International Cooking: Food from France

France isn’t a country that needs much of an introduction, and I think many people associate it with high-quality and often highly complex cuisine. I was definitely excited to cook some traditional French dishes!

The land that is now France has been inhabited by archaic humans as far back as 1.8 million years ago, but the country’s oldest city, Marseille, was founded in 600 BC. It was originally a Greek colony by the name of Massalia.

France was once included as part of a region known as Gaul, which eventually fell under the control of the Roman Empire. Roman Gaul was attacked several times by tribes from present-day Germany and eventually, some of them settled in parts of the region. One of these tribes, the Franks, gave the French their name.

Today, France is the largest European Union country, and that’s not including its overseas regions (mostly islands).

What Do People Eat in France?

Food has been a major part of French culture for many years, and French cooking has been documented at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Although French cuisine is often considered fancy and/or complex, I’ve noticed that the ingredients are often quite simple, but turned into delicious dishes due to technique.

Breakfast in France is often quick and may consist of French bread with butter and honey or jam, with coffee. Croissants and other delicious French pastries are usually reserved for a weekend treat.

Lunch used to be a two-hour midday meal, and it may still be in some parts of the country. Nowadays, a one-hour lunch is more common. Most working people and students are served a full meal at a corporate or school cafeteria. If there is no cafeteria, employers have to provide their workers with lunch vouchers as part of their employee benefits.

Dinner often includes three courses. The first is an appetizer or introductory course, which may be soup. This is followed by the main meal, which is often accompanied by bread (usually a baguette), wine, and mineral water. Sometimes there will be an extra course consisting of salad, before dessert or a cheese course is served. I find it hard to believe that everyone in France enjoys a three-course dinner every night though so I’m taking this information (from Wikipedia) with a grain of salt!

No matter where you go, cheese and wine are major parts of French cuisine. Popular dishes, however, vary from region to region. Across the country, French people enjoy a wide range of meat, fish, dairy products, and produce, with the exact ingredients varying according to the season.

Just about any kind of cuisine can be found in Paris and the surrounding region. In fact, Paris is home to over 9000 restaurants! It would take forever to go into detail about the kinds of food you may find in every region of the country, but I’ve included a few highlights that I found interesting.

Game and ham are popular in the region of Champagne, which as you may have guessed is also where champagne comes from. In fact, in the European Union and some other countries, anything labeled ‘champagne’ must legally come from the Champagne wine region of France and be produced according to certain rules.

Alsace shows some elements of German cuisine, making beers similar to those found in Germany. The French version of sauerkraut is also popular in this region and many types of schnaps are made here due to the wide variety of fruits.

Along the coast, fish such as sea bass, monkfish, and herring are plentiful. Normandy has scallops and sole, while Brittany has lobster, crayfish, and mussels. Normandy also has a large population of apple trees so apples are often used in dishes coming from this region, or used to make cider and Calvados.

The best butter and cream in the country is produced in Poitou-Charentes. Considering how much of both is often found in French cooking, I would say this region must be pretty important! This is also where cognac is produced.

What I Made

Salade Niçoise (Salad with Tuna, Potatoes, Olives, Green Beans, and Anchovies)

Salade Niçoise (Salad with Tuna, Potatoes, Olives, Green Beans, and Anchovies)

I’ve eaten versions of this before, but never the traditional one. A salad niçoise consists of tuna, lettuce, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, boiled eggs, and anchovies. It’s tossed with a simple French dressing made from olive oil, vinegar, and fresh herbs.

I followed Julia Child’s recipe, which had me first make a French potato salad. The dressing is similar to the French one for the salad niçoise, except I added some finely minced shallot.

You’re meant to layer the ingredients in some artful manner but I’ve never been very good at that. Luckily, it doesn’t have to look fancy to taste good, which this did! There aren’t many olives, because I don’t really like them. I just included some as ‘token olives’.

French Omelette with Herbs

French Omelette with Herbs

This is my attempt at a simple French rolled omelette with herbs. I again used Julia Child’s recipe, which is mostly just about the technique. You’re meant to use an omelette pan, which I don’t have, so I used the only nonstick skillet I have, which was a little bigger than it was meant to be. Over high heat, you’re supposed to add the beaten egg and then quickly flick the pan so that the egg rolls over itself as it sets. It’s not really meant to be browned, and mine is a little. But it tasted pretty good and I think the texture was right on the inside, as it was soft and creamy.

I think this is something you’d get good at with a lot of practice. I’m happy with my result as at least it didn’t fall apart, and I managed to keep the egg in the pan!

Quiche Lorraine (Cream and Bacon Quiche)

Quiche Lorraine (Cream and Bacon Quiche)

Interestingly, quiche is actually a German creation. This is because, according to historical records, it originated in the Lorraine region of France when it was under German control in the Middle Ages. The word ‘quiche’ is thought to come from the German word for a cake or tart, ‘kuchen’. Bread dough used to be used for the crust, but nowadays shortcrust or puff pastry is used. The quiche Lorraine is just one variation of quiche; you can use just about anything you like in the filling.

