Few Western cuisines are so envied, aspired to or seminal. The freshness of ingredients, natural flavours, regional variety and range of cooking methods is phenomenal. The very word ‘cuisine’ was borrowed from the French – no other language could handle all the nuances. The French table waltzes taste buds through a dizzying array of dishes sourced from aromatic street markets, seaside oyster farms, sun-baked olive groves and ancient vineyards mirroring the beauty of each season. Discovering these varied regional cuisines is an enriching, essential experience.
The French Table
No country so blatantly bundles up cuisine with its terroir (land). ‘Le jardin de France’ (the garden of France), a poetic phrase coined by the French writer Rabelais in the 16th century to describe his native Touraine in the Loire Valley, has been exploited ever since. Yet it is the serene valley, tracing the course of the River Loire west of the French capital, which remains most true to the Rabelais image of a green and succulent landscape laden with lush fruits, flowers, nuts and vegetables.
It was in the Renaissance kitchens of the Loire’s celebrated châteaux that French cooking was refined: coq au vin (chicken in wine) and cuisses de grenouilles (frogs’ legs) were common dishes, and poultry and game dishes were the pride and joy. Once or twice a year a fattened pig was slaughtered and prepared dozens of different ways – roasts, sausages, boudin noir (black pudding), charcuterie (cold meats), pâtés and so on. No single part, offal et al, was wasted.
With plenty of game and poultry going into châteaux kitchens, it was natural that medieval cooks should whip up a sauce to go with it. In the 14th to 16th centuries, sauce verte (green sauce) – a rather crude, heavily spiced mix of vinegar and green grape juice – accompanied meat dishes. In 1652 François-Pierre de la Varenne published his cook book Le Cuisinier François in which he dismissed bread and breadcrumbs as thickening agents in favour of roux (a more versatile mixture of flour and fat). This paved the way for the creation, a century later, of classic French sauces such as béchamel (a milk-based sauce thickened with roux) and velouté (a velvety mix of chicken or other stock and melted butter, seasoned and thickened with roux) a century later. Velouté is the base for dozens of other sauces made to accompany meat, fish and game dishes today.
In northern France wheat fields shade vast swathes of agricultural land a gorgeous golden copper, and nothing is more French than pain (bread). Starved peasants demanded bread on the eve of the French Revolution when the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette is purported to have said ‘let them eat cake’. And bread today – no longer a matter of life or death but a cultural icon – accompanies every meal. It’s rarely served with butter, but when it is, the butter is always doux (unsalted).
Every town and almost every village has its own boulangerie (bakery) which sells bread in all manner of shapes, sizes and variety. Artisan boulangeries bake their bread in a wood-fired, brick bread oven pioneered by Loire Valley châteaux in the 16th century.
Plain old pain is a 400g, traditional-shaped loaf, soft inside and crusty out. The iconic classic is une baguette, a long thin crusty loaf weighing 250g. Anything fatter and it becomes une flûte, thinner une ficelle. While French baguettes are impossibly good, they systematically turn unpleasantly dry within four hours, unbelievably rock-hard within 12.
Charcuterie & Foie Gras
Charcuterie, the backbone of every French picnic and a bistro standard, is traditionally made from pork, though other meats are used in making saucisse (small fresh sausage, boiled or grilled before eating), saucisson (salami), saucisson sec (air-dried salami), boudin noir (blood sausage or pudding made with pig’s blood, onions and spices) and other cured and salted meats. Pâtés, terrines and rillettes are also considered charcuterie. The difference between a pâté and a terrine is academic: a pâté is removed from its container and sliced before it is served, while a terrine is sliced from the container itself. Rillettes, spread cold over bread or toast, is potted meat or even fish that has been shredded with two forks, seasoned and mixed with fat.
