French food is known to be the most “unfriendly” cuisine out there. Translation: it is the most complicated to make. There’s really no middle ground with French cuisine, it’s either great or it’s horrible.
This week, Carol had us taste cheeses from all over France, as there are so many fabulous tastes to be had. She also brought some authentic Normandy butter for us to munch on. I was amazed at the difference in taste between this and the butters I am more used to. I could be happy simply eating this on wonderful, crusty bread with a glass of wine.
The geography of Normandy is of rolling hills and it has a cool climate. There is year-round grass, which is perfect for raising cows. It makes sense that this area specializes in cow’s milk, butter and very creamy cow’s milk cheese like Camembert (as well as other “smelly” versions). They also have a lot of rind cheeses, like Pont-l’eveque. Rind cheeses are either ‘washed’ or ‘unwashed.’ If you see a cheese with a darker rind, it means it’s washed. That can be done with salt, beer or other liquids. An unwashed rind is very light yellow. Apples are also grown in this region. Any dish that ends in a la Normandie is sure to be made with cream and apples, and perhaps even a little Calvados!
Bretagne (Brittany) is right by the ocean, so there are a lot of salt mills there. French salt is amazingly flavorful. Grey salt has the minerals left in. Seafood is also big in this region. The mussels are black, as ours are, but because of the water temperature, difference in their diet and salt in the water, the mussels have a distinct taste.
The beautiful Loire Valley is perfect for growing vegetables. They have amazing goat cheese (one of my favorite things in the world) and the famous regional dish is Rillettes. This is a potted meat similar to confit. It’s cooked for a long time, shredded and then fat is added and it’s tightly packed. It can be made with anything from pork to rabbit.
The area of lower central France is the least populated, as it is highly agricultural. It’s an area of high produce because of mountains and rivers. White asparagus is grown here, as are walnuts. Walnut oil from here is wonderfully fragrant. The animals raised are goats and ducks - huge ducks. Much of the cuisine is made with duck fat, and duck confit is a specialty here.
Languedoc-Roussillon, in the southern region, is famous for its cassoulets. These are casseroles made of beans, duck fat, sausage and spices. There are variations, but these are the basic ingredients.
Just east and north of there are Bordeaux and Toulouse. There is great wine, of course, but also the local dishes of fresh water fish and lamb. Prunes and lentils are also used a lot in the local cuisine. French lentils are smaller and crunchier than green lentils and they marry well with the region’s amazing sheep’s milk cheese. Because the area is damper than the surrounding areas, Bordeaux is the perfect breeding ground for mushrooms and truffles.
The Pyrenees, the mountain range between France and Spain (also known as the Basque region), is famous for its sheep and sheep’s milk. The people use a lot of olives and olive oil, and their cuisine is similar to Spain’s in utilizing garlic, pepper and vinegar.
Over on the west coast of the country we find Provence, a gorgeous area known for olives, goat cheese and a myriad of herbs. Tapenade is famous here, as is bouillabaisse and aioli. Because the region is right by the Mediterranean, the fish are plentiful. The locals use preserved fish in their cooking during certain times of the year.
Lyon, to the north by Beaujolais, is a “food” city. This is the place to go to learn how to cook. Chefs from around the world come here for lessons. They’re known for their chickens and fresh eggs, as well as sauces and nouvelle cuisine. The dishes are almost deconstructed compared to formal French cuisine.
Dijon is known for mustard. Shocking, I know. It’s right next to Burgundy, where the wine is used for the famous Beef Bourguignon and Coq au Vin. The dishes are heavier here; lots of stews, cows and goat cheeses. They do wonders with snails.
Jura is known for big wheeled, hard cheeses. The breads are hardier and Fondue is popular. They also produce pork products, especially smoked types.
Alsace-Lorraine has some Germanic influences and, besides the famous Quiche Lorraine, is best known for sauerkraut, sausage, French onion soup, hardy cheeses and other pork products. These all go very well with the crisp wine made in the area.
Paris and the environs are an ethnic melting pot. The capital of France actually has a large Moroccan influence and you can get some great Tagines there. These are stews made in a special pot, often consisting of a meat and fruit combination.