When you think of French cuisine, you might imagine elegantly trimmed plates with tiny portions served by white-gloved stuffy waiters. That image comes to mind quickly thanks to the haute cuisine movement (literally, “high cooking”) that has a firm grasp on luxury hotels and upscale restaurants throughout Europe. But everyday French cuisine has its roots in a farming peasant culture. For centuries, simple ingredients have been drawn from the earth and prepared together in a kind of culinary alchemy. And every region has its specialty.
The cuisine of the Champagne region is heavily influenced by that of Lorraine and Alsace to the east. Wild game such as boar is popular here, as is all manner of ham. You’re likely to find the Breux potato on menus here, too, especially in towns that border Lorraine, as that region’s growing conditions for the root vegetable are considered among the best in the world. Smoked bacon is used in many dishes, including the famous quiche Lorraine. Alsatian influence includes German-style cuisine, including choucroute, the French version of sauerkraut, and tarte flambee, a kind of white-cheese and bacon flatbread with onion.
But Champagne is best known, of course, for its sparkling wine. One of its most famous streets is in Epernay, the Avenue de Champagne. Residents call it the most expensive street in the world for the millions of champagne bottles stored in cellars beneath the buildings that belong to the likes of Moet et Chandon and Mercier. The region’s dedication to bubbly is visible during the most casual of drives into the province; more than 60% of Champagne’s terrain is used in agriculture. From this fertile land, hundreds of millions of bottles of champagne are produced.
The peninsula-like Brittany is surrounded by the sea – the English Channel, the Celtic Sea and the Bay of Biscay. So as you can imagine, seafood is an important part of its cuisine, especially mussels and oysters. Fish stew, known locally as cotriade, is quite popular, made with potatoes and often poured over a toasted baguette. By some accounts, the beurre blanc sauce, a hollandaise-like sauce made with butter and white wine, was invented here and is often served with fish as well. Farm-based dishes are also prevalent, from kig ha farz, a stewed pork or beef with buckwheat dumplings, to gallette, a crusty cake filled with savory fillings.
With its proximity to the sea, Brittany is also a large producer of salt. This may seem a small matter, but it is used to prepare much of the cuisine beloved by local Bretons. The mineral is used to make butter, which in turn is used to prepare the region’s famous pastries such as kouign amann, or butter cake, and far Breton, similar to a sweet Yorkshire pudding. And you cannot step into a shop in Brittany without being tempted by the quaint iron boxes that contain the area’s ubiquitous biscuits, prepared with – you guessed it – salted butter.
It should come as no surprise that the Loire Valley, “the Garden of France,” offers up a huge variety of fruits and vegetables. Cherries are harvested here to satisfy a local appetite for Guignolet liqueur. Belle Angevine pears grow sweet and juicy. And the region’s strawberries and melons are hard to pass by. Like in Brittany, seafood is often served in beurre blanc sauce, a mixture of butter and white wine. Wild game, beef, and poultry are raised here. And it’s common to find young vegetables such as asparagus and artichoke served on your plate, perhaps alongside champignons de Paris, the region’s beloved mushrooms.
Loire wines lean toward the fruity side, with fresh flavors. Buttery white Vouvray, crisp Sauvignon Blanc with hints of grapefruit and gooseberry, smooth and light Pinot Noir, and sparkling Cremant are just four of the most popular grapes grown here along the meandering Loire River.
Seafood takes center stage in Normandy. Oysters, scallops, and mussels are cultivated on the coast in huge numbers and shipped to the rest of the country. Sea bass, monkfish, and sole are common, served in sauces rich with butter. Apple trees grow in abundance here, too, and the fruit is used in many dishes, from mussels cooked in apples and cream to partridge flamed with apples.
For something with a kick, locals might sip kir normand, a shot or so of crème de cassis with apple cider. But Normandy might best be known for its Calvados, the apple brandy produced only in this part of the world. As for dessert, Normandy’s version of the apple tart, the Tarte Tatin, shouldn’t be missed – though even the locals often miss the correct pronunciation, calling it “tan tan tan tan” in local dialect.