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—if they could hack it. The founder of the modern form of this style is generally considered to be Marie-Antoine Carême, who was one of the first celebrity chefs (and a chef to celebrities: he spent much of his career in the employ of the French diplomat/politician Talleyrand). However, Carême's dishes, made for heads of state and diplomats and designed to impress, could be quite complex, and there was a lot of variation in the early-to-mid-19th century, as not everyone adopted his techniques and ideas right away. However, Carême gradually became the gold standard by which other French chefs are measured, and by the late 19th century, Georges Auguste Escoffier would cement Carême's status by developing a codification of French cuisine developed by adapting and simplifying Carême's recipes.
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,note 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 Carême. You'll want to read Escoffier's Guide Culinaire for the traditional treatment, as well as Le répertoire de la cuisine by Escoffier's student Louis Saulnier; for a more modern approach, Joel Robuchon's Tout Robuchon note , 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 natural flavors of fish, poultry, seafood, and vegetables (which led to a lot of steamingnote ); using the freshest ingredients possible; shorter menus; abandonment of strong marinades for fish and game; replacing heavy sauces with lighter applications of fresh herbs, butter, lemon juice, and vinegar; regional dishes as inspiration; and using modern innovations and technologies to combine these elements in an inventive way.
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,note 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 with a few small exceptionsnote 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. This cuisine is often based heavily on what is produced locally in a given region, so expect lots of apples and butter in Normandy and Brittany (unsalted in the former and salted in the latter), beer in Nord, olives and olive oil in the coastal south, and local wines and cheeses just about everywhere.
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 1950snote , 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 and featuring a quirky sense of humor and an interest in the scientific underpinnings of cooking recalling nobody so much as Alton Brown. 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.
Incidentally, while we're talking about the US, French regional cuisine is the direct ancestor of the famous Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana; many traditional Louisiana dishes are French regional ones, adapted to use New World ingredients (e.g. bell peppers instead of carrots) and with Spanish, African, Native American, and British/American Southern influences added on top. In general, Cajun cuisine hewed closer to old-style French peasant cooking, while Creole cuisine was both more receptive to foreign influences (particularly taking tomatoes from colonial Spanish cooking and certain ingredients like okra from African cuisine) and—being derived from the cooking of more urban colonists—also paid more attention to developments in continental French cooking (the extensive use of butter characteristic of Creole cooking is Continental influence, in contrast to the Cajuns who historically used lard). However, today, these cuisines, although still distinct, have also taken a lot of influence from each other, are very popular outside Louisiana and are generally considered one of the greatest achievements of the American kitchen (world-class New Orleans-style restaurants have appeared even outside the US)...so touché, French food snobs.
Sauces and garnishes
French food relies heavily on its sauces, which Escoffier divided largely into five categories, based on the basic "mother sauces" of each class:
- Béchamel: a white sauce made with a roux (flour cooked in butter) and milk, seasoned with white pepper and sometimes nutmeg. As noted above, it is an ancient sauce, far predating French cuisine; the French will tell you they perfected it, which might be true. Might be true.
- Velouté (velvet): A white sauce similar to a béchamel, but made with fish or chicken stock instead of milk. If a lot of stock is used, it can be served as a soup.note
- Espagnole ("Spanish"), aka brown sauce: Similar to velouté, but with a long-cooked brown roux, added herbs and tomatoes, and typically using veal stock (though beef stock or even water can be used in a pinch). The traditional form is (again) called Sauce Espagnole; although no one knows exactly why it's called that, the association of Spain with tomatoes seems to be the reason. The flavor is sufficiently strong that it's rarely used on its own (although it works well with fritesnote as what amounts to a more savory and complex replacement for ketchup); it's more typically seen as the base of a "daughter" sauce (see below).
- Hollandaise sauce: A butter-emulsion sauce, basically like a hot mayonnaise made by emulsifying lemon juice and butter with egg yolk; beginning cooks usually find it (and its derivatives) terrifying because of how easy it is to screw up (it splits easily), which is why you will find many, many shortcuts to making Hollandaise in particular.
- Tomato: Using diced or puréed tomatoes, with herbs, garlic, salt pork belly or bacon, and sugar (!) for flavor, with maybe a bit of stock and a roux to thicken. Not used as much in French cuisine as they are in other parts of the world like Italy and Mexico.
Each of these "mother" sauces will be modified in varying ways to create "daughter" or "small" sauces. Some notable ones:
- Demi-glace: Probably the most notable one. Add extra stock to an Espagnole, and simmer the whole thing together and repeatedly skim until well-reduced; the result is sort of like gravy with a PhD.
