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The Basics of French Regional Cooking

Photo by The British Library

French cooking can be split and grouped along geographical lines. Each region of France has it’s own distinct style of cooking along with regional ingredient and recipes. Even the way a french meal is eaten and at what time can vary from place to place. Here is our fast guide to the food regions of France.

Alsace and Lorraine

Alsace and Lorraine extend the length of the border that France shares with Germany, and, historically, these regions have often been under German control. Both the language and the cooking have been strongly affected by this shared past. Here, the cabbage that grows so well in all northern regions of France is made into choucroute (sauerkraut). The dish is perhaps the area’s best known local specialty, along with foie gras, but these are just two among many. Cabbage might also made into potée (a soup flavored with pork and assorted vegetables), and the plump goose that contributes the foie gras makes a frequent appearance in local dishes. Pork products, especially sausages, are available in great variety. Among the items that are especially indicative of German influence are spaetzle, the onion-topped tarte flambée, and blond beer.

Fruits grow well here. Both Alsace and Lorraine are famed for their fresh fruit tarts and fruit-based eaux de vies, among them mirabelle (a spirit made from the tiny, pale green plums of the same name), kirsch (made from ripe wild cherries), and framboise (made from raspberries).

Alsace photo
Alsace photo by GuentherDillingen

In Alsace, the primary money-making crop is the grapes that are used to make the famous white Rhine wines of the area. These wines, among them Rieslings, Muscats, and Gewürtztraminers, are the counterparts of those produced just across the border in Germany. Alsace is also the source of Munster cheese, which is utterly unlike the orange-coated product known by the same name in America. French Munster gains strength and flavor as it ages. One popular way of serving it provides minced raw onions and caraway seeds for sprinkling over the runny cheese, which is spread onto a thick, crusty slice of bread.

Lorraine contributes a number of baked goods to the French repertoire. Quiches, savory tarts filled with egg custard, are native to the area. The most famous of these is quiche lorraine, made with bacon and Gruyère cheese added to the custard. It is traditionally served on May Day with suckling pig. The town of Commercy is said to be the birthplace of the madeleine, and macaroons were created in Nancy.

Aquitaine: Bordeaux, Perigord, and Charente

Occupying the prime grape-growing regions along the Atlantic coast, Bordeaux and Charente make the very most of their terrain. Bordeaux is the world’s largest producer of high-quality red and white wines, thanks to the fertile valleys of the Garonne, Dordogne, and Gironde rivers. The reds are distinguished by the use of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grape varieties; the whites, by Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Such famous wineries as Mouton-Rothschild and the Chateaux Margaux, Lafite, and Latour are to be found there, in addition to dozens of others.

Just to the north, beside the Charente river, grow the grapes from which Cognac and Armagnac are distilled. This process, developed during the 17th century, was originally intended to reduce the cargo tariffs due on wine exported to England and Holland. The plan was to cook the wine down to reduce the volume, transport it, and reconstitute it at the other end. Instead, they discovered that boiling wine created something worthwhile in itself.

Bordeaux, and especially the capital city that gives the region its name, is considered one of the gastronomic highlights of France. Atlantic seafood forms the basis of many local specialties. Oysters and mussels are plentiful. Eel is prepared in a number of ways — the full-grown are simmered into a soup called bouilliture, and baby ones (pibales) are served sautéed with garlic. The lamb from the town of Pauillac is renowned.

In Charente, which shares Bordeaux’s cuisine, the town of Echiré produces exceptionally rich butter, over 83% fat, as compared to the 78% that is standard in America. Wild mushrooms — cèpes — grow in the Charentain forests, which also yield a fair share of truffles.

The truffle is the elite local specialty, especially the Perigord black truffle, which is found in the region along the Dordogne (as well as in Languedoc and Provence). These ebony-colored, potent-flavored fungi are unearthed from around the roots of the forest trees, where they hide quite out of sight. Traditionally, they were harvested by leaving the search to pigs, to whom their scent was irresistably similar to that of a female of the species in heat. These days, dogs are more popular truffle-snufflers. They’re willing to lead their handlers to the source in exchange for a treat — and they have little interest in the truffle once it is found.

Brittany (Bretagne)

The rugged peninsula that juts unprotected into the Atlantic ocean at the northwest corner of France is as distinctive as one might expect, given its isolation, the hard terrain, and the cool climate. The people here are Celtic descendants of those who fled England during the 5th century to escape the Saxon invaders, and the language still spoken in some parts of the region reflects this. Their druidic origins also account for the presence in the countryside of megaliths similar to Stonehenge. The tough fishermen who work off the broken coastline bring in a good supply of ocean fish. Brittany’s contributions to the French seafood menu include sole à la bretonne and cotriade. Shellfish, and especially oysters, which have built-in protection from the rough waves, are quite plentiful.

The flavor that never lacks in Breton cuisine is salt. Much of the land is salt marsh, and this perceptibly flavors the meat of the livestock. Pre-salé lamb, the meat of à lamb raised on a particularly salty diet, is a specialty. Even the vegetables are saltier, perhaps because seaweed is used as garden fertilizer. (Seaweed is also eaten both fresh and pickled.)