The key component of pâté de foie gras is foie gras which is the liver of fattened ducks and geese who are force-fed in almost every case. It was first prepared en croûte (in a pastry crust) around 1780 by one Jean-Pierre Clause, chef to the military governor of Alsace, who was impressed enough to send a batch to the king of Versailles. Today, it is a traditional component of celebratory or festive meals – particularly Christmas and New Year's Eve – in family homes countrywide, and is consumed with relish year-round in regions in southwest France where it is primarily made, namely Aquitaine (the Dordogne), Limousin, Auvergne and the Midi-Pyrénées.
Feature: Foie Gras
Fattened duck and goose liver have been enjoyed since time immemorial, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that it was introduced on a large scale. France today produces 20,000 tonnes of foie gras – 80% of world production – a year, fattening the livers of 37 million ducks and 700,000 geese on farms, primarily in southwest France, to do so.
Traditionally, back in the 11th century, local farmers in the Dordogne would slaughter the farm goose then pluck out its liver and soak it in warm milk to ensure a succulent swollen liver, ripe for feasting on with a chilled glass of sweet Monbazillac white. Today, in order to fatten the livers, ducks and geese are controversially force-fed twice a day for two or three weeks with unnatural amounts of boiled corn. During le gavage (force-feeding), a tube is threaded down the throat into the bird's stomach, enabling 450g or so of boiled corn to be pneumatically pumped into the bird in just a few seconds. Fattened livers are up to 10 times larger than their natural size. A fattened duck is slaughtered at three weeks, a goose at four.
Force-feeding is illegal in 12 countries in the EU, Norway, Switzerland, Israel and the USA; and foie gras imports are forbidden in many countries. Within France itself, there is a growing movement to end le gavage.
Patisserie is a general French term for pastries and includes tartes (tarts), flans (custard pies), gâteaux (cakes) and biscuits (cookies) as well as traditional croissants, pains au chocolats (chocolate-filled) croissants) and other typical pastries. Sablés are shortbread biscuits, tuiles are delicate wing-like almond cookies, madeleines are small scallop-shaped cakes often flavoured with a hint of vanilla or lemon, and tarte tatin is an upside-down caramelised apple pie that’s been around since the late 19th century. Louis XIV (r 1643–1715), known for his sweet tooth, is credited with introducing the custom of eating dessert – once reserved for feast days and other celebrations – at the end of a meal.
No sweet treat evokes the essence of French patisserie quite like the elegant, sophisticated and zany macaron, a legacy of Catherine de Médicis who came to France in 1533 with an entourage of Florentine chefs and pastry cooks adept in the subtleties of Italian Renaissance cooking and armed with delicacies such as aspic, truffles, quenelles (dumplings), artichokes – and macarons. Round and polished smooth like a giant Smartie, the macaron (nothing to do with coconut) is a pair of crisp-shelled, chewy-inside discs – egg whites whisked stiff with sugar and ground almonds – sandwiched together with a smooth filling. Belying their egg-shell fragility, macarons are created in a rainbow of lurid colours and flavours, wild and inexhaustible: rose petal, cherry blossom, caramel with coconut and mango, mandarin orange and olive oil…
No French food product is a purer reflection of terroir than cheese, an iconic staple that – with the exception of most coastal areas – is made all over the country, tiny villages laying claim to ancient variations made just the way grand-père (grandfather) did it. France boasts more than 500 varieties, made with lait cru (raw milk), pasteurised milk or petit-lait (‘little-milk’, the whey left over after the fats and solids have been curdled with rennet).
Chèvre, made from goat’s milk, is creamy, sweet and faintly salty when fresh, but hardens and gets saltier as it matures. Among the best is Ste-Maure de Touraine, a mild creamy cheese from the Loire Valley; Cabécou de Rocamadour from Midi-Pyrénées, often served warm with salad or marinated in oil and rosemary; and Lyon’s St-Marcellin, a soft white cheese that should be served impossibly runny.
Roquefort, a ewe’s-milk veined cheese from Languedoc, is the king of blue cheeses and vies with Burgundy’s pongy Époisses for the strongest taste award. Soft, white, orange-skinned Époisses, created in the 16th century by monks at Abbaye de Cîteaux, takes a month to make, using washes of saltwater, rainwater and Marc de Bourgogne – a local pomace brandy and the source of the cheese’s final fierce bite.
