To me France is the epitome of style and grace. One of the many things I love about France, and French people in general, is how much pride they have for their country, culture and food. Usually, when you think of French food you might think of dishes that are extremely expensive/pretentious, but it's actually quite the opposite. Here, some of the best recipes are simple and very earthy. Of course there are plenty of complicated dishes and expensive French restaurants that do fit this category, but in general many of the beloved French dishes we know today began as simple food made with care. I always love when I can get my hands on French food here in the states but you bet I was excited to try authentic food when planning my first trip to France a few summers ago.
But first, here are some tips I learned when eating in France.
1) Always say hello when you enter a shop or restaurant. This will go a long way I promise you. Don't try to order or buy something without first saying 'bonjour' (good day) to the waiter or shopkeeper.
2) Typically, the price you see on the menu includes the tip but if service was good diners will usually round up to the total amount of the bill to show appreciation for the meal. So if possible, leave a few coins on the tray that the bill was brought to you on to indicate that you enjoyed the meal.
3) Take your time...I knew this when going to France but learned the hard way on my first meal out. I was jet-lagged and extremely tired when I arrived and wanted to eat then get to exploring the city (I was just too excited!!!). We went to the famous Deux Magots cafe in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area and it was delicious; however, as is typical in the States, I was in a rush and wanted quick service---buuuut that didn't happen. In France servers will generally let you take your time and not rush you. Therefore, when going to there don't expect waiters to keep coming back to you, asking if everything is alright...this won't happen. When dining, expect to take your time enjoying the meal and watching the people pass you by.
With no further ado here's my list of top French foods you must try:
1) Let's start out with the stews and heavier meat dishes:
Ahhhhh.....that's the feeling I get when I think about Boeuf Bourguignon...If you're a fan of Julia Child then you know this was one of her signature dishes... Like many French recipes, this one originates from a particular region, in this case Burgundy (or Bourgogne), a region in east-central France. This was originally a peasant dish of stewed beef, braised in red wine, garlic, onions, mushrooms, other veggies and sometimes bacon. What's not to like about that???
Cassoulet is another rustic peasant dish that comes from Southwestern France and is typically made with white beans and some kind of meat (again depending on the region) such as pork sausage, goose, duck confit or mutton. It's especially delicious because it's slow cooked in a special type of dish called a "cassole" (hence the name).
You can't go wrong here...a wonderful juicy steak with a side of match-stick french fries. This is considered one of the most popular dishes in France (although also Belgian). The steak (usually a ribeye) is fried in lots and lots of butter (always cooked rare, never well done) and topped with a pile of thin, crispy fries. You'll also usually see hollandaise or béarnaise sauces served alongside.
Coq au Vin (aka "rooster in the wine")
Again, one of the most typical french dishes you'll find, which consists of slowly cooking chicken in a sauce of wine, bacon, garlic and mushrooms. Absolutely delicious!
Pot au feu (aka "pot on the fire")
This dish goes all the way back to the 1600's when King Henry IV of Navarre called this recipe “poule au pot” or chicken in the pot. This is another stewed recipe that is made from different types of vegetables like carrot, leeks, celery, turnip or cabbage and cooked beef.
Duck confit or Confit de canard
This is truly a special dish due to the way the duck meat is prepared, which makes it extremely tender and flavorful. First, the duck is salted and seasoned with herbs then baked in it's own rendered fat (this is the confit part). Afterward, the skin is seared to make it crispy. It can then be eaten as is or in another way---cooked with orange juice and other spices to create the popular dish duck à l'orange.
2) Next, we have vegetables, sandwiches, sides and popular salad dishes:
Quiche and a side salad
This is one of the most popular french foods and also one of my personal favorites. You'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant or cafe in France that didn't serve some type of quiche (usually with a small side salad). Quiche is a savory egg dish that is made with eggs, milk or cream, cheese and either meat or vegetables. This filling is then baked in a flaky, buttery pie crust either warm or room temperature. The great thing about quiche is that it's a great dish to make when you have a lot of vegetables you want to use up or throw together, add some cheese or meat et voila, you've got a wonderful lunch!
