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.