The food of France is a major reason to visit a country where good food and wine are such a large part of its culture. And it’s official. In 2010, UNESCO made French cuisine, or more specifically, the French multi-course gastronomic meal with its rituals, superb cooking and presentation, a UNESCO ‘world intangible heritage’. So no need to feel guilty about putting the food of France at the top of your list.
You’ll find top Michelin-starred restaurants all over France and a meal at one of these could be a highlight of your trip. It may cost you a fair bit (they are inevitably very expensive), but don’t forget that many of them offer a very good value set-price lunch. Do a bit of research on restaurants in the town or city you’re visiting (or even the deep countryside) and you may discover the meal of a lifetime.
If you don’t fancy all the rather stiff formality of a top meal, seek out the small bistros that every small town or large city has, for a thoroughly satisfying local experience.
Whichever region you are in, try to eat the specialties of that part of France.
History of the Food of France
The Gauls started it all
France has always been an important agricultural country, with a wonderful climate and rich soil. The history of French food goes right back to the ancient Gauls who baked bread using millet, oats, barley and wheat and hunted wild pigs and game in the forests. They were some of the first Europeans to preserve meat by salting and smoking.
The Romans get serious
It was the Romans who first introduced a more sophisticated cuisine, using the recipes of Apicius. Marcus Gavius Apicius was a well known Roman high liver, particularly fond of good food, wine and luxury. He lived sometime in the 1st century AD, but the recipes attributed to him weren’t written down until the 4th or 5th Centry AD. His book was then published again and again through the centuries.
More importantly, the Italians introduced a wine culture, planting vines in the Bordeaux region, the Rhône Valley, Burgundy and Moselle.
The Middle Ages – A long journey from the 5th to 15th Centuries
During the Middle Ages, there was a huge gulf between rich and poor. The nobles dined off game, pies, sweetmeats and more.
The poor supped on bread and oatmeal gruels.
The huge gap between very rich and very poor was largely bridged by the monasteries. The monks became specialists at digging fish ponds and breeding pike, eels and carp (influenced by the church’s insistence on no meat allowed on certain days of the year). They kept bees and made honey and most importantly made cheese, a tradition which is still strong today.
The monks planted vineyards and produced wines…which they also drank.
The fairs and markets that we love today owe their origin to the more settled society of the 8th and 9th centuries. Towns and cities developed, as did an artisan class who moved away from the countryside. Farmers living outside the towns produced the food, bringing it in on a weekly basis to sell.
New Ingredients – The excitement!
This was the time when exotic ingredients began to appear in Europe. It’s difficult to imagine the excitement today when we think nothing of buying runner beans from Kenya, coffee from Colombia and strawberries the whole year round.
The opening up of the Mediterranean as one of the great trading areas of the world, and the Crusades to the Near East were crucial. They brought plums from Damascus (Damson is French for plum), pomegranates, figs from Malta, dates and rice.
But most important of all were the spices that now flooded into western Europe: aniseed, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon. These invaluable commodities disguised the tastes of gently rotting ingredients and helped preserve them.
In the 12th century, mustard began to be produced in Dijon, giving added taste to the meat cooked by the rôtisseurs (roast meat sellers), and pie makers of urban life.
Aristocratic life and cooking
The lords and nobles kept their châteaux well stocked and their inhabitants well fed, though table arrangements were still primitive. The 14th-century chef to Charles V, Guillaume Tirel, better known as Taillevent (1310-1395) published his cookbook Le Viandier which became the basis for all subsequent French cuisine. It lists all the ingredients then in vogue which ran from peacocks to swan, whale to young rabbits cooked in spiced sauce.
A new source
At the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th, foods began arriving from the newly discovered land of America. Can you imagine the extraordinary effect of guinea fowls, turkeys, tomatoes, potatoes and sweetcorn suddenly appearing.
The Renaissance and the Flowering of French Cooking
Italy had a huge influence on France following the marriage of the future Henri II to Catherine de’ Medici in 1547. Not only did the powerful and wily Italian build (and take over) magnificent châteaux in the Loire valley like Blois and Chenonceau, she also brought Italian ingredients, dishes and the way of eating to her new country. Italian head chefs flocked to France, helping develop banquets that might include lampreys in hippocras sauce and ducklings.
