Famous for its unusual components and sense of adventure, French cuisine is more an art form than a means of sustenance, and there’s a reason it’s one of the most revered cultural cuisines in the world.
Rich in Flavor, Rich in History
It’s impossible to discuss French cuisine without also discussing French history. This food is so beautiful and artful because it has been woven out of the tapestry that guided the country on whole. In a sense, taking a bite of French food is similar to tasting the country’s history. The haught of the monarchy, the passion of the revolution, and the availability of so many fresh ingredients all inform the flavors present in French cuisine.
The French place a great deal of importance on using the freshest items that they can. For this reason, many French people visit markets multiple times a week. French markets are vibrant, open air gatherings of local farmers and producers of all sorts. This doesn’t just include fruit and vegetable produce, but also cheese, butter, wine, and seasoning. The freshness of the ingredients makes a difference you can taste, and the world has taken notice.
Since 1900, the French Michelin star system has symbolized the highest degree of culinary excellence. A Michelin star is incredibly difficult to achieve, and therefore the ultimate dream of every fine dining establishment. In turn, many aspiring chefs believe that studying French cuisine in France is the only way to establish a solid foundation within the world of the culinary arts.
A sense of adventure has always been important to French cuisine. Even back when King Louis XIV was in power, explorers from Asia and Africa would return with delights from these exotic regions, and the French would quickly adopt them into their cooking. Things like kumquats and yellow saffron were welcome additions to the cuisine.
Baguettes are always served as a part of any French meal, though it can be served in a variety of different ways. Beyond this and the overarching sense of sophistication, curiosity, and love for quality ingredients, different regions of France feature their own spins on this elevated cuisine.
For example, in Northwestern France a region called Brittany favors crepes (very thin pancakes) served with cider. In Alsace, in Eastern France, you may see a dish called la choucroute, which is cabbage and sausage pieces. On the coast, seafood becomes the focus of the cuisine. Though each of these recipes is a regional speciality, variations may be served throughout the country.
Indeed, class has had almost as important a role in shaping French cuisine as region. Provincial dishes like Bouillabaisse and Ratatouille were originally developed as economical ways to feed lower class families, but have since become beloved classics for the entire country.
Although France is known for having a complicated and sophisticated cuisine (the product of opulence during the monarchy), a look at some of their most traditional dishes proves that they were also a people reluctant to let anything go to waste. Ris de Veau, for example, is the classic French sweetbread dish made of unwanted cuts of meat and organs. This speaks to a general hunger, a “waste not, want not” attitude.
Ultimately, this all boils down to the fact that there are certain French staples every region uses in their dishes (like butter, wine, baguettes, and fresh produce), but the ways in which they use them depend largely on regional availability and the history of wealth in the area.
In a League of Its Own
It’s difficult to compare French food to any other cuisine for a number of reasons, but to make a sweeping statement, it’s simply because the French approach food in an entirely different way than any other culture.
The French attitude toward eating can be summed up with one simple phrase: eat to enjoy, not just to live. Where other parts of the world may simply feature a cuisine that sprung up as the most efficient way to support life, French cuisine developed out of the country’s collective love for food.
Perhaps this emphasis on enjoying every meal is the reason that wine is practically considered its own food group in France. In times of celebration this becomes especially true, as Champagne is basically a requirement to fully enjoy any joyous occasion.
Maybe even more integral to the cuisine itself is the unique blend of tradition and innovation. French food only became such a lauded cuisine due to the fact that it didn’t play by the rules; this constant pushing of the boundaries actually became a tradition of its own. There are, of course, staple dishes in French cuisine, but there is also a constant sense of movement.
The result of this continuous evolution is multiple distinct phases in the history of French cuisine. The first of these phases was called Haute Cuisine (literally translating to high cuisine) and saw the creation of such French institutions as the roux and pastries.
Next was the French Revolution period, which placed greater value on herbs and sauces than Haute Cuisine had. This paved the way for a period of updated Haute Cuisine in the early 20th century defined by something called the Brigade system. This divided the kitchen into different stations to streamline the process, and is used in most professional restaurants today.
Finally, Nouvelle cuisine developed out of this new system. This development in the cuisine placed renewed emphasis on the natural flavors present in the specially curated ingredients. It did this by reducing cook times so meat and vegetables maintained their flavoral integrity.
All in all, it’s difficult to say what exactly it is that sets French food apart, because there are so many defining factors. Essentially, there’s no other cuisine that is so willing to reinvent itself over and over again for the take of increasing the enjoyment of all those who partake in it.
French meals have a certain structure, and similar flavor profiles can often be detected. In terms of herbs and seasonings, French cuisine often utilizes: sea salt, black pepper, white pepper, thyme, rosemary, parsley, tarragon, bay leaves, and nutmeg. The French are also big fans of using regional wines as the base of sauces or to cook meat in.