- Mornay: Béchamel+grated cheese. The historical baked macaroni and cheese invented by Thomas Jefferson—a great francophile—is essentially macaroni baked in a mornay sauce with cheddar serving as the cheese (and of course, extra stuff baked on top). The white sauce used for the Eastern Mediterranean pastitsio is also a mornay.
- Béarnaise: Hollandaise, but the lemon juice is replaced with a reduction of white wine vinegar, shallot, and tarragon, seasoned with black peppernote and finished with fresh herbs (adding fresh tarragon is a must; chervil may also be added). A traditional French accompaniment to entrecôte, i.e. grilled steak, especially strip or Porterhouse, aficionados often describe it as the greatest steak sauce in the world.
- Suprême: Chicken-based velouté+mushroom-flavored reduction+cream. Usually served over, erm, chicken and mushrooms—a role in which we must admit it is incomparably good.
- Allemande: Velouté+eggs+lemon juice+cream. Some or all of the roux in the velouté may be omitted, as eggs and cream can serve its function of thickening the sauce. Intended to evoke rich German gravies, typically served over eggs, chicken, poached fish, and gratins.
- Africaine: Espagnole+Africanesque spices. Since the late 19th century, the French have had an odd obsession with Africa.
The "daughter" sauces can themselves have "daughters" (although they are never called "granddaughter" sauces), with demi-glace in particular having two quite famous "children" of her own: bordelaise (demi-glace+bone marrow+butter+shallots+dry red wine, preferably Bordeaux)note and chasseur ("hunter's") (demi-glace+mushrooms+shallots, often served over game or gamey meat and intended to evoke what a hunting party might make with its kill using fresh ingredients from in and around the woods; it can also be made directly with Espagnole, however).
There's also a peculiar one in the form of buerre blanc—literally "white butter"—which is essentially a béarnaise minus the tarragon and the eggs (which means that it breaks down immediately if it gets too hot or too cold, since the eggs emulsify the béarnaise); according to legend, it was invented when a chef was making a béarnaise for fish but forgot the two key ingredients.
The stock involved in making many of these sauces will include mirepoix, the defining flavor bases of French cooking; it consists of carrots, onions and celery; it will also be used in stews.
There's also cold sauces like mayonnaise, aioli (basically garlic mayo), and rouille (similar to aioli; see especially the bit about bouillabaisse below); mustards are also quite common in the French kitchen, and yes, Dijon mustard is actually quite popular and well-respected in France. There are also a number of dessert sauces, of which the most noted are crème anglaisenote and caramel.
A lot of dishes, especially in classical cuisine, are defined by their garnishes, which are often named for one specific area or person. There are a lot of these, and many are seldom-used.
Some famous dishes
Cuisses 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. A Frenchman is at least as likely to eat frog's legs at a Chinese restaurant as a French one (there are in fact French Chinese restaurants, much like there are American Chinese restaurants, which are in the same vein definitely not like actual Chinese food, and yes, they serve frog's legs as a novelty appetizer).
Snails. They actually taste like mussels (not surprising, since they are near relatives, both being molluscs and all that). Considered a delicacy, and not eaten that often either (many Frenchmen are just as disgusted as Americans by the idea of eating them), they are nonetheless considered high-class cuisine in some quarters. The French recipe for them calls for removing the snails from their shells, cooking them in garlic butter and/or stock and/or wine, pouring the resultant mixture back into the shells, and garnish with parsley, pine nuts, or just more garlic. 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). note ; the European tradition of eating snails goes back at least to the Romans. More recently, French gourmets have started consuming snail eggs, which they liken to caviar (and which is about as expensive).
Possibly the quintessential French beef stew note , or at least tied for first with the Daube Provençale (which may be made with lamb...), buf Bourgignon is named after the Burgundy region, where the world-famous local red wine of the same namenote is used to make it. In addition to big chunks of stew beef and a winey sauce, the dish often also contains salt pork or bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. This is the dish that made Julia Child's career. Incidentally, if you replace the wine with a sour/sourish beer and make a few more minor changes, you essentially have a carbonade flamande: one of the crown jewels of the Belgian kitchen, but also popular in northern France, particularly French Flanders (which forms the bulk of the Nord département).
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 cheap, tough cuts of beef, with some extra-cartilaginous ones (oxtail is popular) to provide extra texture and flavor, with rough-cut (nay, usually wholenote ) 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 (whole cloves are popular). The meat and vegetables are usually plucked out and eaten with bread and a few side dishes (pickles are popular), with some strong Dijon mustard to accompany the vegetables; the broth may be drunk as a soup or used in another dish. This is the essence of French Comfort Food. (For Britons, this is essentially France's version of Lancashire hotpot; for Americans, this is remarkably similar to a New England boiled dinner, although the beef is fresh, not corned.)