The Bretons mine salt, or rather, collect it from the marshes where it crystalizes in sufficient quantities. It is a delicacy among table salts and is sold as fleur de sel (salt flowers). Although buttermilk and fresh cheeses are popular, there is little production of aged cheese in Brittany. This is partly because the salt content of their butter is high enough to preserve it quite efficiently, reducing the need to use other methods to extend the life of their milk. The region’s beurre salé is so salty that it actually tastes a bit like cheese.

Bretons are the inventors of buckwheat crêpes or galetous, which may be the original version of the delicate, white-flour crêpes served sweet or savory in less rugged parts of the country. Galetous are usually served with a savory filling. Among their distinctive and delicious baked goods are kouign-aman (a flaky pastry layered with caramelized sugar), gâteau breton (a buttery pound cake), and far breton (a sort of eggy popover that contains prunes or raisins).

Champagne and the North

In the northern regions of France, just across the border from Belgium, Flemish culinary influences may be seen in the popularity of herring and the presence of street vendors hawking frites or waffles. The charcuterie in the area is quite varied and includes such items as andouillettes (pork sausages made with pork chitterlings), sheep’s trotters, and ham. The cool autumn climate is just right for producing root vegetables of many kinds — onions, potatoes, carrots, beets, and leeks. These are used in many of the local dishes, among them hochepot (the northern version of pot-au-feu, a meat and vegetable stew usually flavored with juniper berries) and carbonnade (a beef stew made with the local beer, mustard, and onions).

The landscape in the area is consistently tranquil. The broad, flat plains are ideal for cultivating such crops as wheat, rye, and potatoes. On the gentle slopes of the hills around Rheims and along the Yonne River are found the grapes for the region’s most important contribution to French gastronomy, Champagne. This sparkling white wine was first discovered in the 17th century by a monk named Dom Pérignon, who lived in an abbey near Epernay, now the center of one of the major Champagne-producing areas.

Franche-Comté and Savoy

The Swiss border of France is delineated by the Jura mountains, which, in turn, give way to the Alps. This is the precipitous terrain that characterizes Franche-Comté. To the south, where France meets Italy, is the equally mountainous Savoy, which, until 1860 was a part of the Italian confederated states. The foods of these regions tend to be substantial, the better to warm body and soul. Fondue au fromage and raclette (both made with melted Comté cheese), civet, gaudes, panada, and matefaim (whose name means “hunger-tamer”) are examples of this. Dishes in these regions are often prepared au gratin,that is, with a generous sprinkling of cheese and bread crumbs on top, grilled until the whole surface melts and bubbles.

Rivers and streams yield numerous fresh water seafood, especially perch, trout, and crayfish. Truite au bleu, a local savoyard preparation, calls for killing and gutting the trout the instant before plunging it into a vinegar-spiked court bouillon.

The mountains provide an ideal habitat for cows. The local variety, the Montbéliard, produce so much milk that cheesemaking in the region is especially varied. Morbier, Vacherin, Reblochon, and the most famous of them, Comté, a French version of Gruyère, are all produced here. Walnuts, and their related products — oil, jam, and liqueur, are another specialty of the area.

Gascony and the Pays Basque

The influence of the Spanish is strong in the Pyrenees mountains, which define the southwestern border of France and the Gascony region. At the very extremity of the country, right on the Bay of Biscay, the Basque language is still spoken. It is a language whose origins are still in dispute — so far all efforts to establish its relationship with any other linguistic system have failed. The Basque were once whalers who captured their prey in the Bay of Biscay; they now harvest such ocean fish as tuna, sardines, and swordfish, all of which play a major role in Basque cooking, but less so in Gascony.

Ortolans, small birds, popular throughout central and southern France, are especially well-liked in the southwest where they’re fattened before being roasted. The town of Bayonne gives its name to the area’s famous dry-cured ham and is believed by some to be the birthplace of mayonnaise. Other local specialties include garbure, axoa, and foie gras. Cornmeal polenta, known here as broye or cruchade, is made from maize, the New World import that arrived in the 16th century and took the place of millet as a popular food grain. Another adoptee from the Americas, the pepper (or pimento), in both sweet and hot variations, has been so incorporated into the cuisine that peppers are the defining ingredient of sauce basquaise.

Provence and Languedoc

Who would guess that the chilly, gray celtic shores of Brittany are only a little over 400 miles away? Here in the Mediterranean south, especially in Provence, which lies east of the Rhone River, the sun shines hot and bright most of the year. The only reminder of the cold is the mistral, a sudden chilly wind that blasts through the countryside from time to time. Rosemary, sage, thyme, and lavendar, which find their way into so many local dishes, flourish in the wild as well as in carefully tended gardens. The fruits, notably melons and citruses (in the east), are delectable. The Mediterranean yields a wealth of seafood, which is found in many local dishes, most famously in the saffron-tinged fish stew known as bouillabaisse. A specialty all along the coastline, the bouillabaisse of Marseille, in Provence, is overwhelmingly considered to be definitive. The reasons vary but seem mostly to have to do with Marseille being in just the right place for netting just the right assortment of fish for the pot.

