French cuisine was added to the list of cultural objects that are called “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in 2010.  French gastronomy has a very long history and has been heavily influenced not only by the French court but also by neighboring and even distant cultures.

Middle Ages

French food was an important part of life for many people even in the Middle Ages.  But a French meal looked very different then than it does today, with the biggest difference being that many different dishes were prepared for a meal and were served at the same time.  The way of serving the dishes in unison was called “service en confusion” and most of the food was eaten by hand.  The idea of serving dishes as separate courses were only introduced centuries later as was the practice of serving each person individually instead of family-style.

Prior to the Renaissance, French dishes were typically acidic before the growing craving for sugar influenced the cuisine, beginning in the 1500s.  Sugar was added to almost everything, including water, wine, fish, and meat.  This trend resulted in profound changes in French eating habits with a clear distinction being made between salty and sweet dishes, and it became common practice to serve dessert at the end of the meal.  Butter was also becoming a staple in French cooking with further refinement and other changes attributed to the arrival of Catherine de Medici and her chefs at the French court.  Catherine was an Italian noblewoman who became queen consort of France from 1547 until 1559 by marriage to King Henry II, and Queen Mother of Kings Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III from 1559 to 1589.  The years during which her sons reigned have been called “the age of Catherine de’ Medici” as she had extensive if at times varying, influence in the political life of France.

French food truly became a model for other cuisines in the 17th century, in great part due to Louis XIV’s lavish banquets in his hunting lodge-turned palace and principal royal residence, Versailles.   And then in the 18th century, there were significant changes in French dining, like when people started eating with forks in France. 

The Enlightenment and French Revolution

Although the fork had been a common utensil in other places, like Italy, the French considered it a silly way to eat, and mostly ate with their hands.  But during the “siècle des Lumières”, or the Enlightenment, cuisine became a subject of much debate and writing within France.  It developed into more of an art form and “harmony,” “chemistry,” and “spirituality” became key elements of French food preparation.

While the 1789 French Revolution disturbed the typical social and political foundations of France, the country’s culinary arts actually flourished.  With the advent of the restaurant and the restaurateur after the French Revolution, new dynamics were created that still affect culinary experiences today.  The chef as the master of the restaurant became accountable to his clients, and public relations became a vital part of the chef’s ability to attract more customers with favorable reviews from restaurant critics. 

French cuisine became more widespread and accessible by the end of the 17th century and well into the 18th due to cookbooks published on “cuisine bourgeoise”.  This cuisine was buttery, rich in meat, sauces and cooked for hours in simmering juices.  It was actually an adaptation of aristocratic food served at court, with regional dishes still in existence today as early examples of “cuisine bourgeoise.”  These include “boeuf bourguignon” (beef stew), “coq-au-vin” (rooster with wine), “bouillabaisse” (fish stew) and gratin potatoes.  Basic sauces developed during this period included sauces made from roux like “béchamel,” “hollandaise,” or “espagnole.”

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the role and status of chefs further evolved and became well established in French society, as well as a strict, codified rationale for kitchen work. For example, cooks developed an assembly line style in food preparation, instead of working from start to finish on a specific dish.

These advancements in food preparation were attributed to Georges Auguste Escoffier, who became a world-renown chef, commissioned in major cities all over the world.  He completely revolutionized the workflow of French food preparations and kitchens, and his “Guide Culinaire” became the standard for culinary rules established to ensure a uniform discipline for future chefs. An example would be while one chef is grilling the meat to perfection, another is preparing the sauce. This manner of cooking allowed all elements of the meal to be prepared by a person specialized in that area, as well as ensuring that all components are still hot when they arrive on the table.  It was also in the 1800s that the iconic “Le Cordon Bleu” school of culinary arts was opened and began offering classes.