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 (Gruyère is popular, as is its close cousin, Comté) over the top. Mediocre versions can be found everywhere (quick-and-dirty American versions are particularly common in New Jersey diners), but it's authentic and a lot of fun to eat.
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, this is as mentioned a rather rustic regional Southern French dish (specifically Provençal, and super-specifically from Nice—the full name of the most popular variant is ratatouille niçoise) composed of mixed vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and certain herbs and spices like marjoram and basil. Very popular with dieters and vegetarians because it's tasty, filling, and quite nutritious. Chefs like to argue about whether the veggies should be cooked separately and then mixed together shortly before serving so you can appreciate the best flavor of each vegetable or if you should cook them all together (as is traditional) for a more melded flavor; most agree that the dish is actually best if served after spending a night in the refrigerator (which melds the flavors, but not in the same way that cooking them together does). Also not to be confused with rouille, which is a type of garlic and red pepper mayonnaise used to season...
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. Rather like the pot-au-feu, the broth is traditionally served separately from the fish: first the broth is brought out, served with bread topped with rouille (which is like aioli but also has breadcrumbs, saffron, and other seasonings in it), and then you eat the fish (and, typically, the potatoes).
- Hermione has to inform Ron what it is when the students from foreign wizarding schools (one being Beauxbatons) arrive; this becomes doubly funny given how the two end up, and triply so when Emma Watson (born to English parents in France) was cast as Hermione.
- "Bouillabaisse, yum yum!"
Galettes bretonnes and other stuff with butter
Galettes bretonnes can be found in many parts of France but are native to Brittany. For the most part they are savoury and the batter is made quite differently to that of, say, crêpes suzette, for instance as the flour used is buckwheat flour (farine de blé sarrasin, literally "Saracen wheat flour") and is usually savoury, eaten as a main meal. Not to be confused with crêpes au fromage, which simply use sweet dessert-ish crêpes with a savoury filling, here cheese. Actual Bretons will fry the galette with butter (that's salted butter), stick more butter inside with, typically, cheese, an egg, mushrooms and ham (although there are as many different fillings for galettes as there are for pizzas, for instance potatoes, fresh tomatoes, even apple andouille), fold the galette up into a roughly square "package", and leave a large piece of (salted) butter on top to melt. A variant of this dish is a type of street food known as "galette saucisse" or "galette-dog", and is basically a cross between the galette bretonne and a hotdog, which here entails a Frankfurter or Strasbourg sausage rolled in a galette, often with ketchup, or failing that, just (salted) butter.
To stress the relationship between Bretons and (salted) butter, there's a Breton pastry called kouign amann ("butter cake" in Breton) which is basically butter (again, salted butter), more butter, and even more butter, with a base of bread dough sort of folded over each successive layer of butter and sugar, so that when you cook it the butter mix sort of sweats through the layer of bread dough underneath and makes the outside crunchy and the inside more fondant. You don't want to leave a piece of kouign amann out on a hot, sunny day, although if you're actually in Brittany you probably shouldn't worry too much about that, as the region's climate (and practically everything else)note is similar to that of the British Isles. But then as Bretons themselves like to say when teased about the weather, "in Brittany it only rains on cunts".
You may have noticed that butter found in Brittany (plus Vendée, Anjou and a couple of areas bordering Brittany) are nearly always salted butter (beurre salé or beurre demi-sel). This is something that will virtually drive one to tears when finding oneself in a region where the norm is beurre doux (unsalted butter) and beurre salé is difficult or nigh-impossible to find, such as virtually anywhere else in France. Not to mention the UK where margarine is considered a viable alternative to butter. Some will go so far as to actually sprinkle salt on their butter while making a sandwich (such as the most popular sandwich in France, the jambon-beurre: take a baguette, spread it with lots of butter, add white ham, and that's it), but it's Just Not The Same. This is Serious Business.
Literally "fat liver", made from the liver of a goose or duck which has been specifically overfed (including force-feeding) to increase the size of its liver. It can be either seared (and served hot), or candied and served cold on a toast. In both cases it is often a sweet and savoury dish as it is accompanied with fig (or some other fruit) chutney. Typically a celebration dish (popular for Christmas and New Year's Eve) it is also commonly served in brasseries. Although in several places in the world this dish has been denounced as being particularly cruel (more so than most meat dishes) to the stuffed animal, this position is not very common in France.
