Whether it’s down to geography, history, climate or the education of the people, the cooking of France remains exemplary. It works at three levels: haute cuisine or palace cooking, bourgeois or town cooking, and-based on what’s local and in season-the farmhouse tradition of the independent peasantry. The regions can be roughly divided into those who cook with butter (the North-West), those who use goose fat and pork lard (the middle and South-West) and those who can’t live without olive oil (the Mediterranean South).
If you’re eating out in the provinces, you’ll find the same regional menu everywhere. To those accustomed to eating in restaurants, the idea of eating a superior version of what’s on the table at home might seem strange: the difference lies in the quality of the ingredients and the genius of the chef.
A final thought before the journey begins: timing matters. If you don’t eat when the locals eat, you can’t expect anything but tourist food. The further north you find yourself, the earlier (and faster) people eat.
European Peasant Cookery, by Elisabeth Luard is published by Grub Street at £15
Normandy and Brittany
Brittany has apple orchards and inshore fishing- shellfish, crustaceans and flatfish -together with artichokes, onions, ducks, saltmarsh lamb and a modest production of white wine. Normandy has apple orchards, cider, butter, cream, crustaceans, flatfish, wheat and cheese. The inshore fleets land the catch quayside daily-people drive over from Paris to meet the boats working out of Dieppe. Fish cooked à la bretonne is likely to feature white wine and cream, although when it’s applied to lamb, expect white beans. Anything à la normande will include Normandy’s ripened butter melted with crème fraîche, with cider, calvados and apples optional extras.
Don’t miss Tripes à la mode de Caen (ox-tripe cooked in cider in an earthenware tripière); the traditional trou normand, a digestive shot of calvados taken in the middle of the meal; la cotriade (a creamy Breton bouillabaisse with mussels); sole normande (cider, shrimps, mussels and thick sludgy cream); the big gamey ducks of Rouen cooked au sang, a complicated recipe as served at the Tour d’Argent in Paris; delicate saltmarsh lamb (agneau pré-salé) pastured on the tidal flats; scallops mornay; galettes bretonnes, buckwheat pancakes cooked and filled with anything from a pork sausage to apples and cream. Eat up your belons, amoricaines, fines de claire and the green oysters of Marennes at one of the little restaurants along the Quai Gambetta at Cancale, or go for a takeaway plateful prepared to order by the oyster sellers down at the beach.
Regional cheeses Camembert, Pont l’Eveque, Livarot
The Northern Flatlands
Picardy, Artois, Champagne, Flanders, Alsace-Lorraine
Shifting frontiers and a shared border mean that the cooks of France’s northern provinces share much with the Germanic tradition. Charcuterie is important, particularly pâtés, boiling and grilling sausages and boudins. The Alsaciens have foie gras and confit d’oie, game, wild mushrooms, Mirabelle plums and chestnuts.
Beer is the regional tipple (the sparkling wines of Champagne were strictly for export), with fruit brandies, particularly kirsch, as the digestif. Pork products, brassicas, root vegetables and game are the regional strengths. Pork and sauerkraut-choucroute garnie-is the grape-pickers’ harvest home in Champagne, and the traditional Flemish midday meal is hochepot, a fortifying meat-and vegetable one-pot stew.
Don’t miss Charcuterie, particularly the andouillettes of Troyes; salt-cured, smoked and fresh herrings; rabbit in beer; prune tart; endives or Belgian chicory (chichon in the patois eaten as a salad or braised with bacon; purée Picarde (split-pea soup with watercress); flamiche (leek tart); sole Dieppoise (on the bone cooked in butter, finished with shrimps and cream). For locally caught fish, head for the seafront restaurants of Le Touquet or Berck-Plage.
Regional cheeses Brie champenoise, Maroilles (beer-washed, very pungent), caraway-flavoured Gerome
Massif Central, Perigord, Quercy, Auvergne, Limousin, Ardèche, Burgundy, Lyonnais
The high central plateau is forested in parts, slashed by steep ravines, drained by the Dordogne and the Lot on the west, and boundaried by the Rhône on the east.
