Five things you simply must eat when you visit France

Foods to try in France: Macarons
A macaron, not Emmanuel
Macron, not a macaron

In some ways, I’m hesitant to offer food as one of the reasons that I’ve come to love France.  I’m an American, after all, and we’ve developed a reputation for being not just rotund and undisciplined but for having very undiscriminating palates.  Sure, we’ve given the world Mcdonald’s and Taco Bell, but what other really impressive culinary feats are uniquely American?  I’m sure there are some, but I’m at a loss to name them.    So I’m at least a little embarrassed to suggest that us Americans should visit France because they have great food.

This scene from A Good Year, with Russel Crowe and Marion Cotillard, encapsulates the stereotypical image that Americans have earned, at least in the minds of some:

I don’t know many Americans that fit the Good Year stereotype, but I do know some.    Because there are French people that think all Americans fit that mold, I think those of us that travel to France should do our best to be better and to leave at least a neutral impression if we can’t make a positive one.  It’s our duty to contribute at least this much to international relations.

Whether American tourist’s reputation for bad taste and worse manners was fairly earned I can’t say.  But I can say from experience that France’s reputation for unparalleled culinary excellence is underestimated.  Naturally, you don’t have to go to France to eat the foods I’ve recommended below but there is no question that, whether they are French creations or just concoctions that the French have perfected, these are items that are best enjoyed in France when prepared by French artisans.   While food, even superb French fare, is probably not a stand-alone reason to travel to France, once you’re there for all the other really good reasons that you should go, you shouldn’t miss these scrumptious foods:

1. Macarons.  You may have tried macaroons in which case you think of them as a coconut -flavored cookie and not particularly worthy of note.  If that’s the case, you’ve cheated yourself.  Macaroons are not macarons, any more than Emmanuel Macron is a macaroon.  He is nothing less than the president of France, and macarons are nothing less than the ruling class of French confections.

And although the original macaron was probably first concocted in Italy by Catherine de Medici’s personal chef, subsequent French patissiers have raised the art of macaron creation to an unsurpassed (and probably unsurpassable) level.

I’ve been traveling to France for many years.  My brother owns property there, and I’ve stayed both with him and one of his neighbors in Provence.  I’ve worked on his property and his neighbor’s property so I don’t feel like I’m just another tourist, although that’s probably an arrogant attitude.  But for all of my French travels and my boundless francophilia, I did not taste a single macaron until 2016 during a visit to Paris.  This is partly due to the variety of tempting confections that one can find in any French bakery, but it’s more the result of my own ignorance.

At least one of the gaps in my knowledge of French pastries was filled when a friend and fellow francophile exclaimed over her love of macarons.  She told my wife and me that not all macarons are created equal, and recommended a particular patisserie in Paris that she claimed made the best macarons EVER.  Since neither of us had eaten even a mediocre macaron, we decided that we’d find her recommended pastry shop to see what the fuss was about.

I’m still not sure whether we found the exact patisserie that our friend recommended, but I am sure that my first-ever bite of a Parisian macaron was absolutely heavenly.  If there’s a better tasting macaron in Paris, it would be a huge mistake for me to eat it because I’m quite certain that I’d be as addicted as Edmund was to the enchanted Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

My wife and I started with a raspberry creme macaron and worked our way up to the dark chocolate.  We’d gotten a total of four for our first taste test.  From my palate’s point of view, that wasn’t nearly enough.  From a caloric standpoint, it was probably 3.5 too many.   But we were both hooked hard after that first bite.

Part of the incredible appeal of a well prepared Parisian macaron is the combination of a crunchy outer texture covering chewy and gooey innards.  But in the end, it’s the light airiness along with the incredibly rich flavors that make French macarons so scrumptious and addictive.

The ingredients are simple, just almond flour and a couple kinds of powdered and/or confectioner’s sugar along with a vast variety of potential flavorings.  The flavors aren’t typically mixed so you’re going to have to make a choice among perhaps 20 or more colors and flavors.  As nearly as I can tell, it’s impossible to choose poorly.

Since I don’t have a specific patisserie to recommend, you can read the Parisianist’s top ten Paris patisseries here.   A word of warning: once you get started eating French macarons, the memory of their gooey goodness will haunt you until your next fix.

choco pain
Choco pain

2.  Choco pain.   Those of us with a weakness for sweets should enter any French patisserie with extreme caution.  In fact, it’s wise to enter one only with full backup and only within no more than half an hour after your last full meal.