The French love to add vegetables to their dishes, and some of the ones you’ll see most frequently are: onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and pickles. However, the true genius of French cooking comes from their repeated use of heartier ingredients, like: butter, cheese, stock, eggs, bread, potatoes, and meats.
A good French meal will almost always include bread, meat, another type of starch (like lentils or potatoes), and greens. This may take several dishes to achieve, but it represents the typical basis for French food.
French cuisine may just have more well known dishes than any other grouping. Some of these are simply unusual cheeses, others are highly involved works of cultural art, but some of the most classic French dishes are ones you have to try while you have the chance.
- French Onion Soup
Partly sweet, partly savory, this brothy soup is all comfort food. Usually topped with cheese and a baguette slice, this soup is a usual contender for French natives’ favorite dish. It exemplifies some of the best things about French food: bold flavors, simple ingredients, and a touch of indulgence.
Chicken braised with wine, mushrooms, and lardons, what’s not to like about this distinctly French classic? This dish is a great example of regional variations; though Burgundy is the traditional wine used, it may change to Champagne, Riesling, or some other local varietal as means of localization.
- Salad Lyonnaise
A very simple dish, Salad Lyonnaise features a fresh bed of greens mixed with bacon and topped with a poached egg. Often sliced radish is also included, and the entire concoction will receive a healthy peppering. This is another triumph of the French ability to bring together complementary flavors without going overboard.
Of course, the entirety of dishes considered classics in French cuisine are far too numerous to list. Interestingly enough, although pastry is an important part of the French style, most French do not eat pastry for dessert. Instead, a simple fruit and cream dish is preferred, and pastry is an ordinary breakfast choice.
If you want to try your hand at creating some of these delectable French dishes, here is a recipe to help you get started along your way.
Keeping with the French tradition of using wine as an ingredient and not just a beverage, beef bourguignon is a mouth watering, slow-simmered classic.
- Olive oil (1 tablespoon)
- Chopped bacon (6 ounces)
- Trimmed beef brisket in 2-inch chunks (3 pounds)
- Flour (2 tablespoons)
- Red Wine (3 cups)
- Beef stock (2 cups)
- Small mushrooms (1 pound)
- Tomato paste (2 tablespoons)
- Butter (2 tablespoons)
- Salt, pepper, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves
Luckily, once you’ve done the legwork of preparing your ingredients, the process of actually making the beef bourguignon isn’t all that complicated, if you think about it in terms of waves:
- First, simmer the bacon and set it aside.
- In its grease, sear the beef, and then saute the vegetables.
- Once they are softened, return the meat to the pan and add salt, pepper, and flour.
- Add wine, beef stock, tomato paste, and herbs, then allow to simmer.
- Move the dish to the oven to simmer slowly for about 4 hours.
- Just before the dish is finished, cook your mushrooms and add them to the final product.
After this is finished, you’re ready to serve your French creation. The meat will be incredibly tender and packed with signature French flavor.
Because French cuisine is so loved, it has influenced the cuisine of many other parts of the world. Partly due to colonization and partly due to immigration, little hints of French cuisine can be found practically everywhere in the world.
In Vietnam, when the French colonized in the 19th century, they introduced baguettes, pastries, coffee, potatoes, and cauliflower, which were all adopted into the local cuisine of Vietnam. Now, even some of the most traditional Vietnamese dishes feature French influence. The bahn mi sandwich, for example, is a Vietnamese speciality but it is actually served on a flaky baguette.
Even Mexican food has historically been swayed by French influence. The term “la comida afrancescada” means Frenchified cooking, and it arose in the 1800s when French food was first introduced to Mexico and was widely loved.
A little further North, the influence of French cuisine is immediately evident in Cajun cooking. The distinctive Louisiana cuisine came about as the result of Canadian immigrants (whose families had, at one point, emigrated from France); these transplants brought with them the knowledge of rural French cuisine, which often meant hearty dishes cooked in a single pot.
Speaking of Canada, French influence is an important aspect of culture there as well. Much of Canada is populated by those of French descent, and some communities (like Montreal) still speak French pretty regularly. Basically, the long ago Canadian immigrants so loved their homeland that they turned their new home into a sort of updated version of it.
In a much more literal sense, French cuisine has changed the course of every culinary scene by introducing the brigade system to kitchens. The streamlined process allows for restaurants of substance to turn out a high number of dishes without compromising on quality, and completely revolutionized the process of cooking on a large scale by giving every individual a specific job.
There’s a reason French food has the reputation that it does: it’s bold, brave, delicious, and always on the cusp of something new.