Carême is another historic chef, one of the most well-known French chefs in history. Like Escoffier, he traveled the world, but it was he who was credited with the change to serving each guest at the table, which he learned in Russia.  Carême was also known for his innovation, combining architecture with food preparation, such as making bridges and towers out of pastries and bread.  A favorite in France, these can still be found today in traditional French bakers’ and pastry shop windows.

Montagné is another great French chef, who wrote what is still considered to be the Bible of French Cuisine, the Larousse Gastronomique.   This work provides every detail needed for a flawless French meal and also helped bring the standards he wrote about to every corner of France.  This had an effect of decreasing the regional influence of cuisines while reinforcing the influence of a national, French, culinary tradition.

Modern Times

In the 1960s, Henri Gault of Paris-Presse began to sharply criticize French cuisine, claiming that it had become stagnant since WWII.  This ushered in the era of “Nouvelle Cuisine”, which promoted simpler and lighter dishes and creative foods that had more nutritional value and shorter cooking times.  Gault famously criticized and blamed the Michelin Star system for encouraging complacency and hindered creativity.  He collaborated with Christian Millau to create the first “Gault et Millau” guide, which was published in 1972. 

Famous chefs like Joël Robuchon, Gaston Lenôtre, and Paul Bocuse gradually came to the attention of the French public.  The “Nouvelle Cuisine” movement also influenced a trend embracing “food science.”   Molecular gastronomy gave the French chef the tools to develop new tastes and greatly expand the possibilities of culinary expression, which continues today in France and worldwide.

At Home and in CafesTop of Form

French culinary customs are fascinating to observe.  There is high importance placed on the whole process, including shopping for the best ingredients, planning the menu, and sitting down to dine at the prescribed time with the entire family to enjoy the experience together.

The day’s schedule revolves around mealtimes, with breakfast being a light affair followed by a three-course lunch as well as a substantial dinner.  One sits down for lunch at 1 p.m. with dinner typically beginning around 8:30 p.m. Lunch and dinner are similarly substantial, so there’s no acceptance nor need for mid-afternoon snacking.  The French don’t approve of scrounging around in the fridge, grazing,   standing over the sink to eat a piece of fruit, or grabbing a snack on the go.  Eating from a vending machine is also not an option in the accepted French way of life.

Café Culture” is a huge part of French life and has been so for centuries.  This involves grabbing a seat at a table at a sidewalk café and passing the hours people-watching, either with friends or family or alone with a newspaper.  And there is no better place to enjoy this ritual than Paris with its multitude of charming sidewalk cafes.

And while innovative and creative dishes are celebrated, the role of the combination of bread, cheese, and wine cannot be understated!  These three staples are essential to French culture and traditions of French food.  They are both delicious and portable, perfect for any season and just right for an impromptu pause to rest, chat, and people-watch while seated on a park bench.  It is estimated that France has over 32,000 independent bakeries and the French consume some 10 billion baguettes each year!  So combine your baguette with delicious French cheeses and a bottle of reasonably priced wine and you have yourself an instant picnic.  You don’t need a cutting board or knife as baguettes are designed to be torn off in bite-size chunks.

In France, lunch, and dinner traditionally revolve around the main course consisting of meat, fish or poultry.   This can include a wide variety of meats including beef, pork, lamb, veal and rabbit. Popular national dishes include Burgundy beef (boeuf bourguignon), veal stew (blanquette de veau), leg of lamb (gigot d’agneau) and Toulouse-style cassoulet with pork and beans.

Chicken and duck are the main ingredients for traditional dishes such as chicken Dijon, chicken braised with wine (coq au vin), “duck à l’orange,” and duck breast (magret de canard).  The Christmas meal is typically turkey with chestnuts or a roast goose. 

With more than 2000 miles of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea, fish, shellfish, and seafood dishes abound.  Typical dishes include pan-fried sole (sole meunière), salmon in a paper (salmon en papillote), grilled tuna Provençal and broiled swordfish “à la Niçoise.”  In Marseilles, the Provençal Bouillabaisse stew is packed with shrimp, mussels, clams, and monkfish. Other typical seafood dishes include lobster thermidor, scallops in creamy wine sauce (coquilles Saint-Jacques), marinated mussels (moules marinières) and outstanding oysters from the cold northwest Atlantic coast.