The 17th Century and cuisine takes off
Henry IV (‘good King Henry’) born in 1553, was the first Bourbon King of France, reigning from 1559 to his death in 1610. From the point of view of food, his reign is marked by the poule au pot dish about which he proclaimed: “I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he cannot have a chicken in his pot every Sunday”.
It was a time of expanding agriculture and particularly of vegetables like cauliflowers and asparagus introduced by the agronomist Olivier de Serres. Another innovation was sorbet pioneered again by the Italians. More famous cook books appeared, including Cuisinier français by François de la Varenne in 1651.
Louis XIV’s reign was characterized by huge, elaborate formal banquets, with dishes served separately for the first time. The Sun King (1638-1715) certainly knew how to live well. His favorite palace? The magnificent Versailles — where the potager has to be seen to be believed.
More Kings: Louis XV to Louis XVI (1715-1793)
The 18th century is seen as the golden age of French cuisine; a time when the Age of Enlightenment encouraged healthy living. Agriculture boomed and large-scale famine disappeared. It was also the time when petits soupers (little suppers) encouraged chefs to come up with good (and for that era simple) dishes such as pate de foie gras with truffles and chicken vol-au-vent.
The first restaurants appeared in Paris during the reign of Louis XV, serving menus that would be familiar today in their order (though the desserts by far outnumbered the other dishes).
Several of the 18th century innovators are still thriving today like La Pérouse. It was founded in 1766 by King Louis XIV’s personal limonadier or beverage maker, Monsieur Lefèvre.
All change for the Food of France: French Revolution to the Second Empire 1789-1833
Although the French Revolutionaries had other things to concern themselves, they did secure the release of thousands of cooks whose aristocratic masters had been guillotined or had fled abroad. They were the perfect people to try their luck at opening a restaurant.
In the 1870s following the loss of the French province of Alsace to a newly unified Germany after the Franco-Prussian, Paris saw an influx of Alsatians. Beer and choucroute were the flavor of the time, and brasseries appeared on every street corner. Grand cafés had already begun to appear, gorgeous over-the-top affairs for the new restaurant-going public.
Moving on: 19th and 20th Centuries
By the early 1900s French chefs were employed by the monarchs of Europe and anybody who had any pretension to the good life. Escoffier was one of the great names; visit his modest house, now a museum, in Villeneuve-Loubet in the south of France for an idea of the times.
Grand restaurants were joined by smaller bistros, run often by people from the Auvergne, escaping the poverty of life in that remote region.
Michelin published its first guide to France for motorists in 1900, giving a copy away with a tyre purchase. In 1926 Michelin began to award stars and took off as the bible of restaurant goers in France.
Michelin was challenged in 1972 by two French food critics, Henri Gault and Christian Millau who championed the Nouvelle Cuisine movement that was sweeping France. Cooking was simplified; restaurants were seen as places to enjoy a meal rather than the temple of gastronomy ideal. Presentation and a healthier diet were all part and parcel and for years their Gault Millau guides encouraged new restaurants that were very different from the Michelin formula.
Nouvelle cuisine was later rejected; it became allied in people’s minds with small portions, albeit beautifully presented, odd combinations of tastes (raspberry vinegar at one point seemed to appear in everything), and pretentiousness.
The Food of France Today
Today there is a huge diversity in restaurants in France. The top 3-Michelin starred restaurants are among the best in the world (though increasingly challenged), with chefs like Alain Ducasse conquering the haute cuisine world.
Small restaurants flourish, relying on fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced locally.
Brasseries continue to be wildly popular and the best offer some of the best value for money, in terms of food, décor and sheer enjoyment.
There are changes in France; and particularly among the young who no longer learn to cook from their mothers and grandmothers as life becomes more fragmented and busy.
But the rot has not entirely set in. France virtually stops between noon and 2pm to sit down to lunch with shops, businesses and banks closed. All is not yet lost.