Dining in France

[ Monday, 26th February 2007 ]

General de Gaulle once famously commented that it was a tough job trying to govern a country with more cheeses than there are days of the year. Now, he wasn’t talking about cheese-like dairy produce. We, in Ireland, God help us, probably have at least 365 brands of stuff vaguely resembling cheese, from the eponymous Strings to Easi-Singles.

De Gaulle, however, was talking about cheese as a Frenchman. And the French know that cheese expresses local character.

It would take an encyclopedia to do justice to the cheeses of France and God alone knows what you would need to cover the variations in regional cooking. Oh well, I like a challenge. And so here is my quick bird’s eye view of some of the food of France.

I hope you will forgive me if my descriptions of local produce and cuisine do not fit exactly within the recognised administrative boundaries. A certain geographical vagueness is required; food, like people, can’t be marshaled according to the local county council.

Normandy, alas, is not a wine-producing region but nowhere else is the diet so clear a reflection of what you see in the fields. Cattle and orchards yield the true flavour of Normandy: thick, rich, yellow cream and fiery Calvados, the apple brandy. This, too, is cheese territory par excellence: Camembert is the most famous, pungent Livarot the most pongy, Port Salut the most abused (try a farmhouse version and see what it should really be).

Cooking is rich in these parts, often cut with the acidity of apples or the zing of Calvados. The typical Normandy meal is quite a challenge and enough to make a cardiologist faint. Tripe a la mode de Caen is not for the fainthearted, although it contains no cream. This is tripe simmered in cider, something that you either like or hate.

What we conveniently call the Loire is, in fact, a vast area that runs from the coast of Brittany (moules and Muscadet) to the Ile de France. Crisp, fresh white wines and food-friendly reds, plus unctuous dessert wines, provide liquid accompaniment for a vast range of foods. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are stunning with Chavignol or cremet d’Anjou goats’ cheeses, Saumur-Champigny can tackle the full fat assault of rillettes de porc. Watch out for matelote d’anguille, meaty eels stewed in wine, and for cernaux au verjus, which are pickled walnuts - great as a nibble with a glass of cool Sauvignon. Be aware that pate de pithiviers is, in fact, lark pate.

It is said that anything that doesn’t move in Alsace is quickly wrapped in puff pastry and baked to a golden brown. It is also a great place for tarts, if you will forgive the expression. Anything flagged as quiche, flan, feouse, galette, tarte or tourte is essentially a tart put sometimes they come with a pastry lid.

Pork and goose are the main meats here and cabbages and potatoes are the favoured vegetables. Warm pickled cabbage or choucroute - cooked but still with a crunch - is something of an acquired taste but it does go well with the sausages and cured meats that feature in most restaurants.

Boudin de Nancy is a delicious version of smooth black pudding, civet d’oie can be a rich stew of goose in white wine, Porc a la Vosgienne comes with sharp plums, grillade a la Champagnaule is a kind of Welsh rarebit with ham - but rather better. Watch out also for the distinctly German pflutten, a kind of potato gratin, and for quiche Lorraine, just to compare it with the Irish version.

The Burgundians claim, with some justification, that their patch is the epicentre of ‘le bon vin et la belle vie’. Not only do they produce some of the world’s greatest wines, both red and white, but also their Charolais cattle form the basis of boeuf bourgignonne and their poulet de Bresse makes the ultimate coq au vin. The hams of Morvan mark the starting point of jambon persille. Escargots de Bourgogne - snails grilled with garlic and parsley butter - is one of my favourite starters even if the creatures used these days tend to be imported from Eastern Europe.

Burgundy still has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else on the planet and the curious thing is that their distinctly fancy cooking still manages to reflect the prosperous peasant food of the countryside. As a place to eat, Burgundy has few equals and no superiors.

Regional oddities include eggs poached in a red wine sauce which is a lot better than it sounds. There is also the oddly bland pochouse which is river fish stewed in Chablis, and queue de boeuf des vignerons, which is oxtail braised with grapes. Gloriously stinky epoisse is one of the best local cheeses if you like it oozing and super-mature.

The sandy soil of Les Landes, to the south of Bordeaux, is literally held together by the roots of the pine trees which were first planted there over two centuries ago in order to tackle coastal erosion. Forests are no good for cattle raising but they are perfect for chicken production. Chicken does not come more free-range than the chucks of Les Landes. The forest also yields an abundance of mushrooms and some of the best cepes grow wild here.

This part of Gascony has a wide and varied cuisine but foie gras is a big seller and the Bordelais have a distressing tendency to eat songbirds. Larks stuffed with foie gras may sound like something made up by Private Eye but they are snaffled with abandon in these parts.

Watch out for daube bordelaise which is not, as you might imagine, a hot stew but cold braised beef in a red wine jelly. Sauce bordelaise, which comes with all sorts of things but most often steak, is a red wine gravy with finely chopped shallots. Omelette aux pignons is a highly unusual speciality of Les Landes: a runny omelette fortified with lots of minced pine nuts. Tourin bordelais is a ribsticking onion soup - not the dark sort beloved of bistros - but sweet and thicked with beaten eggs.

French restaurants react very well if you explain that you are interested in eating local dishes and want to experience the true ‘gout de terroir’. Some tourist menus - which we are so keen to emulate here in Ireland - are more touristy than others. Restaurateurs know that tourists, in general, are interested in feeding rather than food. Making it abundantly clear that your priorities are the other way round may well yield some great holiday memories.

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Tom Doorley / Abroad Magazine