French soups are regional and many very famous, such as bouillabaisse, which is known all around the world by its French name.  Bouillabaisse is a specialty of the region of Provence on the Mediterranean Ocean and features seafood, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. The name of the soup comes from the French word “to boil” (bouillir), and it is served with bread, usually as a meal and not an appetizer.

Pumpkin Soup (soupe au potiron) is a famous dish from central France.  It is typically served in the Fall when pumpkins and potatoes are harvested, and the main ingredients are mixed with cream and topped with croutons or served with a freshly baked baguette.

Another seasonal favorite is Chestnut Soup (soupe aux chataignes).  Locally grown chestnuts are mixed with potatoes, leeks, and turnips to make a hearty, yet sweet, winter soup.  It is a great recipe to try for a special occasion.

The French enjoy their salads and vegetables as a perfect accompaniment to the main course.  A mixed salad (salade composée) can be a meal in itself at lunch and consists of ingredients arranged on a plate and drizzled with vinaigrette.  For protein-lovers, there is the Salade Niçoise, named for the French Riviera city of Nice.  A mix of tuna, green beans, boiled potato, tomato, hard-boiled egg, olives, and optional anchovies, this classic French salad is complete with a tasty homemade salad dressing of oil and vinaigrette.

Also with its origins in Nice, ratatouille is a stewed vegetable dish that is served as a hearty main course or as aside.   It can incorporate whatever vegetables are in season.  Often eggplant, bell pepper, zucchini, and peeled tomato are all important ingredients. Green beans, asparagus, leeks, tomatoes, onions, garlic and a variety of herbs are among the most popular French vegetables.

The French also enjoy their sandwiches, like the croque monsieur and croque madame, famous among sandwiches of the world. A croque monsieur is baked ham and melted Swiss cheese sandwich with béchamel sauce and the croque madame variation is topped with a fried egg.

Potatoes are a staple of French cuisine.  Bread is eaten at breakfast and served with cheese after a meal, but not all meals are served with bread.  Most traditional meals that include a piece of meat as the main course are served with potatoes, whereas soups that are main courses are often served with bread.

“Tartiflette” is a traditional meal in the Alps that features potatoes and cheese and is rich enough to be eaten as a main course.  It’s said that it warms the body since it so heavy and rich with its soft potatoes layered in creamy melted cheese.  A southern France dish called Bouillinade consists of potatoes and fish baked together with butter and herbs, such as saffron, parsley, and cayenne.

Last but certainly not least, France has a long history of making pastries and exquisite desserts such as crème brulée and chocolate mousse.  Bakeries offer irresistibly fine pastries such as “profiteroles” and “mille-feuille.”

French Wines

The French produce roughly seven to eight billion bottles of wine per year and wine is produced throughout the country.  France is one of the largest wine producers in the world, along with Italy, Spain, and the U.S.  The French trace their wine history to the 6th century BC, with many of France’s regions dating their wine-making history to Roman times.

Two concepts central to the better French wines are the notion of “terroir”, which links the style of the wines to the locations where the grapes are grown; and the wine is made and the “Appelation d’origine controlee” (AOC) system, replaced by the “Appellation d’Origin Protégée” (AOP) system in 2012. Appellation rules closely define which grape varieties and winemaking practices are approved for classification in each of France’s several hundred geographically defined appellations, which can cover regions, villages or vineyards.

France is the source of many grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah, which are now planted throughout the world, as well as wine-making practices and styles of wine that have been adopted in other producing countries.

