As any French person will tell you, French food is the best in the world. That's as true today as it was during the 19th-century heyday of the master chef Escoffier. A demanding patriarch who codified the rules of French cooking, he ruled the kitchens of the Ritz in Paris, standardizing the complicated preparation and presentation of haute cuisine. Thanks to Escoffier with his legendary flare-ups and those of his French-born colleagues, whose kitchen tantrums have been the bane of many a socialite's life, the French chef for years has been considered a temperamental egomaniac, bearing singlehandedly the burden of diffusing French civilization into the kitchens of the Anglo-Saxon world.
The demands of these chefs, however, aren't as far-fetched as they might seem, considering the intense scrutiny that has surrounded every aspect of France's culinary arts since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Until the early 1800s, most French citizens didn't eat well. Many diets consisted of turnips, millet, fruits, berries, unpasteurized dairy products, and whatever fish or game could be had. Cooking techniques and equipment were unsanitary and crude, and starvation was a constant threat. Fear of famine was one of the rallying cries of the Revolution; everyone knows Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" response to cries that the poor couldn't afford bread. (However, to be fair to Marie, this comment has been taken out of context. At the time, bread flour was much more expensive than cake flour, so her words weren't as callous as they might seem.)
At the foundation of virtually every culinary theory ever developed in France is a deep-seated respect for the cuisine des provinces (also known as cuisine campagnarde). Ingredients usually included only what was produced locally, and the rich and hearty result was gradually developed over several generations of mères cuisinières. Springing from an agrarian society with a vivid sense of nature's cycles, the cuisine provided appropriate nourishment for bodies that had toiled through a day in the open air. Specific dishes and cooking methods were as varied as the climates, terrains, and crops of France's many regions.
The revolution against Escoffier has been raging for so long that many of the early rebels are now returning to the old style of cookery, as exemplified by the boeuf bourguignon, the blanquette de veau, and the pot-au-feu.
Cuisine moderne is here to stay, and some restaurants feature both traditional and contemporary. The new cooking is often based on the classic principles of French cookery, but with a big difference. Rich sauces, for example, are eliminated. Cooking times that can destroy the best of fresh ingredients are considerably shortened. The aim is to release the natural flavor of food without covering it with heavy layers of butter and cream. New flavor combinations in this widely expanding repertoire are often inspired.
The most promising trend for those who don't want to sell the family homestead is to patronize one of the neo-bistrots springing up across France. Some of the top chefs of Paris, even Guy Martin of Grand Véfour, have opened these more simplified bistros where haute cuisine isn't served, just good-tasting and often regionally inspired dishes. Chefs have fun creating these more affordable menus, perhaps borrowing dishes that their grande-mère taught them. We'll feature a number of these bistros in this guide, including those run by the country's most famous chef, Alain Ducasse.
Volumes have been written about French gastronomy -- our comments are meant to be a brief introduction only. More than ever, young chefs du cuisine are making creative statements in the kitchen, and never in the history of the country has there been such an emphasis on superfresh ingredients. One chef we know in Paris has been known to shut down his restaurant for the day if he doesn't find exactly what he wants in the marketplace that morning.
Of course, you may want to ask, "What will it cost?" France has gained a reputation as being a damnably expensive place in the food department. True, its star-studded, internationally famous establishments -- such as Taillevent in Paris -- are very expensive indeed. In such culinary cathedrals, you pay not only for superb decor and regal service but also for the art of celebrated chefs on ministerial salaries.
There is also a vast array of expensive restaurants in France that exist almost exclusively for the tourist trade. Their food may be indifferent or downright bad, but they'll also have ice water and ketchup to anesthetize your taste buds, trilingual waiters, and quadrilingual menus. Luckily, there are others -- hundreds of others. Paris, which is said to have more restaurants than any other city on earth, has many good, reasonably priced ones. And they aren't hard to find. We've counted 18 of them on a single, narrow Left Bank street.
Once you arrive in the countryside, except for the French Riviera and certain citadels of haute cuisine, food prices become more reasonable.