Equal parts of Comté, Beaufort and Gruyère – a trio of hard fruity, cow’s milk cheeses from the French Alps – are grated and melted in a garlic-smeared pot with a dash of nutmeg, white wine and kiersch (cherry liqueur) to create fondue Savoyarde. Hearty and filling, this pot of melting glory originated from the simple peasant need of using up cheese scraps. It is now the chic dish to eat on the ski slopes.
Viticulture in France is an ancient art and tradition that bears its own unique trademark. The French thirst for wine goes back to Roman times when techniques to grow grapes and craft wine were introduced, and dégustation (tasting) has been an essential part of French wine culture ever since.
Quality wines in France are designated as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC; literally, ‘label of inspected origin’), equivalent since 2012 to the European-wide Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP). Both labels mean the same: that the wine has met stringent regulations governing where, how and under what conditions it was grown and bottled. French AOC can cover a wide region (such as Bordeaux), a sub-region (such as Haut-Médoc), or a commune or village (such as Pomerol). Some regions only have a single AOC (such as Alsace), while Burgundy has dozens.
Some viticulturists have honed their skills and techniques to such a degree that their wine is known as a grand cru (literally ‘great growth’). If this wine has been produced in a year of optimum climatic conditions, it becomes a millésime (vintage) wine. Grands crus are aged in small oak barrels then bottles, sometimes for 20 years or more, to create those memorable bottles (with price tags to match) that wine experts enthuse about with such passion.
There are dozens of wine-producing regions throughout France, but the principal ones are Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône and Loire Valleys, Champagne, Languedoc, Provence and Alsace. Wines are generally named after the location of the vineyard rather than the grape varietal. Organic and biodynamic wines are increasingly popular.
France’s most respected reds are from Burgundy (Bourgogne in French), Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley.
Monks in Burgundy began making wine in the 8th century during the reign of Charlemagne. Today vineyards remain small, rarely more than 10 hectares, with vignerons (winegrowers) in Côte d’Or, Chablis, Châtillon and Mâcon producing small quantities of excellent reds from pinot noir grapes. The best Bourgogne vintages demand 10 to 20 years to age.
In the sun-blessed south, Bordeaux has the perfect climate for producing wine: its 1100 sq km of vineyards produce more fine wine than any other region in the world. Well-balanced Bordeaux reds blend several grape varieties, predominantly merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. The Médoc, Pomerol, St-Émilion and Graves are key winegrowing areas.
The most renowned red in the Côtes du Rhône appellation from the Rhône Valley – a vast 771-sq-km winegrowing area with dramatically different soils, climates, topography and grapes – is Châteauneuf du Pape, a strong full-bodied wine bequeathed by the Avignon popes who planted the distinctive stone-covered vineyards.
Further south on the coast near Toulon, deep-flavoured Bandol reds have been produced from dark-berried mourvèdre grapes since Roman times. These wines were famous across Gaul, their ability to mature at sea ensuring they travelled far beyond their home shores in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Some of France’s finest whites come from the Loire Valley. This large winegrowing region produces the country’s greatest variety of wines, and light delicate whites from Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Sancerre, Bourgueil and Chinon are excellent. Muscadet, cabernet franc and chenin blanc are key grape varieties, contrasting with the chardonnay grapes that go into some great Burgundy whites.
Vines were planted by the Greeks in Massilia (Marseille) around 600 BC and crisp Cassis whites remain the perfect companion to the coast’s bounty of shellfish and seafood.
Alsace produces almost exclusively white wines – mostly varieties produced nowhere else in France – that are known for their clean, fresh taste. Unusually, some of the fruity Alsatian whites also go well with red meat. Alsace’s four most important varietal wines are riesling (known for its subtlety), gewürztraminer (pungent and highly regarded), pinot gris (robust and high in alcohol) and muscat d’Alsace (less sweet than muscats from southern France).