Foie gras itself dates back to Roman times if not earlier (there are Ancient Egyptian wall paintings of farmers overfeeding geese), but the process of making it mostly became Lost Technology in the confusion of the fall of the Roman Empire.note Thus foie gras became popular in modern Europe thanks to Jewish dietary laws, which forbid lard outright and ban butter for cooking meat. Jewish people in the Mediterranean used olive oil, and in Mesopotamia and Persia they used sesame oil, but neither were easy to get in the northern parts of Europe. Central and Eastern European Jews thus tended to use poultry fat (schmaltz in Yiddish), which naturally required a fat bird—typically a chicken, duck, or goose. To get the most fat out of each bird, the Jewish community began overfeeding the ducks and geese kept for the purpose, which had the side effect of enlarging the bird's liver. The liver, which grew bigger in part because of additional fat in it, was considered so tasty that Christians would buy it from Jewish shops, and so foie gras swept the continent—including France, where the Christians picked up the custom from visiting Germans (French Jews—for the periods that Jews were allowed in Francenote —used olive oil and had no more use for fattened poultry than the next Frenchman).
Couscous and other North African imports
What pizza and Chinese-American food are to the US, curry is to the UK and Ireland, and dönerkebab is to Germany, couscous and certain other North African dishes are to France — cheap, tasty, convenient (usually takeout), not typical of what usually goes on the table, most often consumed by students and others who don't cook very much (particularly while drunk), and thoroughly naturalized despite eaters' perceptions of exoticness to the contrary. Couscous is a small, pebbly, quick-cooking pasta eaten from Morocco to Sicily and Libya, and cooked and served alongside meals like tagine (a Berber meat stew traditionally cooked in a clay pot with a characteristic conical lid) or vegetable stew; it's sometimes even used as a dessert, served with honey or sugar and spices.note Because of their origins in Islamic countries, these dishes are usually made with lamb/mutton or beef, never pork; a spicy beef or lamb/mutton sausage called merguez is fairly common as well. Kebabs (which refer both to the actual dish on a plate, its handy takeaway repackaging in bread of various types à la Döner, and the shop that sells them) are very, very common at least in large cities with substantial North African, Lebanese or Turkish communities. The shops are usually open until much later than any other source of food will be, making it the food of choice of drunk urban students. In Paris, more than anywhere else in France, the shops tend to be referred to generically as "grecs" note , in north-eastern France "turcs", and when manned by Lebanese, "libanais", much in the same way that in Belgium, frites vendors note are sometimes referred to in Flemish as "frietchinees". The French and the Belgians will argue over who invented the French fries (known here simply as "frites"), and there's even a gag to that effect in Asterix chez les Belges when Obelix mentions something about deep-frying actual apples (pommes frites) amid a running gag about waterzooie.
France 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), Brie (a creamy cow's milk cheese from the Île-de-France and environs, very popular in Paris, similar to a Camembert but made in larger wheels and with a milder flavor—except for the aged brie noir, which is stronger and popular in Île-de-France as a breakfast dish to dip into café au lait) Roquefort (a very strong taste blue cheese, made with sheep milk, from the town of Roquefort in Occitania), 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; Comté is so similar to Gruyère that the former sometimes goes by "French Gruyère" abroad, and within France only the blindest nationalists would object to substituting Gruyère for Comté for most purposes). The stinkiest cheeses are believed to be Munster and the Boulette d'Avesne, both from the North of the country. The diversity of cheeses is often used to highlight France's oft-forgotten (by outsiders) regional diversity: as president Charles de Gaulle famously asked, "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?"
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, and issues of a surplus of wine—known in the business as the "wine lake"—have lasted since.) Note that French wines usually be identified from their origin (e.g. Medoc, Beaunes etc...). Any Frenchman who loves wine will tell you the soil on which the grapes grew is more important than the type of grapes used (or, at least, as important). The only exception are the wines from Languedoc (which is the most exported one) and wines from Alsace (which has a hybrid French-German wine tradition, and the German influence is felt in the emphasis on the variety of grape).
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). Brittany, or at least its cultural area, is also known for its cider, as well as Chouchenn (of the same family as Calvados) and more uncommonly mead. A good way to invoke Berserk Button in Brittany or Normandy is to state the other invented cider/ has the best cider. Note that French cider generally tends to be much lighter in alcohol content than English cider from the south-west, is rarely served outside of Brittany and Normandy where it is almost a national pride, and tends to be the kind of thing you serve to children as a substitute for beer (attitudes towards alcohol are completely different to what can sometimes be seen outside of Europe).
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. All this said, the baguette is not the only French bread; indeed, although long breads have quite a history in France (with long, wide loaves being definitively recorded during the reign of Louis XIV, long, thin ones from the reign of Louis XVI, and extra-long—we're talking two meters—loaves from the Second Empire), the baguette as it is generally known is much Newer Than They Think, dating back no earlier than 1920.note The somewhat more traditional 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. note 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. It should be noted that, like the American variant of pizza, French pizza mostly originated as the poor man's food among the immigrant Italian populations of Marseille, and thereafter somewhat diverged from its Italian counterpart. It tends to be thinner than thick-crust American pizza and slightly thicker than thin-crust Italian pizza.
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.