In this episode we share the A-Z of French food. France is the nation that invented the restaurant, haute cuisine and Cordon Bleu, the pique-nique, baguettes and crème brulée. The French certainly live to eat, not eat to live.
The great American cook Julia Child once said, ‘In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport’. She was not exaggerating. If the French are not talking about food – what they will have for lunch or dinner, prepare for guests or a celebration – they’re shopping for meals, planning to cook or eating. Food is on everyone’s lips!
Plus a listener asks a question about castles in France – do you know how many there are? Let’s just say if you visited one a day – it would take you more than 120 years to see them all!
Thanks for listening!
Episode 17 - The A-Z of French Food
Janine: Bonjour and welcome to the Good Life France podcast – everything you want to know about France and more. I’m Janine Marsh, I’m an author and travel writer and though I was born in London, UK, I now live in a tiny village in the far north of France with 60 animals. When I’m not looking after them and cleaning out chicken coops, grooming dogs and cats, and being chased by ducks and geese or chatting to you on this podcast, I travel all over France taking photos and writing about my discoveries for the Good Life France Magazine and website – and I’ll give you the details for how to find them at the end of this podcast.
Olivier: Bonjour, I’m Olivier, but you can call me Oli for short, or Oliver. I was born in France in a town that has a name only French people can pronounce properly: it’s Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, in Vendee (west of France) but now I live in the UK – me and Janine we are entente-cordiale and when I’m not chatting to you about France and all things French, I am playing fabulous music on my radio station Paris Chanson.
So that’s us in case you didn’t know. Now, Janine, tell us what are we going to be talking about on today’s podcast?
Janine: Well Oli, today I thought we’d talk about French gastronomy! An A-Z of French food in fact.
Olivier: That sounds délicieux – which is French for delicious! So let’s go with the A-Z of French food!
Janine: France is the nation that invented the restaurant, haute cuisine and Cordon Bleu, the pique-nique, baguettes and crème brulée. The French certainly live to eat, not eat to live.
The great American cook Julia Child once said, ‘In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport’. She was not exaggerating. If the French are not talking about food – what they will have for lunch or dinner, prepare for guests or a celebration – they’re shopping for meals, planning to cook or eating. Food is on everyone’s lips.
Every region has its own specialities - Brittany’s buckwheat galettes, Normandy’s cider and camembert. Renowned Bordeaux cuisine includes terrines and pâtés like foie gras, duck confit and wild duck pâté. Provence is the home of the glamorous French Riviera, but its food is anything but ostentatious luxury; the region boasts its own distinctive rustic, homely cuisine that shows flashes of Italian influences, seen in its use of ingredients like olives, garlic, and tomatoes. The Loire Valley has its wines and cheeses like Crottins de Chavignol and Valencay, which is shaped like a pyramid with a flat top – why a flat top, well it’s said that when Napoleon Bonaparte was served the cheese after losing a battle in Egypt, he lopped the top off with his sword in anger! Probably not true but a great story – and maybe! Plus there are tarts and quiches from Alsace and Lorraine, strawberries from Dordogne – the list is endlessly delicious.
So, let’s get stuck in and kick it off with an amuse bouche – the first stage of the meal in a gastronomic restaurant. Literally it means to amuse your mouth and an amuse bouche is a little taster of something that the chef has made and is offered as a sort of gift from the kitchen. It’s a bite-sized appetiser served before the entrée, or starter. You can’t order them, and they are given free of charge. It can be a tiny cup of soup, or a small pastry, mousse – anything really that the chef chooses.
Olivier: B is for baguettes. No one knows when they became the baguette shape, we know and love today. Loaves used to be much longer, up to 8 feet long!
Janine – 8 feet? That’s ridiculous, how would you carry that home under your arm! You could pole vault over the Seine with an 8 foot loaf!
Olivier: Well SOME SAY… Napoleon Bonaparte invented the modern baguette when he requested they be made to fit in the pockets of his soldiers! Baguettes are a way of life for the French, a cultural symbol though people don’t eat as many baguettes as they used to in the old days, about 6 billion baguettes are produced each year in France and 98% of French people eat bread every day!
I must be French as I eat French bread every day!
Now C is for café, who doesn’t love a little cosy French café, I love the old style ones with little lace curtains at the windows, red and white check tablecloth, chalkboard menu… And C is for cheese – no one knows how many cheese there are (and if you are a cheese fan, have a listen to our French cheese podcast episode). And C is also of course for croissants. Croissants are as French as the Eiffel Tower but – are they really French?