Chilled, fresh pink rosé wines – best drunk alfresco beneath a vine-laced pergola – are synonymous with the hot south. Côtes de Provence, with 20 hectares of vineyards between Nice and Aix-en-Provence, is the key appellation (and France’s sixth-largest).
Other enticing rosé labels from Provence include Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Palette and Coteaux Varois.
Champagne has been produced northeast of Paris since the 17th century when innovative monk Dom Pierre Pérignon perfected a technique for making sparkling wine. It's made from the white chardonnay, red pinot noir or black pinot meunier grape. Each vine is vigorously pruned and trained to produce a small quantity of high-quality grapes.
If the final product is labelled brut, it is extra dry, with only 1.5% sugar content. Extra-sec means very dry (but not as dry as brut), sec is dry and demi-sec slightly sweet. The sweetest Champagne is labelled doux. Whatever the label, it is sacrilege to drink it out of anything other than a traditional Champagne flute, narrow at the bottom to help the bubbles develop, wider in the middle to promote the diffusion of aromas, and narrower at the top again to concentrate those precious aromas.
Making Champagne is a complex procedure. There are two fermentation processes, the first in casks and the second after the wine has been bottled and had sugar and yeast added. Bottles are then aged in cellars for two to five years, depending on the cuvée (vintage).
During the two months in early spring that the bottles are aged in cellars kept at 12°C, the wine turns effervescent. The sediment that forms in the bottle is removed by remuage, a painstakingly slow process in which each bottle – stored horizontally – is rotated slightly every day for weeks until the sludge works its way to the cork. Next comes dégorgement: the neck of the bottle is frozen, creating a blob of solidified Champagne and sediment, then removed.
During the reign of Charlemagne, monks began making the wine that gave Burgundy (Bourgogne in French) its sterling reputation for viticulture. Burgundy's vignerons (winegrowers) only have small vineyards, rarely more than 10 hectares, and they produce small quantities of very good wine. Burgundy reds are made with pinot noir grapes and the best vintages demand 10 to 20 years to age; whites are made with chardonnay.
Burgundy's most famed winegrowing areas are Côte d'Or, Chablis, Châtillon and Mâcon. Lesser-known Irancy is a charming, local wine-tasting favourite.
Britons have had a taste for Bordeaux' full-bodied red wines, known as clarets in the UK, since the mid-12th century when King Henry II, who controlled the region through marriage, tried to gain the favour of the locals by granting them tax-free trade status with England. Thus began a roaring business in wine exporting.
Bordeaux has the perfect climate for producing wine; as a result its 1100 sq km of vineyards produce more fine wine than any other region in the world. Bordeaux reds are often described as well balanced, a quality achieved by blending several grape varieties. The grapes predominantly used are merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Bordeaux' foremost winegrowing areas are the Médoc, Pomerol, St-Émilion and Graves. The nectarlike sweet whites of the Sauternes area are widely considered the world's finest dessert wines.
Côtes du Rhône
Dramatically different soil, climate, topography and grapes in the Rhône Valley region means very different wines in this vast appellation – France's second largest – covering 771 sq km. The most renowned is Châteauneuf du Pape, a full-bodied wine bequeathed to Provence by the Avignon popes who planted the distinctive stone-covered vineyards, 10km south of Orange.
Châteauneuf du Pape reds are strong (minimum alcohol content 12.5%) and well structured. Winegrowers, obliged to pick their grapes by hand, say it is the galets (large, smooth, yellowish stones) covering their vineyards that distinguish their wines from others. Both whites and reds can be drunk young (two to three years) or old (seven-plus years).
Another popular Rhône Valley grand cru is red and rosé Gigondas. The medieval golden-stone village of Gigondas, with its ruined castle, Provençal campanile and stunning vistas, is a delight to explore and its reds are among Provence's most sought after. In nearby Beaumes-de-Venise it is the sweet dessert wine, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, that delights, enjoyed in equal measure as an aperitif or poured inside half a Cavaillon melon as dessert.
