The Flavors of France: A Guide to French Cuisine by Region
There is really no such thing as 'French cuisine,' as each region of France has its own distinctive culinary style and cooking methods. Since using the very best local produce is the essence of French cooking, what is available locally tends to define the character of French regional cuisine, but the weather, geography, and the temperament of the locals all play a part too.
The authenticity of each region's renowned dishes is frequently a matter of fierce debate, and often there is no definitive recipe for iconic regional specialities. This is, however, all part of the crucial role the culinary arts, and the preservation of the country's gastronomic heritage, plays in French national identity. Gourmands would divide and subdivide French cuisine into possibly hundreds of regional styles, but below the broad culinary regions, and their key dishes, are explored.
In Brittany and Normandy the key ingredients for the region come from the sea, the orchard, and the dairy. A typical northern dish is moules au cidre – mussels in a cider sauce, finished with local crème fraiche. As well as producing some of the world's best cider, Normandy apples are also the base of Calvados – the famous apple brandy named after a département of Normandy. The area also produces some excellent soft cheeses (fromages à pâte molle), Camembert being the best known. Now eaten all over France, crêpes originated in Brittany. Made from local buckwheat flour (blé noir – literally 'black wheat'), they are often filled with ham (jambon), cheese (fromage), and mushrooms, (champignons) and topped with a whole egg (œuf). The best-known sweet version is the ever-popular crêpe Suzette, where the crêpe is cooked with orange juice and sugar and flambéed in orange liqueur (usually Grand Marnier) at the table.
Eastern France shares a border with Germany, and it shows in its local cuisine. The language, culture, and food of Alsace is heavily influenced by its Teutonic neighbors, and sauerkraut (choucroute – pickled cabbage) is a part of many dishes. When topped with sausage (saucisse), bacon (lard), and braised pork knuckle (jarret de porc braisé), sauerkraut becomes the highly popular choucroute garnie (literally 'garnished sauerkraut'). Duck or goose foie gras (literally 'fat liver') is another regional favorite, and is often served with a glass of the area's most famous wine, Gewürztraminer d'Alsace. Meaning 'spicy grape' in German, Gewürztraminer is an aromatic, off-dry white wine. Alsatian winemakers leave some Gewürztraminer grapes on the vine during each year's harvest, leaving them to dry slightly. This practice, known as vendange tardive ('late harvest'), creates a sweeter, more highly-prized wine. Quiche Lorraine, an open pie filled with eggs, smoked bacon (lard fumé), and sautéed onions (oignons sautés), is another classic from eastern France. The root of 'quiche' is the Franconian word küe che, meaning 'cake', which is also the origin of flammekueche – the Alsatian name for tarte flambée. This pizza-like dish, a round of thin, crispy dough topped with soft cheese (fromage blanc), lardons, (thinly-sliced pieces of bacon, common in French cooking) and onions, is found in almost every restaurant in Strasbourg.
The emphasis in the southwest is on rich, earthy foods that complement the full-bodied red wines of Bordeaux. Duck (canard), foie gras, prunes (pruneaux), rabbit (lapin), mushrooms, and truffles (truffes) all feature heavily, while the nearby Atlantic offers mussels (moules), oysters (huîtres) and lobster (homard). A popular southwestern dish is lapin aux pruneaux d'Agen – rabbit cooked with plump, lightly sun-dried prunes from Agen. It's not all about the red wine, though – the southwest is also famous for Cognac and the fruity dessert wine Sauternes, both of which are used extensively in cooking. Further south is the Midi-Pyrénées, whose most celebrated dish is cassoulet. Taking its name from the Occitan word caçolet, meaning 'earthenware dish,' this rich stew is made from garlicky Toulouse sausages, confit de canard (duck cooked slowly in duck fat), haricot blanc beans, and chunks of pork skin (couenne de porc). A less well-known speciality is aligot – potato pounded with butter (buerre), garlic (ail), and cheese (traditionally Tomme d'Auvergne).
The fresh flavors and vivid colors of southeastern France are a product of its warm Mediterranean climate and a Roman influence stretching back thousands of years. Local dishes share core ingredients – olives, olive oil (huile d'olive), fresh herbs (herbes fraîches), tomatoes (tomates), and garlic – with Spanish and Italian cuisine, while displaying an unmistakably French flair. Bouillabaisse – a contraction of the Provençal dialect words bolhir ('to boil') and abaissar ('to simmer') – is perhaps the signature southeastern dish. Fillets of monkfish (lotte de mer), bream (daurade), and hake (merlu) are simmered in a rich seafood soup made from tomatoes, saffron (safran), fennel (fenouil), and whatever seafood looked good at the market that morning. The best bouillabaisse contains a generous slug of pastis, the clear-colored, aniseed-flavored liqueur. A popular aperitif in the region, the pastis is usually served with a splash of iced water which instantly turns it opaque. Other regional classics from the Southeast include salade Niçoise (named after the city of Nice), which is a mixed salad topped with tuna (thon), anchovies (anchois), and hard-boiled eggs (œufs durs), and also the bright green condiment pistou, made from basil (basilic), garlic, and olive oil, which is traditionally added to soups.