Cuisine Bourgeoise & Haute Cuisine -- Cuisine bourgeoise and its pretentious cousin, haute cuisine, were refinements of country cooking that developed from the increased prosperity brought on by 19th-century industrialization. As France grew more affluent, food and the rituals involved in its preparation and presentation became one of the hallmarks of culture. And as refrigerated trucks and railway cars carried meats, fish, and produce from one region to another, associations were formed and entire industries spawned, revolving around specific ingredients produced in specific districts. The country's wines (demarcated with "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée"); lamb from the salt marshes of Pauillac; poultry from Bresse in Burgundy; and melons, strawberries, apples, and truffles from specific districts command premiums over roughly equivalent ingredients produced in less legendary areas.
France often names a method of preparation (or a particular dish) after its region of origin. Dishes described as à la normande are likely to be prepared with milk, cream, or cheese or with Calvados, in honor of the dairy products and apple brandy produced in abundance within Norman borders. Cassoulet (a stewed combination of white beans, duck, pork, onions, and carrots) will forever be associated with Toulouse, where the dish originated. And something cooked à la bordelaise has probably been flavored with ample doses of red bordeaux (along with bone marrow, shallots, tarragon, and meat juices).
Other than caviar (which the French consume in abundance but don't produce), the world's most elegant garnish is truffles, an underground fungus with a woodsy, oaky smell. Thousands of these are unearthed yearly from the Dordogne and Périgord forests, so if your menu proclaims a dish is à la périgourdine, you'll almost certainly pay a premium for the truffles and foie gras.
And what's all the fuss about foie gras? It comes from either a goose or a duck (the rose-hued gooseliver is the greater delicacy). The much-abused goose, however, has a rough life, being force-fed about a kilogram (2 1/4 lb.) of corn every day in a process the French call gavage. In about 22 days the animal's liver is swollen to about 25 ounces (in many cases far more than that). When prepared by a Périgourdine housewife (some of whom sell the livers directly from their farmhouses to passing motorists), it's truly delicious. Foie gras is most often served with truffles; otherwise, it's called au naturel.
What exactly is "French food?" That's a hard question to answer. Even cities have their own specialties.
Gastronomy alone would be good enough reason for going to the Loire Valley. From Nantes to Orléans, the specialties are many, including, for example, shad cooked with sorrel, Loire salmon, chitterling sausage, lark pâté, goat's milk cheese, partridge, rillettes (shredded and potted pork), herb-flavored black pudding, plus good Loire wines, including rosés.
The Normans are known not only as good soldiers but as hearty eaters. Their gastronomic table enjoys world renown. Many Parisians drive up for le weekend just to sample the cuisine. Harvested along the seacoast are sole, brill, mackerel, and turbot. Shellfish are also common, especially those fat black mussels, the prawns of Cherbourg, the demoiselles of Dieppe. Try also Madame Poulard's featherweight omelet, sole normande (stewed in rich cream), tripe à la mode de Caen, chicken from the Auge Valley, and duckling from Rouen. Normandy apples, especially those from the Auge Valley, produce a most potent cider. Matured in oaken casks, the apples also are turned into Calvados, a sort of applejack, a distillation of cider flavored with hazelnuts. A true Norman drinks this cider spirit at breakfast. Benedictine, the liqueur made at Fécamp, also enjoys acclaim. The rich Norman Camembert is imitated but never equaled. Pont l'Evêque cheese has been known here since the 13th century. The Livarot is just fine for those who can get past the smell.
The province of Brittany offers sublime seafood, the mainstay of its diet, including Aulne salmon, pike (best with white butter), scallops, trout, winkles, cockles, spiny lobsters, and Lorient sardines. The pré-sale (salt-meadow lamb) is the best meat course, traditionally served with white beans. The finest artichokes come from Roscoff, the most succulent strawberries from Plouogastel. Nearly every village has its own crêperie, specializing in those paper-thin pancakes with an infinite variety of fillings. Buckwheat griddlecakes are another popular item. The food is washed down with Breton cider (admittedly inferior to the Norman variety, but quite good nevertheless). Unlike much of France, the province lacks wine, except for Muscadet, a light white wine produced from the vineyards around the old Breton capital of Nantes in the lower Loire Valley.
