You have to admit it, France really has mastered its cuisine. In terms of flavours, whether it's wine, dessert, starters, mains, everything tastes great.
From beef to the Burgundy snail, from conventional to original, the French gastronomy is famously rich and to begin to understand the complexities of French cuisine you must first learn about French history, and after history comes geography!
Each region has its local specialities and the history and geography of France have had a tremendous impact on its cuisine.
History of French Cuisine
The ‘art de vivre’ that we know today did not appear out of thin air. No, it took time, from the hearts of its ancestors to the molecular cuisine of modern chefs, the road to perfection was long!
Let’s take drinking for example. It has taken years and years to perfect the French wine that we know today. Until not very long ago, especially in the west of France, the French only drank their local plonk. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, in 1820 on the birth of Charles X’s grandson that Bordeaux wine was really consumed in Paris and people started to enjoy wines from other regions.
As for the famous grands cru wine classifications (regional wine classifications that designate a vineyard known for its favourable reputation in producing wine), they didn’t come around until Napoleon III, in 1855!
As for food, the history of French cuisine can be divided into several major periods; the first to be addressed is undoubtedly ... the middle ages!
At the time, Europe was culturally united under Christianity and so the ‘savoir-vivre’ of Western Europe did not differ much between neighbouring countries.
People ate with their fingers, and loved colour so much that the King’s dishes were sprinkled with various pigments to give them even more colour! Banquets were full of joy and various dishes and meats that cannot be found today.
In more modern times, it is said that Catherine de Medici, of Italy, introduced the French to the fork, which came to form the perfect couple with the knife. The fork came as a welcome addition to dinner table etiquette and helped the French further their elegant reputation.
Big metal dishes gave way to terracotta, considered more noble (and above all less noisy!), codes of good behaviour started emerging, and dinner service became grander, counting more than a dozen dishes!
Thanks to the growth of trade, spices became more numerous and more common, which made it possible to diversify recipes and improve taste. No food was left out, especially those that were considered naturally bland.
Similarly, we can hardly imagine the flavour revolution brought by the importation of new commodities, such as chocolate, coffee, tomatoes and potatoes.
Finally, on the cusp of the Revolution, restaurants began to appear, especially in the capital, which promised a bright future for French cuisine!
Find out more about the history of French food.
Diversity and French Regional Cuisine
In Europe, France was one of the earliest known countries to be united politically. This meant that all the different cultures and populations across the regions in France, from the Parisians to the Bretons, the Corsicans to those from Provincial France maintained their culinary traditions but also shared them across borders. Whilst dishes are shared, each region in France has its own culinary specialities.
The Southwest is known worldwide for its geese and ducks.
As well as using their meat in refined dishes (duck breast, foie gras ...), the fat of geese and ducks is also involved in the cooking of many other dishes: like cassoulet for example (French stew).
The Pyrenees Mountains provide meats and dairy products, while many varieties of fruit and vegetables grow in the sunny and temperate climate.
The Southeast of France is more in line with the holy "Mediterranean trilogy": olive, vine and wheat. These ingredients form the basis of the diet here but can be used to make many delicious dishes.
The heat of the summer inspires small light dishes, and on the coast, the products of the Mediterranean Sea are the stars of the show. The tomato is king in good weather, while the cakes of local bakers warm up a sometimes icy winter.
The Influence of French Food around the World
Instead of economy or industry, France shines through its cuisine. It isn’t a surprise then that French gastronomy has officially earned a spot on the UNESCO world heritage list which highlights the world’s respect for the nation’s cooking culture.
If we look at the amount of time France as a nation spends at the dinner table, even the average Frenchman is an established foodie! In addition to being a moment of sensory pleasure, dinner is also a sociable occasion whether it is a family reunion over charcuterie and cheese, a business luncheon at a nice French restaurant, or a date between lovers over vin rouge and mousse au chocolat...
But besides this national love of eating France is also proud of its many famous chefs.
Amongst the world’s top 100 chefs France counts six chefs in the top 10! And of course, this is without counting the cooks of all origins who are inspired by French products and recipes.
Read about the influence of French food around the world.
Our TOP 10 French Recipes
By taking inspiration from traditional specialities cooked in homes across the country we managed to pick out our top 10 French recipes for you try at home!
1. Dauphinoise potatoes, every French grandmother’s speciality, come straight from Dauphine at the end of the eighteenth century. Just mix potatoes with milk and garlic, a little cream and bay leaves, simple but perfect!
2. The pot au feu or stew is one the great classics in French cuisine. It combines vegetables with meat, usually beef, and is cooked for a good few hours. An ideal dish for winter, kill two birds with one stone heating up your house while cooking!
3. Coq au vin literally ‘Rooster in wine’ is arguably less prestigious than some other famous French foods. Born of frugality the dish used up cheaper cuts of poultry and so served as a cheaper version of the Beef Bourguignon. But braise some chicken with wine add in lardons, mushrooms and garlic and voila, a delicious meal!
4. Quiche Lorraine might not exactly be haute cuisine but sometimes you just need something simple. Eggs, bacon and cream combine to make this family favourite.
5. Perhaps a little less French, as it was inherited from Eastern Europe, horse tartar (traditional) or beef (more common today) are some of the more refreshing dishes. Definitely one for the carnivores!
6. From the Southwest comes the Cassoulet a rich, slow-cooked casserole made with meat, pork skin and white beans). Serve with some vegetables on the side.
7. Boeuf Bourguignon combines good quality beef with quality wine. Cooked over low heat for a long time, this hearty dish is full of flavour. Pair this with a fresh baguette and you have the perfect winter warmer!
8. Bouillabaisse - A 100% Mediterranean dish originating from Marseille, this is a classic full-flavoured seafood stew that will bring all the tastes and smells of the sea.
9. Whilst some would say mussels could be eaten with any sauce, you cannot beat the typically French Moules marinière. Pair this creamy garlicky dish with a plate of french fries and some french bread for a real crowd pleaser.
10. And finally, a food that people think that French eat all the time, snails! Escargots à la bourguignonne is basically snails cooked in garlic herb butter and is the most popular snail dish you will find.
What are your favourite French dishes to make? Maybe its French onion soup, croque monsieur, or a tarte tatin with delicious caramelized apple? Or maybe you're stuck at making crepes and omelettes? Master you own cooking techniques and have a go at these French meals yourself! Check out our cooking classes to become a gourmet chef in French cuisine.