Marseille photo by fred2600
Marsille photo by fred2600

Languedoc is credited with inventing cassoulet, also popular in western Provence. There is, however, some rivalry between Languedocian towns, over precisely who developed the definitive version. Everyone agrees that the dish must contain white beans, spices, and meats — the debate centers around which meats are the right ones. Toulouse, the capital city of Languedoc, adds confit of goose or duck, along with mutton and pork. The towns of Carcassonne (leg of mutton and partridge in season) and Castelnaudary (assorted fresh and salt pork products) make their own bids for the honor.

As the Languedoc region reaches toward the Pyrenees, the influence of the Spanish becomes more visible in the cooking, as, for example, in the omelets made with green peppers, ham, and onions. Or in the cornmeal-based dish called millas. In the central part of the region, in the town of Roqeufort, the cheese of the same name is made. It was apparently invented during Roman times, and its history is illustrious. In 1411, King Charles VI granted the village the exclusive right to cure their local cheeses in the caves nearby, and current legislation prevents any cheese other than true Roquefort from the town from using the name.

The key raw materials that define Provençal cooking are garlic, olive oil (and olives), and tomatoes. Also especially popular are eggplant, zucchini, anchovies, and basil. These distinctive flavors are found in different combinations in almost all the local specialties, which include ratatouille, pistou, and pan bagnat — and the even more visibly Italian-influenced pastas and pissaladière.

Numerous red and white wines are produced in the vineyards of Provence and Languedoc, in addition to the local Provençal specialty, pastis, an herbal cordial, in which the most predominant flavors are anise and liquorice.

The Loire Valley

More than one region has claimed the title, but the fertile valley of the Loire River truly deserves to be called the “Garden of France.” It is possible to grow fruits and vegetables almost year-round here. Local specialties include Loire river salmon, shad, and the small freshwater fish used to make friture. Cardoons, shallots, tarragon, and fresh grape vinegar are all distinctive flavors of the region. Anjou, the area around the town of Angers, is famed for its orchard fruits — prune plums, peaches, and especially pears — although the fruits everywhere in the Loire Valley are magnificent. Just to the east of Anjou, Tours (the town that forms the centerpoint of the “Touraine”), is known for its charcuterie, especially its rillons and rillettes, made with potted goose or pork.

The famous tarte Tatin (or, as it was originally called, tarte des desmoiselles Tatin) is native to the Loire Valley. The recipe is said to have been made public by two spinster sisters, gentlewomen who found themselves in difficult financial circumstances and were forced to support themselves by selling their father’s special upsidedown apple tart.

The Massif Central and Burgundy

The central, landlocked regions of France are characterized by a hearty, peasant-based cuisine that complements, and often makes use of, the abundant wines, both white and red, produced in the area. Beef à la bourguignonne and daube of beef both require long simmering of meat and vegetables in red wine; oeufs en meurette is made by poaching eggs in red wine.

The famous pale yellow mustard of Dijon is made with white wine and is liberally used as a condiment and for cooking. Escargots in garlic butter is another local specialty — the snails here are known for being especially plump, perhaps because they are fattened on a generous diet of grape leaves. Clafouti, little custard tarts, make use of the abundant fresh fruits that thrive here, and the black currants of the region are used to make the liqueur, crème de cassis.

The city of Lyon, established at the point where the Rhone and the Saône rivers meet, is famous for its cuisine, whose signature ingredients are organ meats and onions. Tripe, sausages, and sautéed calf’s liver are among the specialties visitors to a Lyonnais bistro are sure to encounter.

Charolles, a small town to the northwest of Lyon is the center of a beef-producing region based on the local white cow, the Charolais. These animals produce particularly lean meat of a sort that is entirely different from what Americans, who like their steak marbled with fat, are used to. But it is ideal for making pot-au-feu, and the many other stewed beef dishes that are popular.

Normandy

The birthplace of William the Conqueror is just a quick boat ride across the English Channel from the island he defeated in the 11th century. Nearly 900 years later, the Allied forces came from the opposite direction to snatch France back from the Germans. The Norman shoreline stretches broad and calm for miles, perfect for fishing. And the peaceful, fertile meadows are home to the dairy cows who produce the butter (the town of Isigny is especially famous for it) and cream that enrich almost every dish. Numerous cheeses are produced in the region, including Camembert, Neufchatel, and Pont-l’Évêque.

There are almost no vineyards here. Instead, there are apple orchards, so the “wine” of Normandy is Calvados. This twice-distilled apple brandy is used in many local dishes, among them tripe à la mode de Caen. Popular meats include Rouennais duck and boudin noir, and the plentiful seafood served with creamy sauces or in stews. Normandy cooking has had an important influence over all french cuisine.

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