There might be no food culture more revered than that of France. Sure there are many great, historic cuisines out there – Chinese, Japanese, Italian – but French gastronomy is the gold standard. Heck, they invented gastronomy.
All of France's greatest hits can be found in Paris thanks to the much-lauded café scene. Beef Bourguignon can be ordered alongside a salad Nicoise and crepes can be found on almost every corner, which makes it easy to forget that French cuisine is marked by regional variation.
So, before hopping the next flight to the City of Light, remember that the best place to experience French food specialties is at their source. Here is the lowdown on some of France's food regions to help culinary explorers.
Destin-Nation France: A Quick Tour Through Culinary Mecca
Alsace, often referred to with its neighboring region of Lorraine, shares a border with Germany and Switzerland. Throughout history Alsace-Lorraine has been hotly contested real estate and has switched hands between Germany and France multiple times. This history has resulted in a cuisine with heavy German influences.
Pork products are widely eaten and Alsatians are known for making a mean sauerkraut or sûrkrût. Fans of German food will also be happy to find spatzle (egg noodles formed by scraping dough into boiling water) on many menus. The region’s foie gras is also regarded as some of the best.
Some lesser known, but typically Alsatian dishes include: Flammekueche (a flatbread spread with tangy cheese and topped with thinly sliced onions and bacon), Baeckeoffe (a meat stew comprised of beef, pork and lamb) and Kugelhopf (a yeast bundt cake studded with raisins, almonds and flavored with brandy.)
Oh yeah, and there’s lots of beer.
France’s northwest peninsula has strong historical ties to the British Isles. In fact, the region’s name, Breizh in the Celtic based Breton language, means Little Britain. Some of the area’s earliest inhabitants were actually Celtic, rather than Germanic like the rest of France and people from Wales and western Britain once populated the area. Well known cities in the region include Rennes, Brest, the medieval walled city of St. Malo, and Quimper, famous for its faience pottery.
Brittany is perhaps best known for its crepes, more properly known as galettes. (Crepe typically refers to the sweet pancake made with white flour, while galettes are savory and made with buckwheat.) The most common presentations are simple -- eggs, ham and cheese; butter and sugar -- though filling options abound. Seafood is another of Brittany’s signature gastronomic offerings. Try slurping down a few of the famous Belon oysters.
Though gallettes and shellfish towers might be the best known of Breton cuisine, kig ha farz can be considered the region’s signature dish. Its name translates to “meat and stuffing” in Breton, and it’s made by boiling meats along with a sort of crumbly buckwheat pudding. For desert, there’s kouign amman, a layer cake that emerges from the oven puffy and carmelized thanks to copious amounts of butter and sugar.
Provence is located in southeast France along the Mediterranean Sea. It is at once quaint, with fields of lavender and rugged brush land, and glamorous -- Cannes and St. Tropez lie on the Provencal coast. Provence also has a rich culinary tradition that reflects its position on the Mediterranean, resembling more closely that of Spain, Italy or Greece than that of the rest of France.
Common ingredients in Provencal cooking can be found in the lands that border the sea, plus those that thrive in rugged conditions: olives, olive oil, chickpeas garlic, sardines, rockfish, sea urchins, octopus, lamb, goat and herbs.
Most readers are likely unknowingly familiar with Provencal food, but its dishes are among some of the best known of French cuisine. The city of Nice contributed Ratatouille (mixed vegetable stew) and salad Nicoise (with mixed vegetables, egg and tuna); Marseille threw bouillabaisse (fish stew) into the mix. Condiments like aioli (a mayonnaise-esque spread made with garlic), tapenade and herbes de provence all grew out of this area as well.
For another quintessential taste of Provence bite into a hot socca, a chickpea flour flatbread from Nice. Or, spread bread with brandade de morue, a salt cod and olive oil puree. Lunch on-the-go might consist of pan bagnat, essentially a salad Nicoise sandwich. A bowl of soupe au pistou would also make a fine meal, it’s simply vegetable soup flavored with ground basil (think pesto.) Of course, being by the sea, Provence also incorporates much seafood into its regional menu.
Northeast of Brittany, Normandy has a lengthy coast along the English Channel. Its name is a nod to the early settlement of the area by Vikings, or “northmen.” After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the two were linked by their rulers. However, not long after, Normandy would be claimed by France. Perhaps the most famous of Normandy’s sites is Mont Saint Michel, the centuries-old monastery that becomes an island as the tides roll in. Rouen, notable for its historic half-timbered houses, is the site of the execution of Joan of Arc.
Of course, being close to the sea, seafood has a major place at the Norman table. Enjoy an assiette de fruits de mer that could include langoustines, lobsters, crayfish, prawns, scallops, oysters and mussels – in mountainous proportions.
