Beyond the Baguette: A Guide to the Regional Food of France
After millennia of neighborly skirmishes and bloody borderland disputes, France finally seems to have settled down into a single, unified nation. But within this single country remains residual evidence of countless former kingdoms and regions that continue to boast their own distinct heritage—especially when it comes to food. Indeed, France’s diverse culinary traditions help shed light on some of its most fascinating regional histories, customs, and quirks. In this round up, we’ll take you from the Mediterranean to the Pyrenees to the English Channel as we explore the gastronomic riches of Alsace, Brittany, Gascony, Picardie, and Provence. By the end of it, we will have covered all the points of a fantastic French menu, which means that all you need are a few Let’s Go tips and a little bit of ooh, là, là to enjoy your very own five-star, five-course meal.
Our tour begins in Alsace with tarte flambée, also known as flammekueche. Whichever name you choose to call it by, the meaning is the same—this is a savory “flame cake” of thinly rolled dough, creamy cheese, roasted onions, and choice slices of pork. It’s best when served fresh out of a wood fired oven. But the multiple names are no accident—what makes this particular dish so culturally potent is that it reflects the close ties between its native Alsace region of France and neighboring Germany. This area has changed hands so many times throughout the course of history—both ancient and modern—that many of its customs, linguistic tics, and yes, foods, are just as indicative of southwestern Germany as they are of northeastern France. Tarte flambée is the edible product of this cross-pollination. Rumored to have been invented by farmers, this richer, creamier cousin of pizza is traditionally eaten at home.
No five-course meal would be complete without a soup dish. Luckily, France’s northwestern Brittany has just the ticket for this portion of our meal. La Cotriade Bretonne, a dish so French it has no true English translation, is a simple fish stew featuring a wide variety of Brittany’s aquatic specialties, from mackerel to mussels to merlu (hake). Vegetables and spices play a supporting role and help to make this ultra-rich meal just a tad more nutritionally balanced. The regional connection here is clear—it is only natural that Brittany’s cuisine should reflect its unique geographic location at the meeting point of the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean.
Though Confit de Canard—delectably crispy duck leg—is now enjoyed throughout France and can be spotted on some of the finest haute cuisine menus worldwide, it got its start in France’s southwestern Gascony, which sits just above the Spanish border and straddles the neighboring regions of Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrenees.
Before being served, confit de canard is cured in salt and then cooked in duck or goose fat, yielding some of the most tender and flavorful meat known to man. Indeed, confit itself means “candied,” “preserved,” or “cured.” And the curing process—so essential to the production of this dish’s mouth-watering properties—emerged not out of a scientific quest for the perfect taste but rather out of historical necessity. Salting the meat was an ancient means of preserving it, while cooking it in goose or duck fat was a product of the absence of olive oil in southwestern France.
For our first of two dessert courses, we turn our attention to Picardie and that most French of gastronomic customs—the portion of the meal, after the main course has been served, that is devoted entirely to cheese. Rollot is a soft, cow’s milk cheese hailing from northern France’s Picardie region. It owes its origins to the now defunct abbaye de Corbie, a Benedictine monastery founded in the mid-600s. After maturing for four to eight weeks in a humid cave, a finished disc of Rollot is soft and flavorful, though not nearly as strong as some of its more pungent cousins. Pair it with baguette or eat it alongside a quintessentially French after-dinner salade.
We’ll finish off our meal with a refreshing Provençal treat—the tarte au citron, or lemon tart. Not only are these tarts thoroughly delicious, they are also representative of Provence’s history as a center of the Mediterranean world. The tart’s nutty crust comes to us courtesy of almonds, which, though not introduced to Provence until the 1500s, became one of the region’s primary global exports by the 20th century. Lemons are also particularly Provençal when it comes to French cuisine. In fact, some southeastern French cities even have annual lemon festivals.
Although some tourists may satisfy their craving for a taste of France with a bottle of wine and a Nutella-filled crepe, the next time you’re in the country, we suggest taking a few bites beyond the baguette and discovering all the diverse culinary experiences that France has to offer. Bon appétit!
Written by Let's Go staff writer Amy Weiss-Meyer