French cuisine is characterized by its extreme diversity. French cuisine is considered to be one of the world's most refined and elegant styles of cooking, and is renowned for both its classical ("haute cuisine") and provincial styles. Many of the world's greatest chefs, such as Taillevent, La Varenne, Carême, Escoffier, or Bocuse were masters of French cuisine. Additionally, French cooking techniques have been a major influence on virtually all Western cuisines, and almost all culinary schools use French cuisine as the basis for all other forms of Western cooking.
Traditionally, each region of France has its own distinctive cuisine:
- Cuisine from northwest France uses butter, cream (crème fraîche), and apples;
- Cuisine from southwest France uses duck fat, foie gras, porcini mushrooms (cèpes), and gizzards;
- Cuisine from southeast France uses olive oil, herbs, and tomatoes, and shows Italian cuisine influences.
- Cuisine from northern France uses potatoes, pork, endives and beer, and shows Flemish cuisine influences.
- Cuisine from eastern France uses lard, sausages, beer, and sauerkraut, and shows German cuisine influences.
Besides these five general areas, there are many more local cuisines, such as Loire Valley cuisine (famous for its delicate dishes of freshwater fish and Loire Valley white wines), Basque cuisine (famous for its use of tomatoes and chili) and the cuisine of Roussillon , which is similar to Catalan cuisine. With the movements of population of contemporary life, such regional differences are less noticeable than they used to be, but they are still clearly marked, and one travelling across France will notice significant changes in the ways of cooking and the dishes served. Moreover, recent focus of French consumers on local, countryside food products (produits du terroir) means that the regional cuisines are experiencing a strong revival in the early 21st century, especially as the slow food movement is gaining popularity.
What is often known outside of France as "French cuisine" is the traditionally-elaborate haute cuisine, served in restaurants for high prices. This cuisine is mostly influenced by the regional cuisines of Lyon and northern France, with a marked touch of refinement. It should be noted, however, that average French people do not eat or prepare this cuisine in their everyday life. As a general rule, elderly people tend to eat the regional cuisine of the region where they are located (or the region where they grew up), while younger people will be more inclined to eat dishes from other regions and foreign dishes.
French wine and French cheese are an integral part of French cuisine (both high cuisine and regional cuisines), both as ingredients and accompaniments. France is known for its large ranges of wines and cheeses.
Exotic cuisines, particularly Chinese cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine and some dishes from former colonies in Northern Africa (couscous), have made inroads.
French regional cuisine uses locally-grown vegetables. Let us cite:
- green beans
- aubergines (eggplant in American English)
- courgettes (zucchini in American English)
- Mushrooms such as Champignons de Paris, oyster mushrooms (pleurotes), Porcinis (bolets and cèpes), truffles, and other mushrooms, in order of increasing rarity and price.
Common fruits include:
Meats commonly consumed include:
- duck and Guinea fowl are less common
- goose, mostly a holiday dish
- mutton (generally, lamb) is often a holiday dish
Horse meat is available from special butcher stores (boucheries chevalines), but a minority of people consume it.
Seafood commonly consumed include:
- sardines (often canned)
- tuna (often canned))
- salmon used to be a luxury food but is now quite common.
- oysters, mostly a holiday dish
- shrimp, calamari etc.
Fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as fish and meat, are purchased either from supermarkets and grocery stores or smaller markets. Street markets are held on certain days in most localities; towns of a certain importance generally have a more permanent "covered market" in which food shops, especially meat and fish retailers, have better shelter than the periodic street markets. Generally, a street market for vegetables takes places on certain days outside such "covered markets".
Present-day food and drink in France
For French people, cooking is part of culture, and cooking and good food are well appreciated. The French generally take a high pride in the cuisine of their country, and some, particularly in the older generations, are reluctant to experiment with foreign dishes.
Structure of meals
The normal meal begins by a light breakfast in the morning, generally consisting of:
- bread with jam and spreads (tartines), often replaced nowadays by breakfast cereals,
- often, coffee or more rarely tea,
- possibly some fruit.
Hotel breakfasts often contain croissants, but most people eat croissants at breakfast at home only on special occasions.
Lunch is had at some point between noon and 2 pm , and dinner in the evening (often, 7.30 pm ). A normal complete meal consists of:
- appetizers, often consisting of crudités (raw vegetables), or a salad;
- a main dish (generally, meat or fish with a side of vegetables, pasta, rice or fries);
- some cheese and/or dessert (fruit or cake).
- Meals, particularly lunch, are often followed by a cup of coffee.
Alcoholic products may be consumed as follows:
- The meal may be preceded by an apéritif, typically some dose of flavoured Vermouth or some Pastis.
- Wine is often drunk with the meal, though this is rarer today. Occasionally, people consume beer though the frequency depends on the region of the country. Typically, wine or beer is chosen to match with the food.
- The meal may be followed by a digestif — some small dose of liqueur or other high alcoholic spirit, but this is uncommon.