The cuisine of Alsace-Lorraine has been influenced by Germany, as reflected by its sauerkraut garni, its most popular dish. It is also the home of foie gras, an expensively delicious treat. The Savoy, in the French Alps, also has many specialties, many using rich cream and milk, which makes the cuisine heavy but tasty. Game such as woodcock is common.
Some of the best food and best wines are found in Burgundy. You'll also see written "à la Bourgogne" after a dish, which means bourguignon -- cooked in a red-wine sauce and often garnished with buttonhole mushrooms and pearl onions. Lyon is regarded as the gastronomic capital of France. For example, tripe lyonnaise is known around the world. Lyonnais sausage is also well known, and the city's many famous dishes include quenelles (fish balls, often made with pike).
The Périgord and Dordogne regions are known for their foie gras and truffles. Many farmers' wives sell foie gras -- from goose or duck -- directly from their kitchen doors. Even if you don't like foie gras, you'll surely want to try the fish from the rivers of the Dordogne, along with morels, strawberries, and flap mushrooms -- called cèpes -- from the field.
Gourmets, not just beach lovers, go to the Riviera. The food, especially fish, can be exceptionally good. It also tends to be expensive. Bouillabaisse, said to have been invented by Venus, is the area's best-known dish. Each chef has his or her own ideas on the subject. Rascasse (rockfish), a fish found only in the Mediterranean, is very popular. One of the best seafood selections, rouget (red mullet) sometimes appears on fancy menus as becasse de mer (sea woodcock). Yet another is loup de mer (bass), cooked with fennel. Aioli, mayonnaise with a garlic-and-olive-oil base, is usually served with hors d'oeuvres or boiled fish. Other specialties include soupe au pistou (vegetable soup with basil), salade Niçoise (likely to include other items, but traditionally made with tomatoes, green beans, olives, tuna, anchovies, and radishes), pain bagnat (bread doused in olive oil and served with olives, anchovies, and tomatoes), and ravioli, which needs no explanation.
Meals & Dining Customs
In many of the less expensive places described in this guide, the menu will be handwritten, in French only. Don't let that intimidate you. Nor should you be timid about ordering dishes without knowing precisely what they are. You'll get some delightful surprises. We know a woman who wouldn't have dreamed of asking for escargots if she'd realized they were snails cooked in garlic sauce. As it was, she ate this appetizer in a spirit of thrift rather than adventure -- and has been addicted to it ever since. As for vegetables, the French regard them as a separate course and eat them apart from the meat or poultry dishes. But we wouldn't advise you to order them especially unless you're an exceptionally hearty eater. Most main courses come with a small helping, or garni, of vegetables anyway.
As a rule, it's better to order an aperitif -- often the house will have a specialty -- rather than a heavy drink such as a martini before a classic French dinner. Vodka or scotch can assault your palate, destroying your taste buds for the festive repast to come.
Allow plenty of time for a gourmet dinner. Orders are often prepared individually, and it takes time to absorb the wine and the flavors. Sometimes sorbet is served midway in your meal to cleanse the palate.
Making reservations is important, and please try to show up on time. Too many Americans make reservations and then become a "no-show," which creates ill will, especially since many nine-table restaurants must be filled completely every night in order to make a profit. If you're window-shopping for a restaurant, you'll find the menu most often displayed outside. Parisians read it like a book. It's there for you to study and ponder -- so read it in anticipation. Most French people have their main meal during the day; you, too, may want to follow that custom, dining more lightly in the evening.
Most meals consist of several small courses. You can begin, for example, with hors d'oeuvres or a light potage (soup). The classic restaurant used to serve a small order of fish after the appetizer, then the meat or poultry course, but nowadays it's likely to be either fish or meat. A salad follows the main course, then a selection of cheese (there are now more than 1,000 registered French cheeses) and dessert (often a fruit concoction or a sorbet). In this book, prices are given for fixed-price or a la carte main courses.
If you find the food "too rich, with too many sauces," that may be because you've been overdoing it. Elaborately prepared gourmet banquets should not be consumed for both lunch and dinner, or even every day. Sometimes an omelet or a roast chicken can make a delightful light meal, and you can "save up" for your big dining experience.
French cookery achieves palate perfection only when lubricated by wine, which is not considered a luxury or even an addition, but rather an integral part of every meal. Certain rules about wine drinking have been long established in France, but no one except traditionalists seems to follow them anymore. "Rules" would dictate that if you're having a roast, steak, or game, a good burgundy should be your choice. If it's chicken, lamb, or veal, you would choose a red from the Bordeaux country, certainly a full-bodied red with cheese such as Camembert, and a blanc-de-blanc with oysters. A light rosé can go with almost anything, especially if enjoyed on a summer terrace overlooking the Seine.
Let your own good taste -- and sometimes almost as important, your pocketbook -- determine your choice of wine. Most wine stewards, called sommeliers, are there to help you in your choice, and only in the most dishonest of restaurants will they push you toward the most expensive selections. Of course, if you prefer only bottled water, or perhaps a beer, then be firm and order either without embarrassment. In fact, bottled water might be a good idea at lunch if you're planning to drive later. Some restaurants include a beverage in their menu rates (boisson compris), but that's only in the cheaper places. Nevertheless, some of the most satisfying wines we've drunk in Paris came from unlabeled house bottles or carafes, called a vin de la maison. In general, unless you're a real connoisseur, don't worry about labels and vintages.
When in doubt, you can rarely go wrong with a good burgundy or bordeaux, but you may want to be more adventurous than that. That's when the sommelier can help you, particularly if you tell him or her your taste in wine (semidry or very dry, for example). State frankly how much you're willing to pay and what you plan to order for your meal. If you're dining with others, you may want to order two or three bottles with an entire dinner, selecting a wine to suit each course. However, Parisians at informal meals -- and especially if there are only two persons dining -- select only one wine to go with all their platters, from hors d'oeuvres to cheese. As a rule of thumb, expect to spend about one-third of the restaurant tab for wine.
Wine Labels -- Since the latter part of the 19th century, French wines sold in France (and sometimes elsewhere) have been labeled. The general label is known as appellations contrôlées. These controls, for the most part, are by regions such as Bordeaux and the Loire. These are the simple, honest wines of the district. They can be blended from grapes grown at any place in the region. Some are composed of the vintages of different years.
In most cases, the more specific the label, the better the wine. For example, instead of a Bordeaux, the wine might be labeled MEDOC (pronounced may-doc), which is the name of a triangle of land extending some 81km (50 miles) north from Bordeaux. Wine labels can be narrowed down to a particular vine-growing property, such as a Château Haut-Brion, one of the most famous and greatest of red wines of Bordeaux (this château produces only about 10,000 cases a year).
On some burgundies, you are likely to see the word clos (pronounced "cloe"). Originally, that meant a walled or otherwise enclosed vineyard, as in Clos-de-Bèze, which is a celebrated Burgundian vineyard producing a superb red wine. Cru (pronounced "croo," and meaning "growth") suggests a wine of superior quality when it appears on a label as a vin-de-cru. Wines and vineyards are often divided into crus. A grand cru or premier cru should, by implication, be an even superior wine.
Labels are only part of the story. It's the vintage that counts. Essentially vintage is the annual grape harvest and the wine made from those grapes. Therefore, any wine can be a vintage wine unless it is a blend. But there are good vintages and bad vintages. The variation between wine produced in a "good year" and wine produced in a "bad year" can be great, and even noted by the neophyte.
Finally, champagne is the only wine that can be correctly served through all courses of a meal -- but only to those who can afford its astronomical cost.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.