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French cuisine is characterized by its extreme diversity. In that, it can only be compared to Chinese cuisine or the cuisine of India.
Traditionally, each region of France have their own distinctive cuisine: cuisine from northwest France uses butter, cream (crème fraiche), and apples; Provençal cuisine (from the southeast) favors olive oil, herbs, and tomatoes; cuisine from southwest France uses duck fat, foie gras, porcini mushrooms (cèpes), and gizzards; cuisine from northeastern France is reminiscent of German cuisine and uses lard, sausages, beer and sauerkraut. Besides these four general areas, there are many more local cuisines, such as the Loire Valley cuisine famous for its delicate dishes of fresh water fish and Loire Valley white wines, the Basque cuisine famous for its use of tomatoes and chili, or the cuisine of Roussillon akin to Catalonian cuisine. With the movements of population of contemporary life, such regional differences are less noticeable than they used to be, but they are still clearly marked, and one traveling across France will notice significant changes in the ways of cooking and the dishes served. Moreover, recent focus of French consumers on local, countryside food products (produits du terroir) means that the regional cuisines are experiencing a strong revival in the early 21st century.
What is known outside of France as "French cuisine" is the elaborated cuisine of the higher classes of Paris, served in restaurants for hefty prices. This cuisine is mostly influenced by the regional cuisines of northern France, with a marked touch of refinement. It should be noted, however, that average French people do not eat or prepare this cuisine in their everyday life, and rather eat the regional cuisine of the region where they are located (or the region where they grew up).
Wine and cheese are an integral part of French cuisine (both Paris high cuisine and regional cuisines), both as ingredients and accompaniments. France is known for its large ranges of wines and cheeses.
Exotic cuisines, particularly Chinese cuisine and some dishes from former colonies in Northern Africa (couscous), have made inroads.
Food and drink in France nowadays
For French people, cooking is part of culture, and cooking and good food are well appreciated. The French generally take a high pride in the cuisine of their country, and some, particularly in the older generations, are reluctant to experiment with foreign dishes.
The normal meal schedule is to take a light breakfast in the morning (consisting of bread and/or cereal, possibly coffee and some fruit, perhaps croissants), a lunch at some point between noon and 2PM, and dinner in the evening. A normal complete meal consists in appetizers (perhaps raw vegetables or salad), a main dish (generally, meat or fish with a side of vegetables, pasta, rice or fries), some cheese and/or dessert (fruit or cake).
In large cities most working people and students eat their lunch outside, it is to be noted that corporate and school cafeterias normally serve complete meals (appetizers, main dish, dessert); it is not usual for students to bring sandwiches. In smaller cities and towns, most working people leave their offices to return home for lunch, generating four rush hours during the day (8am, 12pm, 2pm, and 6pm).
With contemporary lifestyle, especially the reduced number of housewives, the French rely a lot more on canned or frozen foods for weekdays. Cooking evening or weekend meals from fresh ingredients is still popular. In most cities, there are street markets selling vegetables, meat and fish, several times a week; however, most of those products are now bought at hyper- or supermarkets.
Traditionally, France has been a culture of wine consumption. While this characteristic has lessened with time, even today, 98.67% of the French consume wine every day. The consumption of low-quality wines during meals has been greatly reduced. Beer is especially popular with the youth. Other popular alcoholic drinks include pastis (in the southeast), an aniseed-flavored beverage drunk diluted with cold water, especially in the summer, or cider in the northwest.
The legal drinking age for most spirits is 18. However, it is not customary that shopkeepers or bartenders check for the age of consumers, and teenagers eating with their family in restaurants will be served wine. On the other hand, it is very unusual to witness the kind of public inebriation that is customary in English cities on Saturday nights. Usually parents tend to forbid the consumption of alcohol to their children before they reach their early teenhood. Students and young adults are known to drink heavily during parties (vodka and tequila being very popular), but usually drunkeness is not displayed in public.
Divisions of restaurant cuisine
Schematically, French restaurant cuisine can be divided into:
Cuisine bourgeoise, which includes all the classic French dishes which are not (or no longer) specifically regional, and which have been adapted over the years to suit the taste of the affluent classes. This type of cooking includes the rich, cream-based sauces and somewhat complex cooking techniques that many people associate with French cuisine. At the 'top end' of this category is what is known as haute cuisine, a highly complex and refined approach to food preparation and kitchen management.
Because this kind of cuisine is what is often served abroad under the name of "French cuisine", many foreigners mistakenly believe that typical French meals involved complex cooking and rich, un-dietetic dishes. In fact, such cooking is generally reserved for special occasions, while typical meals are simpler.
Cuisine du terroir
Cuisine du terroir, which covers regional specialities with a strong focus on quality local produce and peasant tradition. Many dishes that fall in this category do not stand out as stereotypically "French," sometimes because regional cooking styles can be quite different from the elaborate dishes seen in French restaurants around the world.
Cuisine nouvelle or nouvelle cuisine, which developed in the 1970s as a reaction to traditional cuisine, under the influence of chefs such as Michel Guérard . This type of cooking is characterized by shorter cooking times, much lighter sauces and dressings, and smaller portions presented in a refined, decorative manner. Its modern, inventive approach sometimes includes techniques and combinations from abroad (especially Asia) and has had a profound influence on cooking styles all over the world.
Food fashions and trends in France tend to alternate between these three types of cuisine; today (2004) there is a distinct focus on cuisine du terroir, with a return to traditional rustic cooking and the "forgotten" flavours of local farm produce. The "fusion" cuisine popular in the English-speaking world is not widespread in France, though some restaurants in the capital have a "fusion" theme, and many modern French chefs are influenced by a variety of international cooking styles.
Vegetarianism is not widespread in France, and few restaurants cater for vegetarians. Veganism is hardly known or represented at all.
Foreign cuisines popular in France include:
- some dishes from the former colonies of France in north Africa, especially couscous;
- Vietnamese and Chinese food.
- Restaurants offering Japanese dishes such as sushi or yakitori are getting increasingly popular in urban centers, though the majority of the French population probably objects to eating raw fish.
Famous French dishes
Famous but untypical dishes
The following dishes are considered typical of French cuisine in some foreign countries, while they are actually quite untypical:
Specialities by region/city
- Raclette (melted cheese served with potatoes, ham and often dried beef)
- fondue savoyarde (fondue made with cheese and white wine into which cubes of bread are dipped)
- gratin dauphinois
- Tartiflette (a Savoyard gratin with potatoes, Reblochon cheese, cream and pork)
- kik ar fars (boiled pork dinner with a kind of dumpling)
- kouign amann (a form of shortbread made with a very large proportion of butter)
- Boeuf Bourguignon (beef stewed in red wine)
- Escargots de Bourgogne (snails baked in their shells with parsley butter)
- Fondue bourguignonne (fondue made with oil in which pieces of meat are cooked)
- Brandade de morue (puréed salt cod)
- Tripoux (tripe 'parcels' in a savoury sauce)
- Truffade (potatoes sautéed with garlic and young "tomme" cheese)
- Aligot (mashed potatoes blended with young "tomme" cheese)