France has a tradition of setting the culinary bar high. Take an adventure to this picturesque country and whatever you do, make sure you try everything on this list, and more than once!
From the days of Escoffier in the early 20th century to the bench setting Michelin guide today, France has a tradition of setting the culinary bar high. It’s no wonder that French cuisine was declared a ‘world intangible heritage’ by UNESCO in 2010.
We’re lucky that Australia is full of French restaurants, brasseries and cafés, but nothing beats eating from the source. Each region of France has specific traditions and specialties however many dishes and ingredients can be found country wide. Be sure to try everything on this list.
1. Crème brûlée
Any French experience requires the Amelie moment; that satisfying crack when your spoon hits the toffee crust of your crème brûlée, revealing a smooth, vanilla-scented custard underneath. First referenced in a 1691 French cookbook, this iconic dessert literally means ‘burnt cream’. It’s almost always served in individual ramekins so everyone can experience that special moment for themselves. You might come across variations with fruit, nuts or other spices but trust me, the original is the best!
With 400+ French cheeses and counting, you won’t have to look far before you literally trip over mountains of delicious, oozy, smelly (in a good way) cheese. The French don’t just eat cheese, they revere it. An entire course, nestled between main and dessert, is dedicated just to cheese. This is a tradition at home and in restaurants that you don’t want to miss. Try a selection that includes a soft white cheese (like a Camembert or the washed rind and pungent Munster), a blue cheese (such as the famous Roquefort) and a hard cheese (perhaps Comté or Abondance). Typical accompaniments are slices of fresh crusty baguette (not crackers), fresh and dried fruit.
Crêpes are simple to prepare but an unquestionable pillar of French cuisine. In Paris you will find a crêpe stand on every corner while restaurants will often feature them in the savoury and sweet sections of the menu. Ordering a freshly made crêpe (never allow the server to take one from a pre-prepared stack!) that is oozing with Nutella, lemon and sugar or confiture is a rite of passage and very affordable. Look out for crêpes made with buckwheat flour called galettes. These are slightly more textured and match perfectly with savoury fillings such as ham, cheese and spinach.
While Aussies call on frozen meat pies and fish fingers for last minute dinners, the French pull escargots out from the freezer. Yes, really! This restaurant staple is also a popular dish at home and trays of frozen snails filled with garlic herb butter can be bought from supermarchés all over the country. So even if expensive restaurants are out of your budget, you can still enjoy this delicacy. And the taste? The sauce steals the show here and the flavour of the snails is buried under the rich garlicky butter and herbs. Which might be a relief for some people!
An obvious addition to the list but one that cannot be overlooked. Baguettes are bought daily by practically all French people and it’s not unusual to find a couple poking out from handbags, backpacks and cars all over France. No meal is complete without one; it comes out with the entrée and stays on the table until dessert. Bread is bought on a daily basis and anything left over is served at breakfast the next day. Even the most budget conscious traveller can afford one to enjoy with some slices of jambon and fromage for a simple and delicious lunch.
Looking for a ham and cheese croissant? You won’t find one, not in France anyway. The French take their croissants plain, or with chocolate as a pain au chocolate, and like bread, they always buy fresh. If you’re lucky to step into a boulangerie as a fresh batch is leaving the oven then you’ll never settle for anything less again. Real croissants are made from butter but there are producers who cut corners by using margarine. Butter has a higher melting point than margarine so look for a slightly darker coloured croissant which will usually be the tell tale sign that it contains butter. Take your croissant like the French do –dipped in coffee or chocolate chaud for breakfast.
7. Steak tartare
This dish always polarises. A little like Vegemite, you either love it or hate it. I love it! Nothing says French chic to me like a delicate mound of minced raw steak, topped with an egg yolk and surrounded by condiments such as finely chopped onion, capers and thin toast. The idea of eating raw meat may turn some people off but if prepared correctly with the finest quality beef it is perfectly safe. Fresh meat has a lovely delicate flavour that is enhanced by the rich umami in the condiments. This is a bistro staple that you simply must try (preferably in Paris for maximum effect).
Vegetarians are advised to look away now! Charcuterie is the art of preparing various cured meats, in particular pork, and covers everything from bacon, ham and sausages to terrines and pâtés. Charcuterie is a speciality that developed in the Middle Ages to preserve meat, often with the use of salt. If you see a charcuterie platter listed on a menu – order it! You can also work up a DIY charcuterie platter by simply visiting a charcuterie or market and selecting a range of your favourite cured sliced meats alongside cornichons and pickled onions.