Croque-monsieur/madame and Jambon-beurre sandwiches
Sandwiches are a French staple and come in many shapes and forms. However, the most popular are the croque monsieur, which is a baked or fried ham and cheese sandwich, the croque madame, which is the same sandwich with a fried egg on top or my personal favorite, the most popular (over 3 million of these are sold each day in France) jambon-beurre, which is a baguette sliced open, spread with butter, and filled with slices of ham.
What sets Salad Niçoise apart from other salads is that it's fairly hearty yet light. It's usually served with a lot of vegetables including green beans, boiled new potatoes, hard boiled eggs, maybe some anchovies, and of course olives niçoise, and some type of delicious herby vinaigrette. It's typically topped with seared ahi tuna and originates from Nice in Province (the south of France).
I'm sure most of us have heard of or know of the dish ratatouille from Disney's cute movie about a Parisian mouse who loves to cook. Well it's not make believe this is actually one of the most popular dishes from southern France, although again it's a rustic, down home, peasant dish- no fancy dining here. It can be made in different ways but it's typically a recipe of stewed vegetables. There is a tomato base with several alternating layers of (usually) onion, zucchini, bell pepper, eggplant and squash. Mmmmmm, delicious and good for you.
These are wonderful, elegant baked egg dishes which originated in the early 18th century. It's usually made from egg yolks and beaten egg whites, combined with cheese or sweetened to make a dessert.
Soupe à l’oignon (aka French onion soup)
Ughhhhh my absolute favorite!!!!! I could probably live on this gooey, cheesy, savory deliciousness. Typically, this type of soup is made with a beef broth of stewed onions and herbs and topped with cheese and croutons which have been melted. Literally one of the best things in this world <3 <3 <3
3) Seafood Dishes:
Moules frites (aka Mussels and French fries)
Although this dish is actually Belgian, you'll find it everywhere in France. The mussels are usually boiled or steamed in a delicious broth of wine or beer and flavored with aromatics like shallots, garlic, parsley or leeks. The interesting thing about moules frites is that you'll find a different style everywhere you go, depending on the region of France that you're in. Make sure to grab some crusty bread to soak up all those extra juices...mmmmmm.
Bouillabaisse is a traditional Provençal fish stew which originates from the southern port-city of Marseille. It's a delicious concoction of seafood all stewed together in a wonderful broth of tomato, garlic and saffron, topped with a crust of bread and mayonnaise. Again, this is a regional specialty which is means it will be unique by not only the area but also restaurant you order this in.
We can't talk about French food without including escargot (aka cooked land snails). They're usually served as a starter of snails cooked in garlic, parsley and butter and served in their shell.
Oysters (aka Huîtres)
No need to explain here...There's nothing more elegant that a beautiful platter of raw oysters that are served chilled with a side of mignonette sauce (made from shallots, pepper and vinegar) and a glass of champagne.
4) French Cheese:
Of course we can't talk about French food without spending some time talking about the cheese!
"How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?" --- Charles de Gaulle
I love this quote from war hero and French leader Charles de Gaulle. The same goes for this post, how can I accurately describe French cheese when there are so many different kinds?!?!?! There have been countless books written about the subject so I'll just describe a few of my favorite. Remember that cheese courses are usually served after the meal and before dessert in France.
Basically cheeses can be divided into thousands of different varieties but generally fall within one of these categories (Note: not all of these types are french cheeses):
1) Bloomy Rind (Brie, Camembert, Coulommiers, Munster). These cheeses have been aged to allow mold to grow on their exterior surface which creates a soft, edible rind. These are your buttery, ooey, gooey guys.