Festive meals may include several main dishes. Some meals incorporate a trou normand — some small dose of a highly alcoholic liquor or sorbet, perhaps calvados, which props up appetite for what follows.
In large cities most working people and students eat their lunch at a cafeteria. In the case of smaller companies, it is commonplace for employers to distribute lunch vouchers (Ticket Restaurant, etc.) that workers use to pay for meals in neighbouring budget restaurants. It is to be noted that corporate and school cafeterias normally serve complete meals (appetizers, main dish, dessert); it is not usual for students to bring sandwiches. In smaller cities and towns, some working people leave their offices to return home for lunch, generating four rush hours during the day ( 8 am , 12 pm , 2 pm , and 6 pm ).
With contemporary lifestyle, especially the reduced number of housewives, the French rely a lot more on canned or frozen foods for weekdays. Cooking evening or weekend meals from fresh ingredients is still popular. In most cities, there are street markets selling vegetables, meat and fish, several times a week; however, most of those products are now bought at hyper- or supermarkets.
Traditionally, France has been a culture of wine consumption. While this characteristic has lessened with time, even today, many French people drink wine daily . The consumption of low-quality wines during meals has been greatly reduced. Beer is especially popular with the youth. Other popular alcoholic drinks include pastis (in the south), an aniseed-flavoured beverage drunk diluted with cold water, especially in the summer, or cider in the northwest.
The legal drinking age for most spirits is 16. However, it is not customary for shopkeepers or bartenders to verify a client's age, and teenagers eating with their family in restaurants will be served wine if the family requests so. On the other hand, it is very unusual to witness the kind of public inebriation that is customary in cities of the United Kingdom or Scandinavia on Saturday nights. Usually, parents tend to prohibit their children from consuming alcohol before these children reach their early teens. Students and young adults are known to drink heavily during parties (vodka and tequila being very popular), but usually drunkenness is not displayed in public. Public consumption of alcohol is legal, but driving under the influence can result in severe penalties.
Divisions of Restaurant Cuisine
Schematically, French restaurant cuisine can be divided into:
Cuisine bourgeoise, which includes all the classic French dishes which are not (or no longer) specifically regional, and which have been adapted over the years to suit the taste of the affluent classes. This type of cooking includes the rich, cream-based sauces and somewhat complex cooking techniques that many people associate with French cuisine. At the 'top end' of this category is what is known as haute cuisine, a highly complex and refined approach to food preparation and kitchen management.
Because this kind of cuisine is what is often served abroad under the name of "French cuisine", many foreigners mistakenly believe that typical French meals involved complex cooking and rich, un-dietetic dishes. In fact, such cooking is generally reserved for special occasions, while typical meals are simpler.
Cuisine du terroir
Cuisine du terroir, which covers regional specialities with a strong focus on quality local produce and peasant tradition. Many dishes that fall in this category do not stand out as stereotypically "French," sometimes because regional cooking styles can be quite different from the elaborate dishes seen in French restaurants around the world.
Cuisine nouvelle or nouvelle cuisine, which developed in the 1970s as a reaction to traditional cuisine, under the influence of chefs such as Michel Guérard. This type of cooking is characterized by shorter cooking times, much lighter sauces and dressings, and smaller portions presented in a refined, decorative manner. Its modern, inventive approach sometimes includes techniques and combinations from abroad (especially Asia ) and has had a profound influence on cooking styles all over the world.
Food fashions and trends in France tend to alternate between these three types of cuisine; today (2006) there is a distinct focus on cuisine du terroir, with a return to traditional rustic cooking and the "forgotten" flavours of local farm produce. The "fusion" cuisine popular in the English-speaking world is not widespread in France, though some restaurants in the capital have a "fusion" theme, and many modern French chefs are influenced by a variety of international cooking styles.
Vegetarianism is not widespread in France , and few restaurants cater to vegetarians. Veganism is hardly known or represented at all.
One contentious subject, since the 1980s, has been the quick development of fast-food chains, which have been perceived by some as a threat to traditional French cuisine as well as symbols of cultural imperialism, factory farming and junk food (see article on José Bové). These chains are popular and McDonald's alone has around 1000 restaurants in France . In any case, fast-food chains and a large number of specialised restaurant chains have become part of the French cuisine landscape.
Foreign cuisines popular in France include:
- Dishes from the former French colonies in North Africa , especially couscous, are found everywhere in France due to the large number of immigrants of North African origin.
- Italian food, more particularly pizza and pasta (especially in Nice and the rest of the Cote d'Azur , which has a large Italian population). There are also many pizza chains.
- Spanish food, more particularly paella.
- Vietnamese and Chinese food. Generic Asian restaurants serving a variety of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and other Asian dishes are fairly commonplace.
- Turkish food, especially Döner kebab, called sandwich grec (Greek sandwich) in France , is widely popular in urban areas.
- Indian food.