French wine production originated in the 6th century B.C. with the colonization of Southern Gaul by Greek settlers.  Viticulture soon flourished with the founding of the Greek colony of Marseille.  Wine has been around for thousands of years in the countries on the Mediterranean, but France has made it a part of their civilization and has considered wine-making as art for over two thousand years. The Gauls knew how to cultivate the vine and how to prune it. Pruning creates an important distinction in the difference between wild vines and wine-producing grapes. Before long, the wines produced in Gaul were popular all around the world. 

The Roman Empire licensed regions in the south to produce wines.  During the Middle Ages, monks maintained vineyards and, more importantly, conserved wine-making knowledge and skills during that period. Monasteries had the resources, security, and inventiveness to produce a steady supply of wine.  The best vineyards were owned by the monasteries and their wine was considered to be superior.  The nobility developed extensive vineyards but the French Revolution led to the confiscation of many of them.

The advance of the French wine industry stopped abruptly as first Mildew and then Phylloxera spread throughout the country and the rest of Europe, leaving vineyards desolate. Then came an economic downturn in Europe followed by two world wars and the French wine industry was depressed for decades. Competition threatened French brands such as Champagne and Bordeaux. This resulted in the establishment in 1935 of the Appelation d’origine controlee” to protect French interests. Large investments, the economic revival after WWII, and a new generation of winemakers yielded results in the 1970s and the following decades, creating the modern French wine industry.

Quality Levels and Appellation System

In 1935, laws were passed to control the quality of French wine. The “appelation d’origine controlee” system was established, which is governed by a powerful oversight board, the INAO. France has one of the oldest systems for protected designation of origin for wine in the world and strict laws concerning winemaking and production and many European systems are modeled after it.  The word “appellation” has been put to use by other countries, sometimes in a much looser meaning.  Now that European Union wine laws have been modeled after those of the French, this trend is likely to continue with further EU expansion.

French law divides wine into four categories, two falling under the European Union Table Wine category and two under the Quality Wines Produced in Specified Regions (QWPSR) designation. The categories and their shares of the total French production for the 2005 vintage, excluding wine destined for Cognac, Armagnac and other brandies.

Table wine:

  • Vin de Table  (11.7%) – Carries with it only the producer and the designation that it is from France.
  • Vin de Pays (33.9%) – Carries with it a specific region within France and subject to less restrictive regulations than AOC wines. For instance, it allows producers to distinguish wines that are made using grape varieties or procedures other than those required by the AOC rules, without having to use the simple and commercially non-viable table wine classification. In order to maintain a distinction from Vin de Table, the producers have to submit the wine for analysis and tasting, and the wines have to be made from certain varieties or blends.

QWPSR:

  •  Vin délimité de qualité supérieure (VDQS, 0.9%) – Less strict than AOC, usually used for smaller areas or as a “waiting room” for potential AOCs. This category was abolished at the end of 2011.
  • Appellation d’origine contrôlée(AOC, 53.4%) – Wine from a particular area with many other restrictions, including grape varieties and winemaking methods.

The total French production for the 2005 vintage was 43.9 million hl (plus an additional 9.4 million hl destined for various brandies) of which 28.3% was white and 71.7% was red or rosé.  The proportion of white wine is slightly higher for the higher categories, with 34.3% of the AOC wine being white. In years with less favorable vintage conditions than 2005, the proportion of AOC wine tends to be a little lower. The proportion of Vin de table has decreased considerably over the last decades, while the proportion of AOC has increased somewhat and Vin de Pays has increased considerably. In 2005 there were 472 wine AOCs in France.

Reforms

The wine classification system of France was revised from 2006, with a new system fully introduced by 2012. The new system consists of three categories rather than four since there will be no category corresponding to VDQS from 2012. The new categories are:

The largest changes will be in the Vin de France category, and to VDQS wines, which either need to qualify as AOP wines or be downgraded to an IGP category. For the former AOC wines, the move to AOP will only mean minor changes to the terminology of the label, while the actual names of the appellations themselves will remain unchanged. While no new wines have been marketed under the old designations from 2012, bottles already in the distribution chain will not be relabelled.