Gastronomic strengths are Limousin beef and veal; goose, walnuts and truffles in the Perigord; cheese, garlic and potatoes in the Auvergne; primeurs (early vegetables) in the Gorges du Tarn; forest gatherings and game (particularly hare) in the Ardèche. Dijon has mustard and gingerbread. Bourgogne has the best beef, the most delicious cheeses and the finest poultry (including the mightly blue-legged poulet de Bresse). Lyons knows it’s the gastronomic capital of the world and has the restaurants to prove it.
Don’t miss Lyons’ wonderful Central Market, which is more haute cuisine
than everyday shopping. Bring a well-stuffed purse and pick up a picnic at lunchtime-a slab of foie gras, scoop of creamy brandade, and the most heavenly chocolate tart you’ll ever taste -and settle down at one of the formica-topped tables by the entrance (everyone else does) with a glass of wine.
In Burgundy, don’t miss boeuf bourguignon, gougère (a cheesy choux-pastry), jambon persillé, frog’s legs cooked in white wine and crème fraîche and snails with garlic butter; in the Ardèche, look for chestnut dishes-chestnut bread is delicious with rillettes and a sip of digestif chestnut liqueur. Head to the winter markets of the Dordogne for goose and duck confit, foie gras, stuffed goose’s neck, walnut tart and flaky apple pie. For cheap and cheerful, try pommes sarladaise and confit de cuisse de canard with the Saturday market-traders in the corner cafe on main street in Sarlat. Then, stretch the purse strings for a meal at Michel Bras in the hills above Languiole in the Auvergne: exquisite versions of regional dishes and beautiful wild gatherings.
Regional cheeses Vacherin de Lyons, Maconnais, Epoisses de Bourgogne, Blue d’Auvergne, Roquefort, Rocamadour, Cantal
Self-sufficiency is the traditional style of the region and the food is what suited an independent peasantry accustomed to filling its own larder: goose and duck fattened for foie gras and confit, charcuterie from the household pig, bean-based and closed-pot stews-particularly pot-au-feu and a daube de boeuf made with the dark-red wine of the region-and other hearty dishes to defeat the cold. By the coast, work up an appetite for seafood with a swing through the Camargue-flamingoes, black bulls, white horses, rice paddies-then take yourself to Sete for a bowl of fish soup.
Don’t miss Brandade de morue in Nîmes, the oysters of Bouziges, the walnuts of the Herault, the wild fungi of the Cevennes, the hams of the Montaigne Noire and honey from Narbonne. Goose confit, the sausages of Toulouse and the beans of Soissons, all of which go to make the cassoulets of Castelnaudary, Toulouse and Carcassone. The Christmas foie gras market in Revel, the olive market in Nyons (market takeaway: rabbit on the spit), olive oil from the Farnoux family at Le Vieux Moulin in Mirabel-aux-Baronnies (in truffle time, ask around and you might get lucky).
Regional cheese Crottins (goat’s cheeses), Bleu des Causses
The Touraine heartland and the Loire Valley
This is the birthplace of haute cuisine, so expect the food to be as good as it gets. Regional strengths are everything from poultry river fish to charcuterie. Butter is the cooking fat, wine and cream provide the sauce, and basic raw materials include the products of the market garden, orchard and vineyard.
Don’t miss Beurre blanc with your river fish; steak frites, crêpes suzette, coq au vin, rillettes de Tours-anything ‘de Tours’ is a guarantee of quality; andouille (readycooked tripe sausage), andouillette (best grilled with mustard), boudin blanc (white pudding with pork, chicken and cream), boudin noire (black pudding with blood and pork-fat); William pears, plums, reinette apples, peaches, Maine asparagus, Orléanais game terrines.
Regional cheeses Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun, the goat’s cheeses of Poitou -particularly Chabichou
Provence and the Côte d’Azur
Provence boasts sunshine and seafood, olive oil and garlic, hot weather fruits and vegetables and the herbs of Mediterranean hillsides. An ancient language shared by the Languedoc, proximity to Italy on one side and Catalunya on the other-the Provençale language can be understood by a Catalan-gives the culinary habit a distinctly Mediterranean flavour. Look for authentic paella as the market takeaway-there’s lots of physical crossover with Spain.