Otherwise, the countryside is well suited for grazing dairy cattle and tending apple orchards, and indeed the area is known for its butter, cream and apple products. Cheeses like Camembert, Pont l’Eveque, Brillat-Savarin and Boursin originated here. And those apples are turned in to a widely consumed alcoholic cider, an apple brandy called Calvados and desserts like tarte tatin – a caramelized apple upside down cake best consumed among the apple trees with friends.
Like Paris, Lyon is a city rather than a region, but it is very important in the French culinary landscape. Located in east-central France, Lyon is part of the Rhone-Alpes region. Often heralded as the capital of French gastronomy, it is home to both traditional bistros “bouchons” and more than a few Michelin starred restaurants.
The heart of classic Lyonnais cuisine is in the bouchons (meaning “cork”), or small, sparsely decorated family-run cafes. Historically, their kitchens were often the realm of women. These meres (mothers) were the former in-house cooks of wealthy families who had to let them go in the early 1900s. Men are the stars of Lyon’s cuisine now, with Paul Bocuse perhaps most famous among them. He is credited with originating French nouvelle cuisine by eschewing the gobs of butter and cream used so heavily in French food, instead allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves.
The traditional food of Lyon relies heavily on meat, with a particular emphasis on offal (organs and entrails) like tripe, pork, and charcuterie like andouille sausage and blood sausage. Onions also factor greatly into Lyonnaise cooking, with the designation a la lyonnaise implying a dish prepared with onions.
Other typical Lyonnaise creations include: quenelles (dumplings made of flour, egg, cream and fish), marrons glacees (glazed, candied chestnuts), salad Lyonnais (topped with a poached egg and bacon), and cervelle de canut. Literally meaning “silk worker’s brains,” it’s a nod to the area’s historic silk industry. A dip or spread, it consists of fromage blanc (kind of like cream cheese) mixed with herbs, shallots, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar.
With the wine regions of Beaujolais to the north and Cotes du Rhone to the south, good wine will also be an integral part of a meal in Lyon.
It’s likely that many have not heard of Corsica, or at least didn’t know it was a part of France. Located just north of Sardinia, Italy, the rugged island of Corsica was once an independent republic. Though, throughout its history, the Romans, Spanish and Genoese (from Italy) all had a turn here. The Corsican language, which is more like Italian than French, is still used heavily. Corsica is also the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, who hails from the capital of Ajaccio.
The varied influences, especially Italian, are easy to see in Corsican cuisine. Charcuterie is popular in Corsica, and coppa can be found both on Corsican and Italian tables. There’s the Corsican stew ragout, and then there’s the Italian stewed meat sauce ragu. And, there’s pulenda, like polenta, but made with chestnut flour. Ravioli can be found in Corsica as well.
Chestnuts are widely used in Corsican cuisine by being made into flour that will become bread, cake and polenta or thicken soups. Brocciu cheese, considered a national food by Corsicans, is also used throughout local dishes. Its consistency is similar to ricotta and it is a fresh cheese made from goat or sheep’s milk. For a hearty meal, sink into wild boar or all manner of charcuterie. The flavor of Corsican charcuterie is highly regarded, and it comes from local pigs that are raised in open spaces and allowed to eat chestnuts and other brush.
Oh, and another one of those Italian parallels: Visitors to Corsica might hear of a cheese called casgiu merzu, like the Sardinian casu marzu – complete with flying maggots.
Situated in central France, Burgundy is perhaps best known for its wine – notably red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes or white wines made from Chardonnay grapes. Not only do some of the world’s most recognizable wines come from this region, but so do many of the dishes we regard as definitively French.
Burgundy’s wine culture factors notably into its cuisine, as its addition to a dish gives it the designation à la bourguignonne. Sound familiar? Perhaps Beef Bourguignon comes to mind. Perfect for cold Burgundian winter, this hearty stew is simply beef with mushrooms and onions braised for hours in red wine and stock until fork splittingly tender. Prepared in a similar way is the quintessential coq au vin, which uses chicken as the protein. And, what would a French meal be without a few snails? Escargot a la Bourguignon to be precise – cooked with white wine and stuffed with garlic-parsley butter perfect for sopping with a piece of crusty baguette.
Perhaps these dishes are so embedded in this region because of the quality of meat it produces. Both the white Charolais cattle and Bresse chickens are regarded as some of the finest breeds.
To round out a Burgundy inspired meal, enjoy a smattering of the region’s potent Dijon mustard (made with white wine) and wash it down with Kir, or white wine with a kiss of Crème de Cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur).