The land of cheese, croissants, and crêpes is waiting for you.
Forget the Louvre and Mont-St-Michel—the real reason for a visit to France is to dine at its famous temples of gastronomy. Once you have your first meal here, you’ll quickly realize that food in France is more than just fuel. The French regard gastronomy as essential to the art of living, so any worthy itinerary needs to have a healthy amount of must-eats and at least one attempt at treating dining as religiously as the French do. Here’s where to start.
Bœuf Bourguignon was once considered a peasant’s meal: one large piece of chewy meat cooked slowly over two days to tenderize and absorb flavor. Burgundy is the birthplace of this beloved beef stew, and no place on Earth makes it better. Made from the region’s prime Charolais cattle and red Burgundy wine and combined with onions, garlic, tomato paste, beef stock, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, butter, pearl onions, white mushrooms, carrots, salt, pepper, and potatoes, Bœuf Bourguignon was first referenced in 1903 in a cookbook by chef Auguste Escoffier. Today, chefs put their own signature on the classic dish, from incorporating beef cheeks to caramelizing the onions.
What started out as a humble fisherman’s stew made from unsold fish scraps has become one of the Mediterranean’s most iconic dishes (and one that can cost up to €125 at some restaurants in the south). Originating from the fishing port of Marseille, bouillabaisse is made in two parts. First, a broth of small fish, tomatoes, onion, garlic, fennel, olive oil, and saffron (and possibly parsley and potatoes) is made and served with croutons and a garlicky breadcrumb sauce called rouille. Next, four-to-six larger fish are added to the soup and served as a second course. The Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter, introduced in 1980, states “one fundamental rule: the fish must be cut up in front of the guests.” It also suggests at least four of the following fish be included: scorpionfish, white scorpionfish, red mullet, skate, conger eel, and John Dory—but these days monkfish, red snapper, and langoustine are considered more upscale. In Marseille, Chez FonFon has been dishing out Bouillabaisse since 1952 while L’Aromat puts a twist on the tradition with its Bouillabaisse burger.
These French beignets were originally a culinary specialty of the Duchy of Savoy, but their deliciousness luckily spread across the entire region, starting with Lyon, St-Etienne, and the Rhone Valley. Named from the word bunyi, which means “doughnut,” these bite-size fritters appear in bakeries every February to mark the beginning of Lent, as well as to coincide with Mardi Gras and Carnival. There are two types: the yellow, flat, and crisp “Lyon” and the twisted ribbon-style “St-Etienne,” a doughier and darker version. But don’t expect to bite into a powdered doughnut, especially since bugnes are typically flavored with orange blossom or lemon.
After the Roman invasion some 2,000 years ago, France and its 2,000 miles of coastline became the first European country to practice l’ostréiculture (oyster farming) on a large scale. This farming started in the northwest tip of France known as Brittany. Today, Brittany’s oyster capital is Cancale, a small fishing town located at the western end of Mont-St-Michel Bay on the region’s Emerald Coast. With a population of just more than 5,000 people, Cancale has been famous for its wild flat oysters (huîtres plates sauvages) for centuries and, more recently starting in the 1950s, for its rounded oysters (huîtres creuses). At around €8 a dozen, you simply can’t do better than a plate of freshly-shucked Cancale oysters and half a lemon from a seafood stand along the quay. Best enjoyed atop the breezy sea wall overlooking the bay, you can just toss the shells into the water after slurping the succulent insides. Cancale’s oyster beds benefit from some of the world’s highest tides and strongest currents, which keep the oysters rich in oxygen and plankton and result in a large, firm yet tender specimen.
This bean stew first appeared in southwest France and became known for its simple ingredients of white beans with pork, sausage, duck confit, and gizzards. The history of cassoulet dates back to the Languedoc region and the 1355 siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales. The locals scrounged together enough food and cooked a big stew in a cauldron. The local earthenware that was used was called cassolle, which contributes to the name of the dish. There are three simple rules to making a cassoulet: first, the beans. When visiting Languedoc, pick up lingot de Lavelanet, the haricot beans of Mazères. Second, the water needs to be hard, and third, according to folklore, the film of the pork skin cooked over the cassoulet needs to be broken seven times to make a perfect dish.
One of Lyon’s great contributions to France’s gastronomic pantheon, charcuterie was invented as a way to both preserve and use every part of the pig. Cured, brined, smoked, or potted, the meat appears as sausages, cured or air-dried ham, hearty pâtés, and rustic terrines (meat, vegetables, boiled eggs, and herbs layered in a ceramic loaf mold, cooked in water, turned out, and sliced for serving). The term typically refers to preserved food prepared from raw or cooked pork, using salt as a preservative, but it can also be made with beef, game like wild boar or hare, poultry (turkey, chicken, or duck), and goose rillettes—a flavorful pâté preserved in a silky layer of rendered fat. There isn’t a corner in France where you won’t find a charcuterie, and it’s become the staple of the apéro dînatoire, a drink-and-snack party replacing the more formal French dinner party. Today, each region has its own specialties, like Montbéliard sausage, Bayonne ham, Le Mans rillettes, and the Normandy andouille de Vire sausage.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that cheese in France is serious business. There are more than 1,200 varieties of cheese here, 45 of which have a Protected Designation of Origin (AOP) certification. Orange or white, firm or creamy, cheese is recognizable by appearance and texture, and each variety should be eaten according to the season. In France, cheese is always served before dessert (not as an appetizer). Start with mild cheese and finish with stronger ones, and never put your piece of bread on your cheese plate. Every shape has a specific way it should be cut, and you’ll have to memorize the list of which cheeses you eat the rinds.
The list of French cheeses can certainly go on forever, but don’t miss tangy Chévre goat cheese from the Loire Valley; opulently creamy Camembert from Normandy; earthy (and not for the faint of heart) Époisses from Burgundy; nutty Munster from Alsace; and gooey Brie from the Ile de France.
Coq au Vin
Coq au vin gets its name from King Henri IV’s promise of “a chicken in every peasant’s pot.” With this winter-warming chicken stew, an entire chicken is braised slowly in red wine from Burgundy, where the dish was first created. Cooking wine is foreign to French chefs, so you can’t make an authentic coq au vin with cooking wine or even red wine from the Rhone Valley. The trick behind the simple recipe is to bring the wine to a boiling point and flambé it to burn away the acidity before pouring it over the chicken. It’s typically served with gratin dauphinois or polenta to soak up the lip-smacking juices.
Crêpes and Galettes
Another illustrious Brittany contribution to French cuisine is the crêpe and its heartier sibling, the galette, both of which can be found in crêperies all over the country. What’s the difference between the two? The darker galette is made with tender buckwheat called blé noir or blé sarrasin, and has a deeper flavor that’s best paired with savory fillings like lobster, truffle oil, or the traditional ham and cheese. The golden sucré crêpe is wheat-based, wafer thin, and made with a lighter batter. It is typically served with sweet fillings like strawberries and cream, apples in brandy, or chocolate. Accompanied by a glass of local cider, these make an ideal light and inexpensive meal.
Croissants and Other French Pastries
For many, the only way to start a morning in France is with a buttery, flaky croissant. This classic delicacy is actually Viennese, based on a 13th-century crescent-shape morning sweet called kipferl, but it wasn’t until the mid-16th century that the Austrian soft dough was replaced with puff pastry. This is why the croissant is often called a viennoiserie. Ever wonder why some croissants are more crescent-shape than others? A moon-shape croissant means it’s made with margarine, and by law, the ends must be tucked in. But between the price of butter in France skyrocketing more than 170% and industrial-made croissants with loads of preservatives finding their way into local bakeries, the buttery Gallic icon is in crisis. Luckily, if you know where to look, you can still find a bakery that can bake a croissant to perfection. Other typical breakfast viennoiseries include the pain au chocolate (or, as they call in the southwest, chocolatine), the custardy pain aux raisins, brioche with sugar or chocolate chips, and the Choquette, a small unfilled puff with sugar crystals.
Burgundy’s plump snails, which are found in its vineyards, appear on menus throughout the country. The signature preparation is à la Bourguignonne, meaning simmered in white wine, stuffed with garlicky parsley-shallot butter, and baked until bubbling. The delicacy is served in portions of six or eight on ceramic escargot dishes called escargotiéres, accompanied by tongs and a little fork. Those immune to the true snail’s charms may succumb to the luscious imposters made of solid chocolate and available at local candy shops and pâtisseries.
Long before the fondue craze of the 1970s, cheese fondue was first popular in 18th-century Switzerland. With limited access to food during long harsh winters, farmers figured out that hunks of hardened bread could be dipped into a communal pot of old Swiss Gruyère or Emmental cheese melted with white wine. In France, stabbing a two-prong skewer with baguette is particularly popular in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, where the gooey cheese feast is known as fondue savoyarde and uses Rhone Alps cheeses like Comté, Beaufort, or Emmental. When indulging, drink white wine, kirsch, or tisane tea (no water!), otherwise, the melted cheese coagulates in your stomach and causes indigestion.
Every second, 320 baguettes are eaten in France, according to the Observatoire du Pain (yes, that’s a scientific research center dedicated to all things French bread). But seriously is there anything better than oven-fresh, amber-crusted French bread, especially for an average of €0.87 per loaf? Une baguette traditionnelle is more expensive and, by law, can only be made of flour, water, leaven, and salt. If you prefer a softer baguette, be sure to order pas trop cuite; if you like crunchy, ask for trop cuite. Biting off the end of a baguette as you leave the bakery is one of the rare times it’s acceptable to eat and walk at the same time in France, but one dough pas to avoid is putting your bread on your plate during a meal—always set it to the side.
La Mére Poulard Omelete
There is no more famous omelet in the world than the puffy, pillow-like confection offered at La Mére Poulard in Mont-St-Michel, Normandy. Whipped with a balloon whisk in a large copper bowl, then cooked in a long-handled skillet over a wood fire, the omelet is delicately browned and crusted on the outside, as soft and airy as a soufflé within. Order the omelet with ham and cheese as a main course, or sugared and flambéed as a divine dessert.
Magret de Canard
It’s not often that you can pinpoint the exact time and place a dish became a national treasure, but in 1965, André Daguin, a two Michelin-star chef from Gers, created the magret de canard (roasted duck), which became quickly became a mainstay in the majority of French kitchens. No longer were duck parts prepared confit, but instead, a one-inch-thick breast of Magret duck (the same duck that produces foie gras) was cooked like a steak in a pan and served with green peppers. Even today, you can find it on many a French bistro menu.
Hands down the most influential culinary innovation of the later 20th century, nouvelle cuisine was pioneered by Lyon native son chef Paul Bocuse. A lighter, healthier fare, this new cuisine favors simpler recipes, the freshest possible ingredients, and quick-cooking times to highlight the natural flavors of vegetables and meat. Although it may seem something of a paradox coming from the center of hearty dishes, savory sauces, and cured meats, nouvelle caught on like wildfire, sparking a worldwide revolution for both the locavore and slow-food movements. While Chef Bocuse sadly passed away in early 2018, his culinary genius lives on through several high-end restaurants throughout the country. But for a taste of the original, head to his eponymous restaurant in Lyon, which is widely considered one of the greatest restaurants in the world.
Périgord Truffles, the Dordogne
Not to be confused with delicious ganache-based chocolate truffles, the subterranean fungus grows inside tree roots and is sniffed out by dogs. And yet, these dirty tuber melanosporum superstars are ridiculously expensive. The winter black truffle of Périgord in the Dordgogne, known as the Black Diamond, is prized for its pungent smell and flavor; it costs on average $1,200 per pound. The price is partly driven by its scarcity, but also due to the specific soil it needs to grow on the roots of oak trees in the Périgord, as well as in a handful of other regions in France. According to the French Federation of Trufficulteurs, some 30 tons of black truffles were harvested by 20,000 French truffle farmers in 2018. In southern France, local markets sell fragrant truffles in paper bags that can be added to pasta, risotto, or foie gras, but for anyone looking to play truffle hunter for a day, head to the organic truffle farm Les Pastras in Cadenet run by American Lisa Pepin and her French husband. No matter what you unearth, your adventure ends with a meal of truffle fries and truffle burgers.
Like Paris’s most popular cookie, the macaron, these cream-filled choux pastry puffs were introduced to France by Catherine de Médicis, the wife of King Henry II. Around 1530, her chef from Florence created a pâte à Pantanelli, a hot dough used for cakes that two centuries later would be perfected as pâte à choux by chef Antonin Carême, who also filled the pastry with cream and dipped it into warm sauces like caramel or chocolate. Also known as crème puffs, today they are one of France’s most popular sweets and you’ll find them at pastry shops all over the country.
Quenelles de Brochet
Traditionally made with whitefish, especially the native pike from the Saone and Rhone Rivers, the velvety quenelle remains a Lyon classic. Found in every neighborhood bouchon—each with its own special recipe—the dumpling-like fish cake is made with a flour-based white sauce mixed with cooked fish, then strained for a light and fluffy consistency. The mixture is then shaped into ovals, briefly poached, and served with sauce mousseline (whisked egg, mustard, and lemon juice). Although classified as charcuterie, the butter-egg-flour ingredients would make it seem more likely to taste like a dumpling. Yet the melt in your mouth texture has a rich consistency, and shouldn’t taste floury or eggy. References to the quenelles de poisson à la Lyonnaise first appeared in the 1890 edition of the Dictionaire universel de cuisine. At the time, it mixed fish, beef fat, and bone marrow, using equal measures of fish and fat. It may be the signature dish of Lyon, but these days quenelles of dark chocolate ganache, sugar-dusted with blood orange jelly seem more popular outside of France.
Forget politics, nothing divides the residents of Nice more than the question of what goes in their beloved salade niçoise. When a McDonald’s in Italy added the traditional salad to its menu in 2017, their French neighbors tossed their heads in outrage to discover it was served with tuna, eggs, tomatoes, black olives, and…potatoes. Cooked vegetables are banned from the salad, that’s the one rule. And contrary to popular belief, no green beans either. It’s a simple recipe of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions, and cooked eggs, with a few leaves of lettuce and tuna if you want to get fancy. And according to Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes From a Mediterranean Kitchen by Jacques Médecin (Nice’s mayor from 1966 to 1990), an authentic salade niçoise should be topped with salted anchovy fillets and tiny local black olives. He may have been imprisoned for corruption, but Médecin’s recipe is as honest as it gets.