Many people of France regard their cuisine to be the best in the world. France is the origin of the Guide Michelin rating system, and ties Japan (which has twice the population) for the highest number of stars in the guidebook.
French cuisine has set a standard for fine dining around the world, and chefs and gastronomes across the Western world make extensive use of French culinary terms.
French cuisine has roots back to the Roman Empire. Influenced by Italian cuisine as well as local traditions, haute cuisine was created in Paris during the Early Modern times. The French Revolution put an end to guilds and the privileged noble class, expanding fine cooking and dining to common people.
While foreign cuisines such as Mexican food, American fast food and Chinese food have been less successful in France than in other parts of Europe, they can be found in Paris and the other more cosmopolitan cities. North African, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern cuisines are among those that have been imported from former French colonies and taken root in the former mother country. At least some North African food has been fully assimilated, as a survey in the 1990s found that couscous was the most popular French food (so described by the respondents) in France.
Conversely, French cuisine has also influenced the cuisines of its former colonial possessions, with the cuisines of Quebec and Louisiana having a strong French influence, albeit with the incorporation of many local North American flavours and ingredients, and a modified version of the French baguette has been widely adopted in Vietnam for use in the ubiquitous bánh mì sandwiches.
Breakfast (petit déjeuner) in France isn't the most important meal of the day, and is usually very light. The most typical breakfast consists of a coffee and a croissant or some other "viennoiserie", but since it implies going to the boulangerie early in the morning to buy fresh croissants, it's typically reserved for somewhat special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and either toast ("tartines" made of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella) that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk. People who eat healthy may go for fruit and yoghurt. As a general rule, the French breakfast is mostly sweet, but anything can change and you can have savoury breakfasts everywhere today.
Both lunch (déjeuner) and dinner (dîner) are traditionally full meals. They often consist of an appetiser (entrée or hors d'œuvre), a main dish (plat), and a dessert (dessert) or cheese. Restaurants usually serve dinner between 19:30 and 21:30.
- Bread (pain) is the classical side order in France. The baguette, a plain wheat roll, is the archetypal bread.
- Cheese (fromage) comes in hundreds of varieties, and can be included in most dishes. It often makes up a dessert. Here is a far from exhaustive list of what one can find:
- Bleu des Causses
- Bleu du Vercors
- Saint Nectaire
- Boulette d'Avesnes
- Brie de Meaux
- Sainte Maure de Touraine
- Brie de Melun
- Saint Marcellin
- Sainte Maure de Touraine
- Tomme de chèvre
- Tomme des Cévennes
Vegetarianism has made broad strides in the first two decades of the 21st century, and while restaurants with at least one veggie option used to be the exception they are now the rule. Meanwhile more and more cartes feature at least one vegan (végétalien) item.
Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc.) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc.) which they grow there. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was food for the masses):
- Cassoulet (Southwest France) : beans, duck, pork & sausages
- Choucroutes, or sauerkraut (Alsace) : stripped fermented cabbage + pork
- Fondue Savoyarde (central Alps) : melted/hot cheese with white wine
- Fondue Bourguignonne (Burgundy) : pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of various sauces.
- Raclette (central Alps) : melted cheese & potatoes/meat
- Pot-au-feu (found all over France) : boiled beef with vegetables
- Boeuf Bourguignon (Burgundy) : slow cooked beef with red wine gravy
- Gratin dauphinois (Rhône-Alpes) : oven-roasted slices of potatoes with sour cream and cheese
- Aligot (Aveyron) : melted cheese mixed with a purée of potatoes
- Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and the French Riviera). Don't be fooled! A real bouillabaisse is a really expensive dish due to the amount of fresh fish it requires. Be prepared to pay at least €30 per person. If you find restaurants claiming to serve bouillabaisse for something like €15 per person, you'll find it to be of a very poor quality.
- Tartiflette (Savoie) : Melted Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.
- Confit de Canard (south west) : Duck Confit, consists of legs and wings bathing in grease. That grease is actually very healthy and, with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the so-called "French Paradox" (eat richly, live long).
- Foie Gras (south west) : The liver of a duck or goose. Although usually quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets for a lower price (because of their purchasing power) around the Christmas season. It is the time of year when most foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with Champagne.
- Moules marinières (found anywhere there's a coast) : Mussels steamed in white wine, garlic and shallots, normally served with crusty bread and French fries (moules-frites, which are Belgian in origin). There are numerous regional varieties. Add cream and sometimes lardons, then you've got moules normandes. Ditch the wine and cook in cider, and enjoy moules bretonnes. Or throw in tomatoes and herbes de Provence (savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano) for moules à la provençale.
Believe it or not fast food exists in France, and is often favoured by young French people on a budget. While you can certainly find examples of the major American chains, especially McDonald's (pronounced Mac Do informally), the vast majority of fast-food establishments are in the form of the local kebab shop, not unlike those found in England. Almost all the dishes are roughly what you would expect, however a fast food shop is the least likely restaurant in which you'll find someone conversant in English.
- Tacos à la française - this particular food item demands a bit of explanation. While Mexican cuisine (or at least the international Tex-Mex variant) has become popular around Europe, it is a rare sight in France. So be aware the "tacos" that you see advertised at kebab shops in France is something else entirely, which in almost no way resembles Mexican or even Tex-Mex food, with the sole exception of the Durum wrapper, which resembles a large flour tortilla. To this is added kebab meat, fries, and one of a selection of cold mayonnaise-based sauces, and if you insist, some harissa. The whole thing is wrapped tight, like a burrito, and then flattened and seared in a hot panini press. The concoction has become hugely popular in the decade following its invention in the mid-2000s, and has expanded from its native Lyon region to the whole Francophonie, so it's probably incorrect to disparage le tacos à la française in and of itself. Linguists might be interested to know that tacos is the singular form. However you need to be aware of it if what you are looking for are real Mexican tacos, which also exist in France, but are not as widely available. Always be sure to check the sign, or ask.
France is one of the world's most prominent countries for wine (vin). Much beer is also drunk in France, especially the north, which produces several beers including Kronenbourg, from Strasbourg, and Pelforth, from Mons-en-Barœul near Lille.
France is also known for brandy, a type of spirit distilled from wine. The French don't have a specific word for brandy, but famous drinks referred to as brandy by English-speakers include cognac and armagnac. France is also famed for its production of other distilled spirits such as calvados from apples and poire williams from pears, and for its almost limitless varieties of liqueurs. These drinks are collectively known in French as eaux-de-vie, literally "waters of life", but more commonly translated as spirits or liquors.
Coffee (café) is drunk at the end of a meal, occasionally with liquor. Excellent hot cocoa is also available, made from dark chocolate, and tea and herbal teas (called tisanes) are also often drunk. Linden (tilleul), verbena (vervain) and mint (menthe) are among the more popular herbal teas.