This is a guest post by Nina Petersen-Perlman of Francey Pants.
The wonderful thing about France is that each region has its own very distinct specialties. Most produce their own wine, and have cheeses, breads and dishes they call their very own. From bouillabaisse in the South of France, to the wonderful bleu cheeses in Auvergne, to the champagne from—where else?—Champagne, you could very well spend your time nibbling and sipping across the country.
When I taught English during the 10-11 school year I ended up in Burgundy, which is (in my humble opinion), France’s Basket of Deliciousness. Thus my guide to the best French food is heavily Burgundy-biased.
Kir is a mixture of crème de cassis (black currants) and white wine. This is Burgundy’s regional drink, so if you’re going to do it right your wine should be one of the delectable whites from Mâcon. Mixing it with champagne makes it a kir royale, but again: purists will insist you go with one of Burgundy’s crémants, a sparkling white from the region.
Hailing from the south of France, pastis is a refreshing anise-flavored beverage that is mixed with water until it reaches the potency you desire. The most famous brand of pastis is Ricard, which when mixed with water goes from yellow to a cloudy white.
Bière (French Beer)
A note on French beers: Unless you prefer your beer to closely resemble mineral water, you will be unhappy with France’s offerings. One would think that its proximity to Belgium and Germany would make France a suds paradise. One would be wrong. Many bars try to pizzazz-up their offerings by adding fruity syrups. I tried a Monaco (grenadine plus beer) when I was sick and didn’t think it was too bad. Once I could breathe through my nose again and taste things, I re-tried it and wanted to spit it out. Word to the wise.
French cooking is all about the sauce, and the sauce typically used for snails is a real winner in my book: parsley, garlic, and a heckuva lot of butter. I’ve had varying experiences with escargots, from the awful to the sublime, and I think this is one of the cases where you get what you pay for. Do not go to a random brasserie at 4:00 p.m. and expect to pay 6E for delicious snails. Go to a nice restaurant at a proper eating time (lunch is served at noon and dinner starts at 8:00) and make sure they’re served piping hot. You may have to fish them out of their shells yourself, which is a fun exercise in dexterity. If you decide you’re not a fan of the chewy texture, you can always shake the liquid from the shells onto your plate and just go to town on the sauce with a piece of baguette. You will get strange looks, but hey! You’re a tourist! You’re never going to see these people again!
Les Cuisses de Grenouilles
Everything you’ve heard is true: frog legs taste like chicken. Generally you will see them fried, accompanied by a lemon wedge and a wet nap. Yes, this is one of the few things besides baguette you’re allowed to eat with your hands in France. Beware of the legs’ many bones—eating around them can be quite a chore. Do not order these on a date or in front of anyone else you may want to impress. It’s messy.
Salade de Chèvre Chaud
I saw this once translated on a menu as “hot crusty goat cheese.” YUM. It’s basically a salad topped with toasts on which goat cheese, or chèvre, has been melted. It’s a taste sensation.
This is the dish that brought me to Burgundy. After mastering Julia Child’s version, I thought to myself, “Any place with something this tasty named after it has got to be the place for me.” Any time you see a dish with “bourguignon” or “à la bourguignon” after the name, it usually means it has a luscious, rich sauce made from Burgundy wine. Boeuf bourguignon is a beef stew, usually accompanied by carrots, mushrooms, onions, and a smattering of other vegetables, as well as lardoons—little chunks of flavorful bacon. Highly recommended for a cold winter’s eve.
Coq au Vin
Coq au vin is very similar to boeuf bourguignon, but with chicken instead of beef. (I’m fairly certain the rooster of the dish’s namesake is no longer used.) Again, a rich Burgundy wine sauce will fill your insides and make you feel loved.
Oeufs en Meurette
One more winey dish and then I swear I’m done. This one is a bit more delicate—it’s poached eggs along with our usual cast of characters. I highly recommend slathering some of the egg on the baguette slices that come with your meal. It should go without saying that you should also be using this baguette to sop up every last bit of sauce you can from the serving dish.
Pôt au Feu
The first time I had pôt au feu was in November at a celebration of the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau—the toddler-aged wine from the region just south of Burgundy that had spent the minimum amount of time aging in its bottle. It gets you just as tipsy as its older brothers and sisters, though. Anyway. Pôt au feu is a beef stew that hasn’t been thickened by wine or any other thickening agent. It’s beef, carrots, leeks, potatoes, etc. that have been simmered together with a bevy of soup bones all the livelong day. It’s served with some stone-ground mustard and cornichons (little dill pickles). If you’re lucky, your waiter might bring out a bowl heaped with those boiled calf femurs and you can spread some of the marrow on your baguette. It’s rather greasy, but if you like fatty greasy things it’ll be right up your alley.
So clearly I did a lot of eating in winter. Raclette is actually the name of a cheese that hails from the region of the Alps near Grenoble. Its name is now synonymous with this dish. I had this only at people’s homes, not restaurants, and this is how it was always served: you take a boiled potato and mash it around on your plate, along with pieces of charcuterie (duck breast, prosciutto, dried beef, etc.), pickles and cocktail onions. You then top it with a freshly melted piece of raclette cheese and snarf that sucker up. You can find a raclette machine at most home appliance stores, and it has an internal heating element under which you put individual trays of cheese. Once one of the trays is bubbling, you slide it onto your dish, refill it with another piece of cheese, and put it back under the heater. Because you will want more.
I could do an entirely separate post on the attributes of French cheeses, but for now I’ll just give you some highlights. You will often be given the option of a cheese plate between your main course and your dessert. Be adventurous! DO NOT be afraid of the stinky cheese. It will help give you a taste of the teroir. Some of my favorites include:
- Comté, a nutty and mild hard cow’s milk cheese
- Reblechon, a soft cow’s milk cheese from the Haute Savoie with a bit of a bite
- Délice de Bourgogne, a sinfully creamy cow’s milk number from my favorite region
- Chèvre—any kind of goat cheese—especially when paired with fig jam.
You. Are. Welcome.
Popularized by Amélie, this sugar-crusted custard is always a winner. Some restaurants will go nuts with special flavors and textures, but, for me, the classic always wins out.
France’s version of an apple pie is concocted with caramelized apples that are baked crust-up in the oven. When it’s done, the pie is flipped onto a plate and served hot. For those who don’t like their desserts too sweet, this will tempt your taste buds.
Egg whites are whipped into a frenzy to create this meringue floating in a sea of anise-flavored crème anglaise.
Speculoos à Tartiner
This isn’t really a dessert, and it isn’t really French, but I discovered it there so it counts. It’s a paste made from the Belgian spice cookies of the same name. The best way to describe it is liquid teddy grahams. Slather it on a chunk of baguette and just try not to polish off the rest of your bread with it in one sitting. I dare you.
Did I miss any of your favorite French food? Tell me about it in the comments. Bon appétit!
This post is part of a series about France and teaching abroad, written by our dear friend Nina Petersen-Perlman.
Nina Petersen-Perlman has visited Paris on 13 different occasions, eight of which were during the last year when she was an English teaching assistant in a small town in Burgundy. You can find more about her time in France at www.neenuhfranceypants.blogspot.com.