Having said that, traveling to France won’t be quite as appealing or fulfilling if you don’t indulge in an occasional chocolate croissant with un cafe au lait.   The French have perfected the sacred rite of marrying chocolate with magical croissant dough that is flakier than an American politician.  Fresh from a French bakery oven, even a mediocre (by French standards) choco pain croissant is delectable.

Choco pain is ubiquitous in France, as are the patisseries that have turned the creation of them into a high art form.  I can’t recommend one patisserie over another for these confections since they seem to be of such similar quality wherever I’ve found them.  The most important point is to consume them with a coffee as the combination of the two is at the very top of French petit déjeuner (breakfast) fare.

Escargot

3. Escargot.  Yes, I know that they are snails and that many people find the idea of them repulsive.  I used to have a similar worldview, but it disappeared after the first bite.

Escargot in the human diet has a long and venerated history.  Archaeological evidence from around the Mediterranean indicates that humans have been eating these tasty critters for at least 30,000 years.   The French have definitely advanced the preparation of them since our Neolithic ancestors roasted them over open fires.  And while you can make the case that large quantities of butter can make just about anything palatable, there is something unique and appealing about well-prepared escargot.

Modern humans serve them piping hot in a ceramic dish that keeps them hot long enough that you can linger over them and savor every bite.  Each little morsel is saturated in a concoction of garlic butter, parsley, tarragon, and sometimes chicken stock and/or white wine.  They are served with either brioche or just a baguette which is perfect for absorbing the buttery sauce.

You’ll naturally want to pair them with a nice dry white wine.  They’re mostly protein with very little fat (if you exclude the butter which of course you can’t).  They really do make a perfect appetizer for any multi-course French meal.  In case you’re thinking that they’re a rare delicacy only eaten by the eccentric, the French eat over 40,000 metric tons of them each year while American restaurants serve a cool billion annually.

You may have to move outside your comfort zone but order half a dozen rich and buttery escargot with at least one meal while you’re in France.  You almost certainly won’t regret it.

foie gras
Foie Gras?

4. Foie Gras.  It’s pronounced something like “fwah graw”, not “foy grass” if you were wondering.  Unlike macarons and choco pain, escargot and foie gras can be off-putting for some.  I understand completely since I was once put off by both, but I’m now a huge fan of them.  If I were ranking escargot and foie gras in order of my personal preference, I’d put foie gras a little ahead of escargot although I love them both.

My own transition from foie gras skeptic to enthusiastic fan came about accidentally.  I was dining with family friends who live in a small village in the Dordogne.  Our host is an accomplished chef who takes great pride in his culinary skill.  He owns a very well-stocked wine cave and makes every meal an elaborate and delicious production.   Although my wife and I had offered our help in the kitchen, we were only allowed to assist with the green salad before he shewed us out.  He served the meal in courses.  The first one included fresh bread and a dish that we didn’t immediately recognize.  We were talking and distracted so we were less curious than we might have been.  We followed our hosts lead as they smeared what we would later learn was foie gras from a local farmer that our host had befriended onto the crusty and delightful pain (bread).

Our first bites ended all conversation as we concentrated on the rich flavors of the foie gras, the bread, and the wine.  The taste of the foie gras was altogether different from anything in our experience, which makes it hard to describe.  It was buttery, rich, and so appealing that it was hard to stop eating it.  My sister-in-law is a good friend of our host and she later told us that he had set out to find the best foie gras in his local area when he’d first moved to the area.  His search was long and hard, but he knew immediately when he found it.  It was not cheap, but he accumulated a suitable supply and we were lucky enough to visit at a time when he had enough to share.

Since those first delicious bites, I’ve had foie gras both cold and seared.  These are very different experiences, but you have to try it both ways.  When it’s seared, it takes on a different character.  With a crispy outer crust and smooth interior, seared foie gras is a rare delicacy.  It’s wonderful either way, but you may find that you have a favorite.   The only way to find out is to try both ways.  Another option that’s on at least some French menus is a Périgourdine salad which usually includes both smoked duck breast and foie gras.