The Loire's 700 sq km of vineyards rank it as France's third-largest area for the production of quality wines. Although sunny, the climate is humid, meaning not all grape varieties thrive. Still, the Loire produces the greatest variety of wines of any region in the country. The most common grapes are the muscadet, cabernet franc and chenin blanc varieties. Wines tend to be light and delicate. Be sure to sample wines from Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Sancerre, Bourgueil, Chinon and Saumur.
Winemaking in Languedoc is enjoying a renaissance. Following violent protests over Italian imports in the mid-1970s, farmers were subsidised to cut down their vines and replant with better quality AOC grapes, hence Languedoc's splendid wine and gargantuan production today: up to 40% of France's wine is produced in this vast sea of vines.
Of increasing interest are the thoroughly modern table wines made under the Vin de Pays d'Oc (www.vindepaysdoc.com) label. Free of AOC restriction, these wines fly in the face of viticulture tradition as they experiment with new grape blends. The result: creative, affordable wines with funky names and designer labels (and pink neocorks in the case of rosés) to reflect a contemporary lifestyle. Try a Mas de Daumas Gassac (www.daumas-gassac.com) or one of the 'chicken wines' of pioneering viticulturist Sacha Lichine (www.sachalichine.com).
Languedoc's best-known AOC wines are Minervois (drink its white with local sardines!) and Corbières, both known for well-structured reds. An island of six villages in the Minervois produces Minervois La Livinière, a red vin de garde (wine suitable for ageing) par excellence. Fitou, the granddad of Languedoc appellations (1948), is another red, easy to keep for four or five years.
There is no more quintessential image of daily life in this hot part of southern France than lounging beneath a vine-laced pergola, glass of chilled rosé in hand.
Dating from 1977, Côtes de Provence is the region's largest appellation and France's sixth largest, producing 75% of Provençal wine. Its vineyards carpet 20 hectares between Nice and Aix-en-Provence, and its terroir (land) is astonishingly varied. Few other appellations support such a variety of grape varieties – at least a dozen. Its wines are drunk young and served at 8°C to 10°C, and are among the world's oldest. Vines were planted by the Greeks in Massilia (Marseille) around 600 BC.
Smaller appellations include Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence and Palette around Aix-en-Provence; Côtes du Ventoux (light and fruity reds drunk young); Côtes du Luberon (young reds made trendy by rich foreigners and media stars buying up its vineyards); and Coteaux Varois (which shot to fame when in 2008 when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt purchased Château de Miraval, a château on a prestigious organic wine-producing estate in Correns where Pink Floyd recorded part of The Wall in 1979).
However, the real star of the Provence show is Bandol, with its own AOC since 1941. Its deep-flavoured reds are produced from dark-berried mourvèdre grapes grown on the coast near Toulon and ripened by oodles of sun, hence its rarity. In Roman times these wines were famous across Gaul, and their ability to mature at sea meant they travelled far beyond their home shores in the 16th and 17th centuries.
A little west along the same coast is Cassis, known for its crisp whites, the dream companion for the bijou port's bounty of shellfish and seafood.
Alsace produces almost exclusively white wines – mostly varieties produced nowhere else in France – that are known for their clean, fresh taste and compatibility with the often heavy local cuisine. Unusually, some of the fruity Alsatian whites also go well with red meat. The vineyards closest to Strasbourg produce light red wines from pinot noir that are similar to rosé and are best served chilled.
Alsace's four most important varietal wines are riesling (known for its subtlety), gewürztraminer (pungent and highly regarded), pinot gris (robust and high in alcohol) and muscat d'Alsace (less sweet than muscats from southern France).