2) Washed-Rind (Epoisses, Taleggio, Limburger). These cheeses are washed with brine, beer, wine or brandy and allowed to grow the bacteria Brevibacterium linens (yes, the same kind of bacteria that produces foot odor). This type of cheese is going to be reddish in color and extremely pungent in smell but not as much in flavor. For the more adventurous eater :)
3) Blue Cheeses (Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Bleu d'Auvergne). This type of cheese is injected with a particular kind of blue-colored mold to give it those pungent blue veins. Try these with a bit of honey, chutney or fruit.
4) Semi-Hard Cheeses (Gouda, Swiss, Gruyere, Emmental). Basically, cheese that is neither soft, nor particularly hard falls within this category. In my opinion these cheeses are somewhat nutty, buttery and great for melting.
5) Hard Cheeses (Pecorino, Comté, Parmesan). These are hard cheeses that have been pressed to remove moisture. They have a piquant bite and are great for grating over pasta.
6) Fresh Cheese (Ricotta, Mozzarella and Goat Cheese/Chevre). These cheeses are soft and mild and have no rind.
5) Last but certainly not least are the desserts:
The French are known for their sophisticated, yet delicious sweet delicacies and pastries such as:
Macaron- These are sort of the poster child for French dessert. You'll usually see these displayed in a variety of colors and flavors in row after row of deliciousness. Not to be confused with its coconut cousin the macaroon, a French macaron is a meringue-based sweet made with egg whites, sugar, almond powder and coloring which sandwiches some type of flavored creamy filling. You'll see boxes of these EVERYWHERE...try as many as you can and enjoy!
Baba au rum- A small cake that is saturated in a syrup made with (you guessed it) liquor (usually rum) and sometimes filled or topped with pastry cream.
Mille feuille- This is one of my favorites...it's layers of puff pastry and cream which is then topped with sugar, cocoa or glazed with an icing of brown and white stripes (aka a Napoleon).
Crêpes Suzette- This is a sweet crêpe made with beurre Suzette, a sauce of caramelized sugar and butter, tangerine or orange juice, zest, and Grand Marnier, triple sec or orange Curaçao liqueur on top. This is fun to get as it's usually prepared table-side via flambé.
Tarte tatin- This is an upside down pastry (the fruit are first caramelized in butter and sugar) where the filling is then poured on top. After it comes out of the oven the tarte is flipped and makes for a beautiful presentation.
Crème brûlée- Probably my favorite... (aka burnt cream) this dessert consists of a rich vanilla custard that is baked and topped with sugar which is then caramelized. It's so much fun to 'crack' the sugar on top and dig in.
Madeleine- These are very small sponge cakes that are baked in distinctive shell-shaped pans.
Palmier- (aka pig's ear or elephant ear) is a pastry that is shaped like a palm or butterfly and is crispy and flaky.
Meringue- These are made from whipped egg whites, sugar and some sort of acid to create a crispy texture that just has to be tried. They can be topped with fruit as well.
Clafoutie- A baked dessert of fruit (usually cherries) which is then covered in a thick flan-like batter. It's usually dusted with some powdered sugar or cream.
Croquembouche- This is definitely one of the more beautiful french desserts. It's a cone of choux pastry balls which are bound with threads of caramel! These are very special desserts and are usually served at weddings and celebrations.
Mouse- This is a soft and fluffy dessert which can also be creamy and thick (thick of an extremely airy American-style pudding). Chocolate is my favorite...
Pain au chocolate and croissant- We all know what a croissant is, that buttery flaky pastry that's usually dipped in a morning cafe au lait. Pain au chocolate is the same thing but with one or two pieces of dark chocolate in the center which are warmed up.
Floating island- This is a really elegant dessert of meringue which 'floats' on a bed of creme anglaise (vanilla, egg yolks and hot milk).
Well these are just a few of my favorite French foods. Of course there are MANY more but too many to post here. If you get a chance, try one or all of these and report back. I'd love to hear any more recommendations you may have or favorite restaurants in France, happy eating!