We’ve since traveled and stayed for several weeks in the Dordogne, including 2 weeks at Le Chesney, a foie gras farm and gite (private home/apartment rental).  Even if you’re not planning a trip to the Dordogne, Chesny is reason enough to change your mind and start planning now.  You can learn more and start the booking process here.

During my stay at Le Chesny, I was treated to a tour of the farm and production facilities.  Amelie, the daughter of proprietors and foie gras artisans Christophe and Karine Pouyau, speaks perfect English.  Contrary to the inhumane conditions that animal rights groups have claimed are standard for foie gras production facilities, Chesny was incredibly clean, spacious, and sanitary.  While I didn’t witness the gavage procedure, Amelie showed us how it was done and told us that the ducks and geese are neither injured by it nor are they traumatized.   Unlike many American chicken egg production facilities, the fowl at Le Chesney are housed in spacious outdoor pens before the 12 weeks of gavage, or forced feeding, that makes them suitable for foie gras.

I’m sure there are foie gras operations that aren’t humane, just as there are confined animal feeding operations throughout America that are cruel and unsanitary.   We shouldn’t judge an industry based on the worst actions of the worst actors in that industry.  If we did, we’d never any animal products.  The fact is that foie gras can be produced as cruelly or as kindly made as any animal-based foods.  French foie gras farms and production facilities tend to be small, artisanal operations like Christophe and Karine’s Le Chesny, so if you buy foie gras in France, you’re not supporting a cruel industry.

moules
Moules are mussels.  Not muscles.

5. Moules-frites.  Steamed mussels served with fries are extraordinarily common on menus throughout France.  It’s really a perfect lunch meal and can usually be purchased for 10 to 15 euros.

Since I grew up in western Oregon, I’ve seen mussels on Oregon’s rocky ocean shoreline since I was a kid.  I didn’t realize that they were edible by anything other than seagulls until my early 20s, but after the first couple of bites of steamed mussels, I liked them.  But I had no idea how good well-prepared moules can be.

The French produce about 80,000 metric tons of mussels each year on both their Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.  But that only accounts for about half of the annual consumption, so they import around another 80,000 metric tons to meet their domestic demand.  Meanwhile, Americans consume over 52 billion pounds of meat per year, among the highest per capita in the world.   Whether these differences in eating habits are related to the fact that Americans spend an average of $10,348 per year on health care compared to the French, who spend an average of $4,600 is not the topic of this article, but it’s probably worth considering.   From a nutritional standpoint, mussels are relatively high in protein, low in fat, and high in omega three fatty acids.  They’re high in several minerals that your body needs, including phosphorous, magnesium, and potassium. But because they taste so good, it’s easy to forget their nutritional value.

The typical mussel shell is about the size of your thumb, so the mussel morsel inside is small and tender.  French chefs have developed several recipes that enhance their natural goodness.  Moules marinière (is among the most common preparation you’ll see on menus.  This usually consists of steaming the mussels in white wine, then adding a red sauce, sometimes with cream.  My personal favorite is any concoction with bleu cheese.  One example from a French menu is moules a la creme et bleu which includes a creamy white wine sauce with bleu cheese.  It’s beyond delicious.  And while the creme, butter, and cheese may counterbalance the nutritional benefits, at least the mussels don’t make it worse.

Final Thoughts

France is the most visited country in the world.  Those of us that love it and return as often as we can don’t go there just for the food, but it’s a huge fringe benefit.  The French have been enjoying excellent cooking since the Revolution when so many master chefs lost their jobs when their employers lost their heads.  The misfortune of the aristocrats created an opportunity for the underclasses to enjoy cuisine that only the wealthiest had tasted in ages past.  In many was the French Revolution was the event that brought haute cuisine to the western world.   Even mediocre American cuisine is better today because of French influence.

There are many, many more than five foods you should try when you visit France, but the ones I listed above are foods I’ve enjoyed time and again.  Thanks to Google Translate, you can read any menu in your native language on your cell phone.  If you haven’t tried it, you’ll be amazed.  It’s free from both Android and iOS smartphones.  Download it before you go.  When you go to restaurants in France you should definitely try my suggestions, but you’ll find many other tempting menu items at even relatively humble restaurants.

Bon voyage and bon appétit!

Leave a Reply