Traditionally, the filling of a quiche Lorraine contains only egg, bacon, and cream. Nowadays, cheese is often added, typically Swiss cheese such as Gruyère.

The recipe I used was offered by a lovely French person on Reddit, and it belongs to their mother-in-law. It does contain Gruyére (more specifically, it is meant to contain Comté, which is essentially the same cheese, but it’s made in France whereas Gruyére is made in Switzerland). This recipe used a puff pastry crust, something I don’t think I’ve encountered before, though it’s apparently not uncommon. I’ve made quiche a few times before and always made my own shortcrust pastry for the crust, so I thought this would be interesting to try.

Aside from the cheese, the filling consisted of bacon (which I sautéed lightly first), eggs, crème fraîche, and some black pepper. No salt! This was specifically mentioned in the recipe, and I didn’t miss it at all. I think the cheese and bacon must contribute enough salt on their own.

Crème fraîche isn’t always easy to get here, and even when it is, it’s usually kind of pricy. So I took this opportunity to try something I’ve always wanted to—making my own! It’s extremely easy, and only takes some time. You mix heavy cream with a little buttermilk, cover it, and let it sit at room temperature until it thickens. The recipe said it would take 12-24 hours, and mine was pretty much perfect at around the 12 hour mark. I can see myself using crème fraîche a lot more often now that I know it’s so easy to make!

For the creme fraiche, I used the technique from Serious Eats.

The quiche itself came out delicious, and I think the crème fraîche worked really well for the filling. I probably prefer a homemade crust, but storebought puff pastry does work just fine if you are pressed for time or just don’t want to make the crust yourself.

Galette Bretonne Complète (Buckwheat Galette with Ham, Cheese, and Egg)

Galette Bretonne Complète (Buckwheat Galette with Ham, Cheese, and Egg)

This is a buckwheat crepe, folded over some Gruyére, ham, and a fried egg. The filling is what makes this ‘complète’ and it seems to be the most popular version. You could just have ham and cheese instead or, I suppose, whatever you like!

This dish comes from Brittany, a region of France that grows a lot of buckwheat. I guess they had to work out how they were going to use it all!

This wasn’t too hard to make, though my first crepe fell apart so be careful of that! The end result was pretty good; I’m not sure I love buckwheat but it was good here.

To make this, I followed the recipe from Serious Eats.

Soupe à l’Oignon (French Onion Soup)

Soupe à l'Oignon (French Onion Soup)

French onion soup is probably familiar to most people, and it’s something I’ve made before. However, I’ve never specifically tried to make an authentic version, so this time I used Julia Child’s recipe.

I started by caramelizing the onions with some butter, oil, salt, and a little sugar. This takes a while. Any recipe that tells you to caramelize the onions, and claims it only takes 10 minutes, is lying to you. I can see a smaller batch being done in about 30 minutes or so, but usually I spend longer than that. I think I cooked these onions for around 45-50 minutes before they were at the point I was looking for. Sometimes I caramelize onions for an hour. It depends on the temperature used, how much onion you have, and, probably, the variety of onion.

Once the onions were done, I stirred in some flour and cooked for a minute or two. Then I added some hot beef stock, dry white vermouth, and salt and pepper. I let that simmer for another half hour or so.

Just before serving, I stirred in some dry sherry. Julia Child called for cognac but the sherry was the closest I had. I melted some Gruyére on a slice of homemade French bread (another Julia Child recipe) and put that on top. Julia Child calls for the bread to be placed in the soup bowl and the soup to be poured over the top, but I didn’t want to do it that way. I think I could have used more cheese, but it seemed like a lot before it melted! The broiler also would have been better than just melting it in the oven, but I was baking something else at the time (my husband’s dinner maybe, since he would not eat this), and I can’t use the broiler and regular oven at the same time.

Anyway, the soup itself tasted good, though I think I would use more onion next time. I seem to remember cutting a lot more onion the last time I made French onion soup, and I think it was better that way.

Boef Bourguignon (Beef Stew with Red Wine)

Boef Bourguignon (Beef Stew with Red Wine)

This is another recipe a lot of people will probably recognize, and I think it’s one of Julia Child’s most famous (yes, I used her recipe again!)

This is actually a fairly simple dish to make. It’s really not too different from making any beef stew. I was meant to use a ‘flameproof casserole’ so I used my enameled cast iron Dutch oven.

First, you’re meant to blanch bacon rind and lardons. I used regular strips of bacon which I chopped, and I did not blanch them. Then I sautéed the bacon in some oil and transferred it to a bowl, and repeated the process with the beef until it was browned.

I then cooked carrot and onion in the same pan. I was supposed to pour out the sautéing fat but it had pretty much all disappeared, so I skipped that step. I added the beef and bacon back, then tossed with salt and pepper, then flour. Next I put the pot in the oven for a bit, which was meant to ‘brown the flour and cover the meat with a light crust’.

I then added red wine, beef stock, tomato paste, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves (at this point you’re also meant to add the blanched bacon rind). At this point, the stew goes in the oven, covered, for 2-3 hours or so until the meet is tender. It was closer to 2 hours for me.