Don’t miss The candied flowers of Grasse; lavender honey; acacia fritters; aioli garni (very garlicky mayonnaise with plain cooked vegetables and perhaps sea snails); a proper caper-based tapenade; pissaladière, onion-anchovy pizza (the Riviera’s fast-food): pieds et paquets and the tripe and trotters of Marseilles.
Also in Marseilles, check out the fish market by the yacht harbour for some weird seacreatures, including the iodine-y violets and take-away soupe de poisson. Martigues is where they prepare the caviar of the Mediterranean, bortago (saltcured mullet roe): eat it very thinly sliced with a trickle of olive oil and a glass of the vin gris of the region. Lavender honey; the summer herb markets of Buis-les-Baronnies; the midwinter truffle markets of Richeranches (and others). The asparagus of Villes-sur-Auzon on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, the Saturday market at Vaison-la-Romaine any time of year, the chic cafes and chocolate shops of Aixen- Provence (read M. F. K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence for the joys of the area before the Second World War). Settle down harbourside (any harbour) for a plate of tellines à la provençale-delicate violet-shelled clams in tomato sauce (what else?)-to be sopped up with chunks of baguette and a salade niçoise.
Regional cheeses Small fresh or matured farmhouse goat’s cheeses dusted with herbs or matured under oil: tommes artisanats, picodons, banons
Gascogny, Roussillon, Bearn and the Basque country
Gascogny is sparsely inhabited-mostly in hilltop villages and farmsteads with regional dishes that suit an independent peasantry. Specialities feature the fattened duck. Maize and sunflowers are the main field crops: maize is used as fodder for cattle and poultry and broyo, a polenta-like porridge. Roussillon specialises in stone fruits-cherries, peaches, plums-as well as melons and pears. Bearn has ham and charcuterie. Foix has poultry, asparagus and game, particularly hare. The Basques do their own thing-fish mostly, although pork products feature strongly.
Don’t miss Preserved duck products as prepared in the farmhouses of Gascogny: confit de canard, gesiers (innards for a salad), foie gras (the main industry of the region); salt-cured smoked Bayonne ham (raw or braised in wine); chicken with tarragon; the layered garbures of Gascogny and Bearn; pistache d’agneau (lamb with a great deal of garlic), la poule au pot (poached chicken), daube de boeuf (beef slow-cooked in red wine); Roussillon has the ouillade, a robust bean stew. Traditional Basques dishes include ttoro (fisherman’s chowder), bacalao à la vizcaina, loukinka (small garlic sausages), tripoxa (veal blood puddings) and touron (a shortbread made with crushed almonds, hazelnuts and crystallised fruit).
Regional cheeses: Pyrennean mountain cheeses-sheep’s, goat’s, cow’s milk- eaten with confiture de cerises (sour cherry preserve sold in little jars)
Bordeaux and the South-West
Vendée, Charente-Maritime, Landes-the Pays de l’Ouest
France’s West Country, is fertile and well-watered, with a long sea coast and a hinterland that includes the Lascaux caves, making its settlement very early indeed. The dialect has its origins in the old langue d’oc, making it closer to Catalan than French, the langue d’oîl: in the marketplace, haricot beans are monjettes and snails, escargots, become lumas or cagouilles. Regional strengths are shellfish and flatfish by the coast, and goose, chicken, duck, charcuterie, snails, game, lamb and vegetables (particularly artichokes and potatoes) in the interior. Forest gatherings including ceps (mid summer to mid autumn) and black truffles in season (December to February).
Don’t miss La chaudrée, the bouillabaisse of La Rochelle (flatfish, eel and white wine); mouclade (mussels with cream and curry spices); the oysters of Saintonge; Pauillac’s lamb; the vineyard-fattened snails of Bordeaux; Angouleme’s stuffed pigs trotters; cèpes à la bordelaise (porcini mushrooms, butter, garlic, parsley); écrevisses à la bordelaise (crayfish poached in white wine thickened with egg yolk).
Pre-dinner tipple: Pineau des Charentes. On the Ile de Ré, you’ll eat well at the Market Café next to the covered market in St Martin de Ré.
Regional cheeses The sheep cheeses of Aquitaine