French cuisine was everything that I thought it would be and so much more. While most of the time Americans only think of baguettes, escargot, and crêpes as French food, there is so much more that goes into a meal. Not only is there so much more food to think about, but there is also plenty cultural aspects to a meal that we don’t usually hear about before arriving.
Meal Culture in France
Unlike other countries, France’s meals typically have many courses, anywhere from 2-6 , and can last for hours. Let’s break that down; most of the time meals will have an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert, but sometimes there can be more. For example, some dinner parties with 6 courses can start with a ‘pre appetizer’ which in French is called apéritif, that can consist of a soft alcoholic beverage and a snack, like bread or crackers. Next would come the appetizers, which can range anywhere from charcuteries to soups, then a main dish accompanied by a specially paired wine. Following this would come a salad plate, a cheese plate, and a dessert, all tied together by an expresso.
Yes, that might sound like a lot, but surprisingly French cuisine works so well together that it all goes perfectly together. Now, it doesn’t just work together magically, it is made to be that way; everything is always adequately portioned and chosen so that one plate compliments the other, never overpowering the last.
The perfect pairing of dishes doesn’t work alone, the reason it works so well is because chefs and families work with their region and the season. Consequently, restaurants change their menu to complement the foods in season at the market. This being said, most regions have dishes based on ingredients that grow in the region or are tied to the history.
Rennes, Bretagne, the region where I have been living the past few months, has so many dishes that are linked to its land and history. For starters, any restaurant or fresh market you go to, you are guaranteed to find fresh seafood of any kind, especially oysters as they are a regional delicacy. The reason for this is that La Bretagne is surrounded by water, so any city inland is from 1.5 to 2 hours away from freshly farmed seafood. Some dishes that are often seen around Bretagne, Normandie, and Nantes (Loire-Atlantique) are Muscles and Fries or in French Moules Frites. While I didn’t try this dish, it came highly recommended by friends that did try it!
Another type of dish that is tied to Breton history is crêpes and galettes. The history behind these is tied to the fact that in Bretagne, the richer people would use the wheat to make flower for Crêpes, and the buck wheat that was left behind was used by the lower classes to make galettes, both of which became staples of the region. Most people know Crêpes because they are a staple around the world for a great French dessert, however, most people don’t know about galettes, the salty version of crepes. These dishes can include a range of things like potato, meat or fish, cheese, salad and more; but the most common would be ‘la galette complete’ which is composed of cheese, ham, and a fried egg on top.
In France, there was of course all the staple dishes that we hear of around the world, but no way I could imagine how good they were! While I was there, I made it almost my mission to find the best onion soup, which, by the way, you can find just about everywhere! This dish is an onion vegetable broth, pieces of baguette and melted cheese and was always served boiling! The fresh baguette is all around France and, most everywhere, you can find the crunchy outside and soft inside baguettes that restaurants pick up fresh from the bakers every morning, usually paired with cheese or butter or even used in the dishes themselves.
Another great appetizer you can find around France is escargot! Yes, snails. Despite the misconceptions, the French don’t eat snails as often as you would think. They typically only have them for special occasions like Christmas or new year’s. The taste and texture is also not as expected; it’s not slimy, or hard to eat, you just take it out, place it on a baguette and enjoy the garlic-y taste that follows.
All these appetizers can be followed by an amazing steak and fries, a tradition French dish. A medium steak usually ‘bavette’ accompanied by greens of the season and French fries or any other potato side. On top of that, the always delicious black pepper sauce as a garnish.
While I could go on and on about dishes around France, I am better off telling you which ones I enjoyed the most! In Rennes there were so many different types of crêpe and galettes and I tried as many as I could! While they were all delicious, I enjoyed two in particular: the first had cheese, potato, and mushroom and the second was a salmon, raclette, potato one. Crêpes were always the same just different toppings, and my two favorites by far were the raspberry and apricot jams.
For appetizers, I enjoyed French onion soup. It was an amazing appetizer to warm up from the cold weather in the late fall season. While oysters and snails were good in taste, I did not love their texture and would probably not have them again.
As far as main dishes, there were so many to pick from that never disappointed. If I had to pick my top two, it would be the steak and fries, and any seafood dish because they are both so fresh and perfectly cooked every time.
Desserts were all my favorite! I always lean more towards fruity desserts rather than chocolate, so, a fig cheesecake or a raspberry macaron were always a must have.
Of course, while I only talked about French cuisine in this blog, there are so many food options around France that are just as delicious! I had my fair share of Italian, Asian, Latin and even American cuisine while I was here. Don’t be afraid to try new things while abroad, it might surprise you what you end up enjoying!