Tasting & Buying Wine
Wine can be bought direct from the producteur (wine producer) or vigneron (winegrower), most of whom offer dégustation (tasting), allowing you to sample two or three vintages with no obligation to buy. Some châteaux, such as La Terrasse Rouge in St-Émilion, have their own designer restaurant, encouraging wine tasting over lunch in fabulous style. For cheap plonk (vin de table) costing €2 to €4 per litre, fill up your own container at the local wine cooperative; every wine-producing village has one. Lists of estates, caves (wine cellars) and cooperatives are available from tourist offices and maisons des vins (wine houses) in main towns in wine-producing areas.
Beer & Cider
Alsace, with its close ties to Germany, produces some excellent local beers such as Bière de Scharrach, Schutz Jubilator and Fischer. The north, close to Belgium and the Netherlands, has equally tasty beers, including Saint Sylvestre Trois Monts, Colvert and Terken Brune. Brewers around the city of Lille produce bières de garde (literally ‘keeping beers’), strong and fruity in taste. They are bottled in what look like Champagne bottles, corked and wired. Popular among young Bretons is a crop of beers made by boutique breweries, including Lancelot barley beer and Telenn Du buckwheat beer. Corsica has its own unique brews, including the light herby lager, Colomba, and La Pietra, a full-bodied beer made from the island’s abundance of chestnuts.
Cidre (apple cider) is made in many areas, including Savoy, Picardy and the Basque Country where it is called sagarnoa. But cider’s real home is Normandy and Brittany where it is traditionally served in une bolée (drinking bowl) – with crêpes. Top ciders include Cornouaille (AOC) and those produced in the towns of Morlaix, Hennebont and the Val de Rance.
Feature: The Perfect Cheeseboard
Treat your taste buds to the perfect balance of cheese by taking at least one of each type from the cheeseboard:
Goat’s cheese (fromage de chèvre) Made from goat’s milk.
Soft cheese (fromage à pâté molle) Moulded or rind-washed, the classic soft cheese that everyone knows is Camembert from Normandy made from unpasteurised cow’s milk. Munster from Alsace is a fine-textured, rind-washed cheese.
Semihard cheese (fromage à pâté demi-dure) Among the finest uncooked, pressed cheese is Tomme de Savoie, made from pasteurised or unpasteurised cow’s milk near the Alps; and St-Nectaire, a strong-smelling pressed cheese with a complex taste.
Hard cheese (fromage à pâté dure) Must-taste cooked and pressed cheeses are Beaufort, a fruity cow’s-milk cheese from Rhône-Alpes; Comté, made with raw cow’s milk in Franche-Comté; emmental, a cow’s-milk cheese made all over France; and Mimolette, an Edam-like bright-orange cheese from Lille aged for as long as 36 months.
Blue cheese (fromage à pâté persillée) ‘Marbled’ or with veins that resemble persil (parsley).
Feature: Aperitifs & Digestifs
Meals in France are preceded by an aperitif such as a kir (white wine sweetened with a sweet fruit syrup like blackcurrant or chestnut), kir royale (Champagne with blackcurrant syrup), pineau (cognac and grape juice) or a glass of sweet white Coteaux du Layon from the Loire Valley. In southern France aniseed-flavoured pastis (clear in the bottle, cloudy when mixed with water) is the aperitif to drink alfresco; in the southwest, go local with a Floc de Gascogne, a liqueur wine made from Armagnac and red or white grape juice. In Corsica, Cap Corse Mattei – a fortified wine whose recipe has stood the test of time (nearly 150 years!) – is the choice apéro.
After-dinner drinks accompany coffee. France’s most famous brandies are Cognac and Armagnac, both made from grapes in the regions of those names. Eaux de vie (literally ‘waters of life’) can be made with grape skins and the pulp left over after being pressed for wine (Marc de Champagne, Marc de Bourgogne), apples (Calvados) and pears (Poire William), as well as such fruits as plums (eau de vie de prune) and even raspberries (eau de vie de framboise). In the Loire Valley a shot of orange (aka a glass of local Cointreau liqueur) ends the meal.
When in Normandy, do as the festive Normans do: refresh the palate between courses with a trou normand (literally ‘Norman hole’) – traditionally a shot of calva (Calvados) or a contemporary scoop of apple sorbet doused in the local apple brandy.
