arguably the most famous from this region, and a local specialty is Vacherin Mont d’Or, a soft cheese often served warm for dessert.
Burgundy and Rhone
Best known for their rich wines, the Burgundy and Rhone regions in the centre of France are in fact the culinary heart of the country. The town of Dijon gave its name to the spicy mustard, Bresse is the only place to get chickens, Puy, in the Haute-Loire region is the home of the lentil, and the region’s signature dish, Beef Bourguignon is a rich stew cooked in local red wine. The culinary capital, Lyon is also in this region, and no visit would be complete without dining in a traditional Lyonnaise Bouchon, serving local dishes. This is also the region to sample truffles, and snails if you’re that way inclined.
Provence and the French Riviera
The further south you go, the lighter and more Mediterranean dishes become. Olive oil replaces butter in cooking, garlic features in almost everything and vegetables grow in a full rainbow of colours. The delicious vegetable stew, ratatouille hails from here, as does the fresh salade Nicoise, featuring tuna, eggs and lettuce. If visiting Marseille, be sure to taste Bouillabase, a hearty fish soup seasoned with saffron. Many renowned French sauces come from Provence too, including olive tapenade and the more local specialty, brandade, a cod-based sauce.
Pyrenees and Southern France
Bordering with Spain, this region is heavily influenced by the Spanish and Basque flavours. Cassoulet, a baked casserole style dish with white beans and either duck or goose, is the most popular of traditional meals. Lamb is the most popular meat in this region, but Bayonne ham and a few different game birds are also common traditional meals. When in the Basque region, be sure to seek out Piperade, a dish with green peppers, onion and tomatoes, coincidentally reflecting the colours of the Basque flag.
Poitou-Charentes and Bordeaux
Robust, earthy cuisine that like in the centre of France, is known for foods that use all of the parts of the animal. Poitou-Charentes claims to produce the best butter in France, and Bordeaux, is of course home to some of the world’s best red wines. In Bordeaux you will also find rich pates and terrines, perfect to pair with a plash of local wine and cheese.