History has it that croissants originated in Austria. There are several versions of the story and no one knows for 100% but the most accepted version is that Austria was at war with Turkey in the late 1600s, and a baker working late at night heard Turkish soldiers tunnelling under the walls of the city of Vienna and alerted the Austrian guard. They collapsed the tunnel which saved the city - and the baker in a moment of genius created a pastry in the shape of a crescent moon, the emblem of the Turkish empire. It is said that he intended that when his customers bit into the pastry, they would be symbolically devouring their enemies. He called his creation a kipfel, the German word for croissant. However, historians say that there is written evidence that the kipfel was being made as far back as the 13th century...
A later story tells that Marie-Antoinette bought the kipfel to France from her homeland of Austria. Feeling homesick, she commanded the royal bakers to make the pastry for her. Unlike the bread dough that the Austrian version was made with, the bakers used puff pastry. An unlikely story but, a legend was born...
Yet another tale, and far more likely, claims that an Austrian artillery officer named August Zang founded the "Boulangerie Viennoise" at 92, rue de Richelieu in Paris in the 1830s. He brought the recipe for kipfels with him.
In the early twentieth century, French bakers improved on the recipe by adding even more layers of deliciously buttered puff pastry, and so the croissant as we know and love it today was born. That’s so French – you can never have too much butter in French cooking!
Anyway, whoever invented these golden, buttery, flaky little moons of deliciousness – we thank you! And, if you want to eat croissants like the French – dunk them in your morning coffee for breakfast!
Olivier: D is for Dom Perignon, the French monk who lived and worked in Hautvillers in Champagne and who is credited for creating Champagne!
Janine: Oli, I hate to burst your bubble but these days most historians think he was trying to get rid of the fizz in the wine and it was actually the English that invented Champagne!
Olivier: Wooooooooh, I’m going to stop you there Janine!! To me, we’re talking about 2 very different things here. Sparkling wine – that I am ok to concede to the English, and Champagne… One is super good and famous around the world, the other one is, well, English sparkling wine. So, back to the original story, the legend says that Perignon drank a glass of Champagne when he… ahem… first made it, and cried out “Brothers, come quick I am tasting the stars” and that’s the story you should all remember! Dom Perignon is produced by champagne makers Moet et Chandon – and it’s bubbly expensive!
Janine: Ok, I wasn’t there, so impossible to say for sure but just saying… did the English invent champagne maybe…
Moving swiftly on before Oli can answer… E is for Escargot – snails! They are much loved dish in France – with around 16,000 tons consumed each year, bout 6.5 snails for every man, woman and child – with around 60% eaten over the Christmas season. I have to say I’m not a fan, though I like the garlic butter sauce they are usually cooked in! There is a British snail farmer in my part of France who is making snail dishes like tikka marsala snails, snail sausages and smoked snails with goats cheese and fig – do you like the sound of that Oli?
Olivier: Some of it is interesting yes. I am a big fan of snails with that garlic butter sauce you just mentioned Janine, ”les escargots farcis” (the sauce is mandatory though…because eating snails without it, is disgusting, it’s like eating rubber) - and tikka masala is my favourite Indian dish - so I’d be happy to test any recipe mixing both.
Now for F – which for me must be Far Breton - a rich custard and prune tart from Brittany. The word ‘far’ comes from the Breton “farz forn” which literally means far in the oven. The origin tart is said to date to the 18th century when it was dished up in a salty version and without prunes, alongside meat. But prunes were introduced for “seafarers” to take with them on long voyages because they are easily stored and provide good nutrition.
Bretons recommend a glass of cider goes well with Far Breton! Of course, they did… Far Breton is a great dish, the only thing is that I don’t like prunes. So, my mum (who is a “80% bretonne”) used to do a plain one when I was a kid, with no prunes or anything else and it is yummy too. I still ask her to bake it for me when we visit.
Janine: Oli I’m not even sure you’re French really! How can you not like prunes? They’re delicious, especially from France – most of my French friends are mad for prunes, there’s even a prune museum which has in a jar, the oldest prunes in the world apparently – now you don’t get that at the Louvre do you?!
Anyway, on to G for gateaux – cakes. That’s all I’m saying. French cakes – resistance is futile.
Olivier: H is for St Honoré, the patron saint of French bakers, and we also have a cake named after him.
Janine: I is for riz Imperatrice – a rice pudding that was created for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon the third and it’s different from a usual rice pudding as it’s made in a mould and eaten cold.
Olivier: J is for coquille St Jacques – or scallops as they are called in English. When St. James (also known as St. Jacques, or Santiago) went wandering on religious pilgrimages, he took with him the shell of a sea scallop — the cuplike bottom half. If he asked for food or drink to sustain him along the way, he would only accept the small amount that fit in the shell. The scallop shell has been the symbol for him ever since. Scallops are so good and very easy to prepare. One quick advice: add some Espelette pepper and smoked saffron on them when you cook them… you won’t regret it.
Janine: K is for Kouign Amman – a delicious buttery cake from Brittany, in fact it means in Breton - gateau au beurre, a butter cake. And believe it or not, the recipe was the result of pure chance! One crowded day in a bakery in Douarnenez in Finistere, there was nothing left to sell. But, in order to satisfy his customers, the baker made a cake with what he had left to hand: butter, sugar and bread dough. The Kouign-amann was born! The baker didn’t register the recipe but its reputation spread and it was made by many Breton bakers and over the years it was even more improved with more flaky folded layers. Utterly, butterly delicious!
Olivier: Kouign Amman is hard for me to pronounce and I’m French!
L is for long, long meals – which we French love to enjoy! For celebration meals – it might be even 5 hours – or more! It’s a French thing. It’s a family thing. It’s a mandatory thing. But quite easy to get used to…
Janine: M is for Macarons, Millefeuille cake, madeleines, moules frites and Maroilles!
Olivier: N is for Nougat. Now nougat isn’t French in origin, the Romans made it and they bought the recipe to Gaul and of course we French improved the recipe. The most famous nougat of France is made in Montelimar (in the Drome department) which is said to be the best in the world – even Princess Diana loved it!
Janine: O is for Opera cake. It’s made up of three layers of Joconde almond flavoured sponge soaked in coffee syrup and topped with coffee butter cream and chocolate ganache. The top is covered with a deep dark chocolate icing. It was created in 1955 by a Paris pastry chef at the Dalloyau patisserie which has been trading since 1682 and were suppliers to the court of Versailles. The wife of the pastry chef- Cyriaque Gavillon, said the layers reminded her of the Paris Opera House, Palais Garnier- the name stuck, the Opera cake was born…
Olivier: P is for patisserie – shops that specialise in cakes and sweet things. We love our patisseries in France! I said shops, but I should have said little paradise instead. They really are when you have a sweet tooth like me…
Janine: Q is for the doigt de Charles Quint which translates as the Finger of Charles the 5th. There are some days when I think I’m actually “getting” France and some days when I realise I have so much to learn. In my local boulangerie they sell a cake called the Finger of Charles 5th. He was one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages and reigned as Holy Roman emperor for decades, controlling territories that spanned the globe. But it wasn’t all fun for Charlie – he suffered from painful gout. When he died one of his pinky fingertips was cut off as a religious relic (they did that in those days). The mummified morsel has been held for centuries at a monastery in a red velvet-lined box. And the cake, the “doigt de Charles Quint” cake is in honour of the great man’s pinky, a delicious sponge cake filled with red jam! It tastes a lot nicer than it sounds!
Olivier: R is for Rocamadour cheese. It is a goats cheese from… Rocamadour, a beautiful medieval village in the Lot department. Pilgrims have been visiting the village for many centuries and hundreds of years ago they would have enjoyed this cheese. It’s made as a small round disc, weighing just over an ounce per piece and it’s one of the smallest goat cheeses made in France.
Janine: S is for souffle! Light airy dishes, whipped into a puff of deliciousness – both savoury and sweet. They’ve been around for a few hundred years in one form or another but it was the first French celebrity chef Marie Antoine Careme who perfected them in the 1800s. If you’ve ever seen the film Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, you’ll know they can be tricky to make “Too low; too high; too heavy; sloppy” says the teacher. They should taste like you’re biting into a cloud!
Olivier: T is for Tarte Tatin. It was created in the 1880's at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, about 100 miles (160 km) south of Paris. The hotel was owned by the Tatin sisters. One of them, Stéphanie Tatin did most of the cooking. Overworked one day, she started to make a traditional apple pie but left the apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long. It was too late to start again so she tried to rescue the dish by putting the pastry base on top of the pan of apples, quickly finishing the cooking by putting the whole pan in the oven. She cleverly turned the tart upside down and served it. Her dish was a huge success with the diners - and it has never looked back.
Janine: T for me is temptation! I can resist anything but temptation as the great Mae West said! All those cakes, cheeses, different sorts of breads, wines, liqueurs, I pretty much love all French food – except for snails and steak tartare – another T, raw mincemeat mixed with an egg and some spices.
Olivier : And U is for Unesco listed because French gastronomy is on the UNESCO list for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in recognition of the importance the French place on celebrating food and gastronomic meals. It also includes things like the art of laying the table, the use of local products, rituals like the aperitif before the meal and the digestif at the end, and especially the social aspects of French gastronomy – family and friends enjoying excellent cuisine.
Janine: UNESCO might have accepted this only in 2010 but of course the French have known how special their cuisine is for a very long time! I’ve never met anyone French who thinks that another country might have better, or not even as good, food as the French!
V is for Vonnas in Burgundy. It’s a little village and its very famous in France because of Georges Blanc – an absolutely legendary chef in France. I met him a couple of weeks ago when I was undertaking a gastronomic odyssey from Dijon to Marseille, following the route of the Vallee de la Gastronomie – a route which showcases local produce and producers. Anyway Chef Blanc has pretty much made the village a Mecca for foodies, he has a 3 Michelin star restaurant – which has a 3 month waiting list for a table, a fabulous auberge, like an old fashioned inn, it’s so beautiful, a hotel, shops and basically it’s a foodie’s fantasy destination… He told me the secret of success in French cooking is the sauce “the dish is nothing without a good sauce”…
W is for Wine. And I shall leave that there because there is too much to say about French wine here, we’ll just have to do another podcast!
Olivier: good idea, especially if we want to go through all the types of wine that go well with the food we have mentioned so far in this podcast… It’s a full time job! And X is for… Xtremely smelly cheeses – like epoisses and Vieux Boulogne – which is officially the smelliest cheese in the world! “Trust me on that”.
Janine: Y is for yes. Which is what I say when any of my French friends ask me if I’d like something to eat!
Olivier: Z is for Zut alors – French Gastronomy is really amazing – even if I do say so myself!
Have we made you hungry? Are you craving a tarte tatin or a slice of cheese, a crispy baguette or a croissant? Mmmm it’s so good!
Janine: Olivier – that’s mean, you’re making it worse!
Olivier: I know, I know but I am proud of French gastronomy!
OK, now it’s time to answer a listener’s question! So, Janine, what is today’s question?
Janine: Tanya Medson of Wiltshire UK asks – how many castles are there in France?
So Oli – how many chateaux do you think there are in the whole of France?
Olivier: I don’t know… I mean, that’s impossible to answer isn’t it? Has anyone counted them all and visited them to count them?
Janine: What a great idea – I’d love to do that! But what do you think – 10 thousand? Twenty thousand? Thirty thousand? Forty thousand? Or more?
Olivier – I think more! I mean we have a lot of castles in France I know… So I’m going for the top answer…
Janine: Yes, you’re right! To tell the truth – no one seems to know exactly how many castles there are, but it’s generally claimed that there are more than 45,000 castles which includes palaces, medieval forts and private mansions. Haunted castles, huge castles, ruined castles, tall castles like Brissac which is a whopping seven stories high. There are so many castles if you visited one every day it would take you more than 120 years to see them all! A lot of castles… we’ll have to do a whole episode devoted to castles!
Olivier: Feel free to keep sending those questions in – we love to answer them! Send them to email@example.com and we’ll do our best to help.
Janine: Thank you so much for listening and a huge thank you to everyone sharing this podcast with friends and family – we’re massively grateful for your support.
In the meantime you can find me on www.thegoodlifefrance.com – everything you want to know about France and more – where you can subscribe to my fun newsletter and this podcast and to my award winning, free magazine which you can find at magazine.thegoodlifefrance.com
Olivier: And you can fine me playing French chansons at parischanson.fr – details coming up right after the end of this episode…
Janine: But for now it’s au revoir from me
Olivier: And goodbye from me.
Janine: Speak to you soon!