Feature: A Cake for Kings
On Jour des Rois (Day of the Kings; 6 January), or Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men paid homage to the infant Jesus, a galette des rois (literally ‘kings’ cake’; a puff-pastry tart with frangipane cream) is placed in the centre of the table and sliced while the youngest person ducks under the table, calling out who gets each slice. The excitement lies in who gets la fève (literally ‘bean’, which translates these days as a miniature porcelain figurine) hidden inside the tart; whoever does is crowned king with a gold paper crown that’s sold with the galette.
Sidebar: La Cuisine Française
The Food of France by Waverley Root, first published in 1958, remains the seminal work in English on la cuisine française, with a focus on historical development, by a long-time Paris-based American foreign correspondent.
Classic cheese and wine pairings: Alsatian gewürztraminer and Munster; Côtes du Rhone and Roquefort; Côte d’Or (Burgundy) and Brie or Camembert; Bordeaux and emmental or Cantal; and Champagne and Chaource.
Sidebar: Foodie Towns
- Le Puy-en-Velay (lentils)
- Dijon (mustard)
- Privas (chestnuts)
- Cancale (oysters)
- Espelette (red chillies)
- Colmar (chocolate stork eggs)
- Lyon (piggy-part cuisine)
Sidebar: King Henry's Wine
Britons have had a taste for Bordeaux’ full-bodied red wines, known as clarets in the UK, since the 12th century when King Henry II, who controlled the region through marriage, gained the favour of locals by granting them tax-free trade status with England.
Sidebar: Wine Travel Guides
For excellent, practical guides – full of background information, tasting notes and eating/sleeping/drinking recommendations – to France’s wine regions, peruse the Wine Travel Guides (www.winetravelguides.com) website.
Sidebar: Top Self-Drive Wine Itineraries
- Marne & Côte des Bar Champagne Routes (Champagne)
- Route des Grands Crus (Burgundy)
- Route des Vins d’Alsace (Alsace)
- Route Touristique des Vignobles (Loire Valley)
- Route des Vins de Jura (the Jura)
Sidebar: Wine Schools
- École des Vins de Bourgogne (Beaune)
- La Cité du Vin & École du Vin de Bordeaux (Bordeaux)
- La Winery (the Médoc)
- Maison du Vin de St-Émilion (St-Émilion)
- École de Dégustation (Châteauneuf-du-Pape)
- Langlois-Chateau (Saumur)
Sidebar: Cooking Classes
- La Terrasse Rouge (St-Émilion)
- Le St-James (near Bordeaux)
- L'Atelier Jean-Luc Rabanel (Arles)
- Le Mirazur (Menton)
- Le Grand Bleu (Sarlat-la-Canéda)
- La Table du Couvent (Limoges)
In cities there are a multitude of places to eat. To dine fine and eat local, book ahead, particularly for weekend dining. In rural France, the same goes for bonnes tables (literally 'good tables') and Sunday lunch, always a fiesty, afternoon-long affair.
- Restaurants and bistros Range from unchanged for a century to contemporary minimalist; urban dining is international, rural dining staunchly French.
- Brasseries Open from dawn until late, these casual eateries are great for dining in between standard meal times.
- Cafes Ideal for breakfast and light lunch; many morph into bars after dark.
There are cooking courses all over France, many attached to the kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurants or grassroots farms and chambres d'hôte (B&Bs). Paris, Provence and the French Riviera, Burgundy and Bordeaux on the Atlantic Coast take the lead with bags of courses to suit every taste and ability.
Favourites include École Le Cordon Bleu of world renown and less high-brow La Cuisine Paris in Paris; L'Atelier Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles; Anne-Sophie Pic's L'École Scook in the Rhône Valley; the Cook's Atelier in Burgundy's outrageously foodie town of Beaune; and École de Cuisine de l’Amandier de Mougins in hilltop Mougins on the Côte d'Azur.