This is a Useful Notes page about French cuisine, which isn't just escargots and cuisses de grenouilles. For a trope about the use of French cuisine in fiction, see French Cuisine Is Haughty.
ClassificationThere are three distinct components to French Cuisine: La Haute Cuisine Also known as "La Grande Cuisine", Haute Cuisine (literally "High Cooking") has its roots in the cuisine of the middle ages and of the Ancien Régime but really took off after the French Revolution when the guilds were disbanded and anyone could be a chef if they wanted. It was eventually codified by Georges Auguste Escoffier in the late 19th century. This is the cuisine of fine restaurants and hotels, of the well to do who could afford cooks. Haute Cuisine uses spices very sparingly in contrast to the heavily spiced medieval dishes of France, but uses fresh herbs more liberally. Most recipes call for extraordinary amounts of cream and butter, and deglazes and reductions based on wine are common. Fresh ingredients are pulled from all over France, from Normandy and Brittany to Lorraine and Provence, so you will find a truly astonishing variety, but it does not take on much of the regional character. If you go to an expensive French restaurant, this is most likely what you will be served, if it isn't Nouvelle cuisine (see below). At its best, it's a bit antiquated but very enjoyable; at its worst, you get what Calvin Trillin once described as "stuff-stuff with heavy": indifferently prepared with leaden, pasty sauces and dull flavors, barely worth putting on a buffet table, never mind in front of a $50/plate diner. Classical French cuisine is one of the best-documented and codified in the world. Parts of it have roots going back into ancient times (the Greeks made bechamel sauce long before Béchamel existed), but it was popularized in more or less its current form in the 19th century by one of the first celebrity chefs, Marie-Antoine Carême. You'll want to read Escoffier's Guide Culinaire for the traditional treatment, as well as La repertoire de la cuisine by Escoffier's student Louis Saulnier; for a more modern approach, Joel Robuchon's Tout Robuchon *, Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques, and The Elements of Cooking and Ratio by Michael Ruhlman are all good introductions. François Tanty, a French chef who trained under Carême in the early 19th century, had cooked for the Russian royal family; as a very old man, he retired to the United States with his sons and wrote La Cuisine Français in 1893, which may have been one of the first such books published in the United States. La Nouvelle Cuisine Literally "New Cuisine", Nouvelle Cuisine was a backlash against "Cuisine Classique" (Classic Cuisine; arguably Nouvelle Cuisine is a subset of Haute Cuisine and what is defined above is Cuisine Classique, but usually Haute Cuisine usually means Cuisine Classique) starting in the 1960s. It involved a lot of experimentation and bringing in techniques, ingredients, and preparations from other cuisines, most notably Chinese and Japanese. Gault and Millau came up with a "formula" for what Nouvelle cuisine typically entails: a rejection of excessive complication in cooking, reduced cooking times in order to preserve the flavors of fish, poultry, seafood, and vegetables, which led to a lot of steaming, using the freshest ingredients possible, shorter menus, abandonment of strong marinades for fish and game, replacing heavy sauce with lighter applications of fresh herbs, butter, lemon juice, and vinegar, regional dishes as inspiration, incorporating modern inventions, and inventiveness. Arguably this is no longer "New Cuisine"; the innovations of Nouvelle Cuisine were hugely influential around the world (if you cook some of the above, like the emphasis on fresh food cooked very lightly might seem familiar) but has long since been incorporated into high restaurant cuisine and home cooking; many chefs will now use techniques from both Haute Cuisine and Nouvelle Cuisine, and probably incorporate ideas from other cuisines as well. Still, understanding the difference is useful for understanding French Cuisine as a whole. Some well-known practitioners include Michel Roux, Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, and quite a few others of the world's top chefs. La Cuisine Régionale Haute Cuisine—both Nouvelle and Classique—is the cuisine of chefs and foodies. While most French eat it at least occasionally, their everyday cooking will more likely resemble their regional cuisines, which are less formalized and more varied than the national cuisine. France was not always a modern nation state, and the different regions of France, Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne, Calais, Normandy, Brittany, Île-de-France, Burgundy, Provence, etc. all have their own culture and cuisine. Indeed, provincialism is quite strong in France, with most Frenchmen having a strong attachment to the city or town of their birth, even if they later move. In a French restaurant abroad you will at best find some of the most famous dishes of each region, and perhaps nothing regional at all, but it is still an integral part of the French national identity. Much of what Julia Child (and her writing partners Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) wrote about fell into this category; Child's cuisine in particular was essentially middle-class home cooking of the 1930s through 1950s*, with some diversions into restaurant dishes, high-end patisserie (particularly elaborate cakes like her signature Queen of Sheba chocolate rum cake), and even occasionally street food; France, of course, had their own authors like Evelyn Ebrard (writing as "Mme. E. Saint-Ange", her maiden name) and Ginette Mathiot, and the UK had the classically trained Dione Lucas, one of the very first television chefs. Edouard de Pomiane (a radio chef!) wrote what may be one of the first convenience cookbooks in 1930, published as Cuisine en dix minutes. This was the cuisine that broke the US out of its traditional mold of heavy, stodgy cooking and made the era of Mad Men and space shots much tastier and more daring. Sauces and garnishes French food relies heavily on its sauces, which Escoffier divided largely into five categories:
Some famous dishesCuisses de grenouilles Aka Frogs' Legs. They apparently do taste like chicken. The French don't eat them that often, it's more a touristy thing. Escargots Snails. They actually taste like mussels. Considered a delicacy, and not eaten that often either (many Frenchmen are just as disgusted as Americans by the idea of eating them). While there is a specifically French recipe for them, snails are in fact occasionally eaten in most countries of southern Europe and North Africa (anyone who's ever been in a Moroccan bazaar can testify to the presence of carts full of gigantic dishes of stewed snails). Snails were also British peasant food until they went out of favour sometime in the late 1700's. Bœuf Bourgignon Possibly the quintessential French beef stew *, or at least tied for first with the Daube Provençale (which may be made with lamb...), bœuf Bourgignon is named after the Burgundy region, where the world-famous local red wine of the same name is used to make it. In addition to big chunks of stew beef and a winey sauce, the dish also contains salt pork or bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. This is the dish that made Julia Child's career. Pot-au-feu Called "the quintessence of French family cuisine" by at least one major chef, this is the French down-home beef stew, served in households rich and poor alike. Its name means "pot on the fire" because it was historically exactly that—a pot of random stuff you had on the fire, often for days on end (adding stuff as you went along). Made from beef with rough-cut (nay, usually whole) veggies (always onion, usually carrot and celery, often other root vegetables plus cabbage) cooked over low heat with a bouquet garni (a bundle of common French herbs) and some other seasoning. Eaten with bread and a few side dishes (pickles are popular), it is the essence of French Comfort Food. French onion soup Take a freshly made brown beef stock. Add piles and piles of carefully caramelized onions, then pour over a big chunk of toasted baguette, and brown some French or Swiss cheese (Gruyere is popular) over the top. Mediocre versions can be found everywhere, but it's authentic and a lot of fun to eat. Ratatouille Not to be confused with a dish with rats (or a dish made by rats). That would be gross. Pronounced as ra-ta-too-yee, a Southern French dish composed of mixed vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, zuchinni, bell peppers, and certain herbs and spices like marjoram and basil. Very popular with dieters due to the nutritional value of the dish. Also not to be confused with rouille, which is a type of garlic and red pepper mayonnaise used to season... Bouillabaisse A traditional fish stew from the Mediterranean coast of France; it's hard to duplicate because to be truly authentic, you need to have local fish (especially rascasse or scorpionfish), but it's nevertheless one of the most famous of French seafood dishes.
Le fromageFrance has many kinds of cheese, from very strong to very sweet, from very hard to very creamy. Most popular cheeses include Camembert (a creamy cheese from Normandy, made with cow milk, rather strong taste), Roquefort (a very strong taste blue cheese, made with sheep milk, from the town of Roquefort), Comté (a hard cheese made from cow milk, originating in the region of Franche-Comté) and Crottin de Chavignol (soft and sweet goat cheese (though it becomes progressively harder and stronger if left to age more) made in the Loire valley). Note that Emmental and Gruyère are actually made in Switzerland (but are still very popular in France).
Vin (et les autres boissons)Or in English, wine. France is famous for its fine wines and the French government has a lot of quality controls on them. The wines of Bordeaux are world-famous and can cost hundreds of dollars a bottle, but France doesn't lack for good, inexpensive local wines. (It also doesn't lack for cheap plonk; at one point during the 1990s, there was such a surplus of wine that even some of the good stuff wound up being recycled into industrial ethanol because there was too much to sell.) Beer is not uncommon, especially in the once-German Alsace and Lorraine areas and along the Belgian border—the Nord département consists of the western part of Flanders and Hainaut (the rest of which are in Belgium), and shares in the famous Belgian brewing tradition. Normandy is known for its cider and Calvados (a type of apple brandy). Champagne Under the Treaty of Madrid (1891) only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can legally be called "champagne" in many countries. While does not apply to the US, Uncle Sam has subjected the use of the term "champagne" by American sparkling wines to certain conditions: it must actually be sparkling wine, it must have the actual location of origin (usually California) noted in fairly large type on the label, and it must have started calling itself champagne before 2006 (when the rules were instated). American wine producers have in recent years started gravitating away from using French names anyway (except for varietals, where it's hardly their fault), as they're trying to develop their regional identities (which, as various blind wine tastings have indicated, can be just as good as European ones).
La baguette (et les autres pains)'''Although the French do eat potatoes and couscous quite frequently (they formerly had a certain notoriety for not being able to handle rice, though), the big traditional starch of a French meal is bread, by far the most famous being the long, crispy stick of bread known as the baguette. Properly made, a baguette is ideal for both a meal and a sandwich bread; however, it's not the only French bread. The family of breads sometimes known as pain de campagne ("country bread") tend to be flattened balls or wheels of greyish-brown bread; at its worst it's barely distinguishable from white bread, but the bread of Poilane bakery in Paris (now in its third generation of ownership) is considered among the best and most imitated in the world. Also, there's brioche — an eggy, buttery bread used for breakfast, desserts, holiday pastries, and uses like that. * Finally, there's the originally-Austrian croissant — a yeasted relative of puff pastry and danish, and one of the three most popular breakfast breads in the USA, along with biscuits and bagels. (Chocolate croissants — the rectangular, chocolate-filled pain au chocolat — are very popular after-school snacks for French kids.) The French also eat pizza (understandable, since they share a border with Italy); in practice, most French pizzerias offer only a handful of styles of pizza, but France also has its own native types, like the anchovy and onion-laden pissaladière of Provence and the Alsatian onion/cream/bacon flammekueche.note Also not uncommon is fougasse, a type of bread similar in both name and style to northern Italy's focaccia, though the French often make them sweet, sometimes with fruit like grapes baked in. And lastly, let us not forget the humble crêpe; although widely made throughout the Mediterranean (and in other places — the Russian/Jewish blinchiki are essentially crêpes, as are Japanese okonomiyaki), these eggy pancake-wrapper-flatbread things are best known under their French name, and are popular not only as a dessert (like crêpes suzette) but as a quick lunch or even as part of a hearty dinner, made into cannelloni or something similar.