The only slightly annoying part was the inclusion of two separate recipes, which get added to the stew at the end. I had to braise some small white onions in stock, and sauté some mushrooms in butter. I just stirred them into the stew when it was ready. You’re meant to strain out the liquid and reduce it separately, but I felt it was plenty reduced already so I didn’t do that.

This was very good! Very rich, but very good. I served it with boiled potatoes and buttered peas.

Bavarois aux Framboises (Raspberry Bavarian Cream)

Bavarois aux Framboises (Raspberry Bavarian Cream)

A Bavarian cream is made by folding whipped egg whites into custard mixed with gelatin, then folding in whipped cream. It can be flavored with just about anything you like, but I used raspberries here.

To make the raspberry puree, I blended up some raspberries and then pushed them through a strainer to get rid of the seeds. This part took a while and was annoying, but worth it I think.

Then I had to make the custard, the egg whites, and the cream. No component was particularly time-consuming but it still felt like a lot of work, and I was worried about messing up the custard, or having the final result fail to set.

Luckily, everything seemed to go fine, and after sitting in the fridge for a few hours, my Bavarian creams were set. They were really good; not too sweet and fairly light. I might make this again despite how fiddly it was, but I will probably try another flavor such as orange or chocolate (just to see how they go; there was nothing wrong with the raspberry).

This was another Julia Child recipe, but it was difficult to follow because it was a variation on the orange Bavarian cream recipe and she was constantly referencing that. I was going to write it out so I didn’t have to be flipping pages back and forth, but I found it online at Frosted Features instead.

Oeufs à la Bourguignonne (Eggs Poached in Red Wine)

Oeufs à la Bourguignonne (Eggs Poached in Red Wine)

Someone on Reddit said I should make oeufs en meurette or eggs poached in red wine. As far as I can tell, that is the same dish as this, which I found in Julia Child’s first book.

The egg is poached in a mixture of red wine and beef stock, then after it’s been removed, the poaching liquid is reduced and seasoned to make the sauce. I added a paste of butter and flour (called a beurre manié’) which I thought was supposed to thicken the sauce. It gave it some body I guess, but it was still kind of thin. I did not include the optional red currant jelly, but I think this would have added a little sweetness which I feel the sauce was missing. I added a tiny bit of sugar which seemed to help.

The eggs are meant to be served on neat circles of toasted bread, but I just toasted a slice of my homemade French bread instead. You can garnish with a variety of vegetables, or bacon (Julia Child suggests liver), so I just braised some carrot and my leftover pearl onions.

This was really good! I wish I’d taken a decent yolk shot because this was probably my most perfectly poached egg ever, but oh well. I’d definitely make this again! It feels fancy but is pretty simple to make.

Croque Madame (Cheese and Ham Toasted Sandwich with Egg)

Croque Madame (Cheese and Ham Toasted Sandwich with Egg)

A croque madame is a variation on a croque monsieur. A croque monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, with cheese (and often bechamel or mornay sauce) on top. A croque madame is topped with a fried egg; the egg is said to be the madame’s hat.

This was easy to make, and I used a recipe from my Cook’s Country cookbook. I made a bechamel sauce, which starts by melting butter and adding some flour, then slowly whisking in milk after a few minutes. Off heat, I stirred in some Gruyére and Parmesan; the addition of cheese turns the bechamel into mornay sauce. I toasted some bread and formed a sandwich with ham and mornay sauce as the filling. Then I topped the sandwich with more mornay sauce, Gruyére, and Parmesan. I broiled just until it was starting to brown, then topped the whole thing with a fried egg.

This was delicious, though a little too decadent to eat all the time with all that cheese!

Gratin Dauphinois (Scalloped Potatoes with Milk and Cheese)

Gratin Dauphinois (Scalloped Potatoes with Milk and Cheese)

I’ve made scalloped potatoes with cream and cheese before, but never this traditional French version of the dish. This was actually really easy to make. Again, I followed Julia Child’s recipe.

First I rubbed the dish with garlic. Honestly, I didn’t really taste it, so I’m not sure this is worth it. Then I rubbed the dish with butter.

I used my food processor to chop the potatoes into thin slices, and layered them with salt, pepper, cheese, and butter. You’re meant to use Swiss cheese, but I didn’t have enough Gruyére left by this stage so I supplemented with some mozzarella.

Then, you pour boiling milk over the whole thing and bake it in the oven until it’s done. I’m guessing mine looks so messy because the milk bubbles up the sides in the oven. Regardless of its appearance, this was pretty good. I don’t think it’s the best scalloped potato recipe I’ve ever made, but it’s certainly the easiest and quickest. The potato isn’t layered too deep, so it only takes 25-30 minutes in the oven.

Final Thoughts

I had high hopes for this week and I was not disappointed. Everything was delicious! It was really hard to choose favorites, but I particularly enjoyed the boef bourguignon, the oeufs à la bourguignonne, and the croque madame.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Gabon.

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