- Restaurants offering Japanese dishes such as sushi or yakitori are getting increasingly popular in urban centers, though the majority of the French population objects to eating raw fish, save for the marked exception of oysters. Most of such restaurants in France nowadays are actually operated by people of Eastern Asian non-Japanese origin.
- American-style hamburgers and fries are popular dishes sold in chains like McDonald's and the Franco-Belgian Quick.
As a general rule, foreign "exotic" restaurants can be more readily found in large urban centres.
- Famous French dishes
- Typical French bread also known as a baguette
- Blanquette de veau
- Boeuf a la mode
- Coq au Vin (rooster simmered in wine)
- Lamb Navarin
- Oysters are generally eaten raw; cooking oysters is uncommon.
- Pot-au-feu, a kind of beef stew.
- Steak au poivre
- Cheese fondue - though very often mistaken as French, this dish is actually a part of Swiss cuisine
The following dishes can generally be ordered in brasseries:
- Steak frites (steak with fries; fries can often be replaced by haricots verts — string beans);
- Poulet frites (chicken with fries)
- Croque-monsieur (a grilled, open-face Swiss cheese and ham sandwich)
Generally speaking, frites (French fries) are a common side order for lower-end French-style restaurants. The French generally believe that fries are of Belgian origin, although there is no evidence for this origin; a typically Belgian dish is steamed mussels with a side of fries.
A typical simple, cheap, quick meal consists of pasta (often spaghetti) with tomato sauce.
Common canned food
- Ravioli (Italian specialty)
- Paella (Spanish specialty)
- Couscous (Northern African specialty)
- Choucroute garnie
Most dishes, including relatively sophisticated ones, are available as canned or frozen food in supermarkets. These products are sometimes endorsed by famous chefs.
Common savory pies
- Flammekueche from Alsace (crème fraîche, onions, and lardons)
- Flamiche from Artois-Picardy (with leeks or Maroilles cheese)
- Quiche from Lorraine (added ingredients may include ham, cheeses and mushrooms)
- Pissaladière from Nice (with caramelized onion, anchovies and dark olives)
- Tarte flambée
Famous but untypical dishes
The following dishes are considered typical of French cuisine in some foreign countries, but actually are infrequently eaten:
- Cuisses de grenouilles (Frog legs)
- Escargots (edible snails)
- Crêpes (a speciality of Brittany )
- Mousse au chocolat
- Mille-feuilles (flakey puff pastry)
- Pâte à choux pastry (e.g. eclairs and profiteroles or cream puffs)
- Baba au rhum
- Tarts (e.g. tarte Tatin with caramelized apples and a puff pastry base)
Specialties by region/city
- Choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with sausages, salt pork and potatoes)
- Raclette (the cheese is melted and served with potatoes, ham and often dried beef)
- Fondue savoyarde (fondue made with cheese and white wine into which cubes of bread are dipped)
- Gratin dauphinois
- Tartiflette (a Savoyard gratin with potatoes, Reblochon cheese, cream and pork)
- andouillette of Cambrai
- Carbonnade (meat stewed in beer)
- Potjevlesch (a four-meat terrine)
- Waterzoï (a sweet water fish stew)
- Escavêche (a cold terrine of sweet water fish in wine and vinegar)
- Hochepot (four meats stewed with vegetables)
- Tripoux (tripe 'parcels' in a savoury sauce)
- Truffade (potatoes sautéed with garlic and young Tomme cheese)
- Aligot (mashed potatoes blended with young Tomme cheese)
- Pansette de Gerzat (lamb tripe stewed in wine, shallots and blue cheese)
- Far Breton (a flan with prunes)
- Kik ar Fars (boiled pork dinner with a kind of dumpling)
- Kouign amann (a type of galette made flakey by a very high proportion of butter)
- Boeuf Bourguignon (beef stewed in red wine)
- Escargots de Bourgogne (snails baked in their shells with parsley butter)
- Fondue bourguignonne (fondue made with oil in which pieces of meat are cooked)
- Gougère (cheese in chou pastry)
- Pochouse (fish stewed in red wine)
- Quiche Lorraine
- Potée Lorraine
- Pâté Lorrain
- Bouillabaisse (a stew of mixed Mediterranean fish, tomatoes, and herbs)
- Ratatouille (a vegetable stew with sautéed eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, tomato and basil)
- Pieds paquets Lambs' feet and tripe 'parcels' in a savoury sauce
- Brandade de morue (puréed salt cod)
- Tripes à la mode de Caen (tripe cooked in cider and calvados)
- Matelote (fish stewed in cider)
- Cassoulet (a dish made with beans, sausages and preserved duck or goose)
- Foie gras (the liver of a force-fed duck or goose)
The following dishes may be thought of as French but really are not.
- Crème brûlée, literally "burnt cream," actually invented in England , or perhaps in Spain .
- Crêpes Suzette invented in the United States of America by a French chef.
- Peach Melba invented in England by chef Auguste Escoffier for an Australian opera diva.