French Cuisines: a little history!

The French Cusines has a vast history and includes many cultures.


The birthplace of William the Conqueror is just a quick boat ride across the English Channel from the island he defeated in the 11th century. Nearly 900 years later, the Allied forces came from the opposite direction to snatch France back from the Germans. The Norman shoreline stretches broad and calm for miles, perfect for fishing. And the peaceful, fertile meadows are home to the dairy cows who produce the butter (the town of Isigny is especially famous for it) and cream that enrich almost every dish. Numerous cheeses are produced in the region, including Camembert, Neufchatel, and Pont-l'Eveque.

There are almost no vineyards here. Instead, there are apple orchards, so the "wine" of Normandy is Calvados. This twice-distilled apple brandy is used in many local dishes, among them tripe a la mode de Caen. Popular meats include Rouennais duck and boudin noir, and the plentiful seafood served with creamy sauces or in stews.

Champagne and the North

In the northern regions of France, just across the border from Belgium, Flemish culinary influences may be seen in the popularity of herring and the presence of street vendors hawking frites or waffles. The charcuterie in the area is quite varied and includes such items as andouillettes (pork sausages made with pork chitterlings), sheep's trotters, and ham. The cool autumn climate is just right for producing root vegetables of many kinds -- onions, potatoes, carrots, beets, and leeks. These are used in many of the local dishes, among them hochepot (the northern version of pot-au-feu, a meat and vegetable stew usually flavored with juniper berries) and carbonnade (a beef stew made with the local beer, mustard, and onions).

The landscape in the area is consistently tranquil. The broad, flat plains are ideal for cultivating such crops as wheat, rye, and potatoes. On the gentle slopes of the hills around Rheims and along the Yonne River are found the grapes for the region's most important contribution to French gastronomy, Champagne. This sparkling white wine was first discovered in the 17th century by a monk named Dom Perignon, who lived in an abbey near Epernay, now the center of one of the major Champagne-producing areas.

The Loire Valley

More than one region has claimed the title, but the fertile valley of the Loire River truly deserves to be called the "Garden of France." It is possible to grow fruits and vegetables almost year-round here. Local specialties include Loire river salmon, shad, and the small freshwater fish used to make friture. Cardoons, shallots, tarragon, and fresh grape vinegar are all distinctive flavors of the region. Anjou, the area around the town of Angers, is famed for its orchard fruits -- prune plums, peaches, and especially pears -- although the fruits everywhere in the Loire Valley are magnificent. Just to the east of Anjou, Tours (the town that forms the centerpoint of the "Touraine"), is known for its charcuterie, especially its rillons and rillettes, made with potted goose or pork.

The famous tarte Tatin (or, as it was originally called, tarte des desmoiselles Tatin) is native to the Loire Valley. The recipe is said to have been made public by two spinster sisters, gentlewomen who found themselves in difficult financial circumstances and were forced to support themselves by selling their father's special upsidedown apple tart.

Provence and Languedoc

Who would guess that the chilly, gray celtic shores of Brittany are only a little over 400 miles away? Here in the Mediterranean south, especially in Provence, which lies east of the Rhone River, the sun shines hot and bright most of the year. The only reminder of the cold is the mistral, a sudden chilly wind that blasts through the countryside from time to time. Rosemary, sage, thyme, and lavendar, which find their way into so many local dishes, flourish in the wild as well as in carefully tended gardens. The fruits, notably melons and citruses (in the east), are delectable. The Mediterranean yields a wealth of seafood, which is found in many local dishes, most famously in the saffron-tinged fish stew known as bouillabaisse. A specialty all along the coastline, the bouillabaisse of Marseille, in Provence, is overwhelmingly considered to be definitive. The reasons vary but seem mostly to have to do with Marseille being in just the right place for netting just the right assortment of fish for the pot.

As the Languedoc region reaches toward the Pyrenees, the influence of the Spanish becomes more visible in the cooking, as, for example, in the omelets made with green peppers, ham, and onions. Or in the cornmeal-based dish called millas. In the central part of the region, in the town of Roqeufort, the cheese of the same name is made. It was apparently invented during Roman times, and its history is illustrious. In 1411, King Charles VI granted the village the exclusive right to cure their local cheeses in the caves nearby, and current legislation prevents any cheese other than true Roquefort from the town from using the name.

The key raw materials that define Provencal cooking are garlic, olive oil (and olives), and tomatoes. Also especially popular are eggplant, zucchini, anchovies, and basil. These distinctive flavors are found in different combinations in almost all the local specialties, which include ratatouille, pistou, and pan bagnat -- and the even more visibly Italian-influenced pastas and pissaladiere.

Aquitaine: Bordeaux, Perigord, and Charente

Bordeaux, and especially the capital city that gives the region its name, is considered one of the gastronomic highlights of France. Atlantic seafood forms the basis of many local specialties. Oysters and mussels are plentiful. Eel is prepared in a number of ways -- the full-grown are simmered into a soup called bouilliture, and baby ones (pibales) are served sauteed with garlic.

In Charente, which shares Bordeaux's cuisine, the town of Echire produces exceptionally rich butter, over 83% fat, as compared to the 78% that is standard in America. Wild mushrooms -- cepes -- grow in the Charentain forests, which also yield a fair share of truffles.

The Massif Central and Burgundy

The central, landlocked regions of France are characterized by a hearty, peasant-based cuisine that complements, and often makes use of, the abundant wines, both white and red, produced in the area. Beef a la bourguignonne and daube of beef both require long simmering of meat and vegetables in red wine; oeufs en meurette is made by poaching eggs in red wine. The famous pale yellow mustard of Dijon is made with white wine and is liberally used as a condiment and for cooking. Escargots in garlic butter is another local specialty -- the snails here are known for being especially plump, perhaps because they are fattened on a generous diet of grape leaves. Clafouti, little custard tarts, make use of the abundant fresh fruits that thrive here, and the black currants of the region are used to make the liqueur, creme de cassis. The city of Lyon, established at the point where the Rhone and the Saone rivers meet, is famous for its cuisine, whose signature ingredients are organ meats and onions. Tripe, sausages, and sauteed calf's liver are among the specialties visitors to a Lyonnais bistro are sure to encounter. Charolles, a small town to the northwest of Lyon is the center of a beef-producing region based on the local white cow, the Charolais. These animals produce particularly lean meat of a sort that is entirely different from what Americans, who like their steak marbled with fat, are used to. But it is ideal for making pot-au-feu, and the many other stewed beef dishes that are popular.

Source: HungryMonster Staff Writers