When you think of fine dining, you can’t help but turn your mind to French cuisine. Many of the principles of French style cooking have become ubiquitous in our gastronomic repertoire, and there are a number of foods in our everyday lives that originated in France. Think croissants, beef bourguignon, potatoes au gratin – even the humble quiche Lorraine, chocolate mousse and steak Dianne have their origins in various regions of France. If you’ve never ventured into the realm of French cuisine, here are some dishes to, er, cut your teeth on (so to speak).
Behold! The humble croissant. Routinely churned out by Australian bakers everywhere. BUT – if you can find an authentic patisserie or boulangerie, that humble crescent shaped pastry will change your life. Buttery, crisp shells with flaky layers that give way to soft, light-as-air centres that melt in your mouth. Creating the perfect croissant takes time and commitment and not everyone is up for it. There are plenty of commercial bakers who make and freeze the raw dough, selling them to be baked on site elsewhere. It’s worth doing the research to find a baker who honours the timeless traditions. Or, if you’re committed to an authentic replica, (or particularly ambitious), you could try making your own. There is also, of course, the completely indulgent variant, pan au chocolat.
This traditional, rich dish of scallops poached in white wine sauce and set atop a puree of mushrooms in a scallop shell is a timeless French entree. A sauce is made from the poaching liquid, and poured over the scallops which are then gratinèed under a broiler. Some versions make it even richer with a Gruyere cheese and breadcrumb topping. Although this signature French recipe is somewhat heavier than contemporary scallop dishes it’s a perennial favourite and never fails to please. Sounds like an unlikely flavour combination for the subtle and delicate scallop, right? Curious? If you can’t find an Australian French restaurant that serves it and you’re a bit short on the dosh for a spin to Paris, why not try it at home?
Made as originally intended with the freshest and highest quality produce, this seemly simple salad combines a range of textures and flavours to make your tastebuds sing. Originating form Lyon (hence the name), it’s one of the most popular salads in small restaurants and bistros throughout France and is made from crispy fresh salad greens, indulgent smoked streaky bacon, crunchy croutons and a perfect, oozy poached egg. A comfort food all on its own, Salade Lyonnais can also be served as a classic dinner party entrée. As French food goes, it’s generally fairly straightforward to make, too.
Coq au Vin
One of the best known French provincial dishes, Coq au Vin originated in the Franche-Comtè area in the east. Essentially chicken thighs braised with wine, mushrooms, garlic and aromatic herbs, this rustic dish has been traced anecdotally to the times of Julius Caesar, but more likely originated as a simple peasant dish created to make use of old roosters that were no longer wanted. The dish uses lardon (salted, unsmoked pork) or bacon to add depth, and the best versions are lovingly prepared over several hours to create the rich, intense flavours that have made coq au vin a favourite dish.
Soup à L’oignon
French onion soup. Not the dehydrated powder in a sachet instant soup kind (remember those?). We’re talking rich, thick savoury goodness topped with a thick, golden crust. That kind of French onion soup. The kind that will wow your guests, satisfy your tummy and won’t break the bank or turn you into a twitchy, nervous mess as a result of complicated ingredients and techniques.
Based on a rich meat stock, the soup features caramelized onions, topped with a slice of toasted baguette (crouton), which is smothered in cheese and baked or grilled. Despite its heartiness, soup à l’oignon is often served as an entrée but can be very satisfying as a meal on its own, served with crisp salad greens. This is a great recipe to try yourself because of the simple ingredients and method. Why not give it a try?
You have to love a comfort food that’s also a little bit fancy. It takes a bit of time and effort if you’re making it yourself, but you’ll be rewarded with a delicious and satisfying dish that’s like a warm and hearty hug for your tastebuds. And of course, if you find a restaurant serving good cassoulet, you can skip the effort and get straight to the reward.
The combination of white beans with various meats – duck, pork sausage, ham, and mutton are popular – slowly stewed for hours with loads of garlic and a bunch of herbs will deliver the richest, most satisfying casserole you’ve ever tried. Serve with fresh bread and a glass of hearty red wine from the south of France, and you’re set.
The French seem to have a penchant for slow food – meals that are lovingly prepared over many hours to deliver an incredible intensity of flavour and richness – and the famous boullabaisse is no exception. Originating from the city of Marseille, bouillabaisse is traditionally made with at least three kinds of fish, plus a variety of shellfish and other seafood like mussels, crab, octopus and even sea urchins.
More upmarket versions may also include lobster. The fish and seafood is simmered in a broth with Provençal herbs and vegetables like leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes. Saffron is also a key flavour. Boullabaisse is often served with thickly sliced baguette, smeared with Rouille, a spicy egg mayonnaise. If you love seafood, put this on your list of French foods to try.
A list of quintessential French foods would be sadly incomplete without a mention of Escargots. This would have to be the most traditional of all French entrées . A very specific type of land snail is especially bred for consumption. The snails are typically cooked with lashings of garlic butter, parsley and wine sauce, and served in their shells with a glass of fine white wine.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of classic French dishes. If you are keen to further explore the pleasures of this remarkable cuisine, you might consider trying dishes like Confit de Carnard, Gratin Dauphinois, Boeuf Bourguignon, or even Steak Dianne, or the perennial favourite dessert, Chocolate Mousse.