France is a very traditional country, where the people take food seriously. French cuisine is famous throughout the world and is steeped in tradition. The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” springs to mind when considering how little, if anything, has changed over the years within this gastronomic wilderness.
Whilst travelling, and eating, in France, it is important to note that the way they do things over there is very different. Dining out is an experience to be savoured, not rushed, and anyone who flouts the rules will not be received well. Cruise1st has some wonderful deals on cruises to France and the Mediterranean that will start you out on your culinary adventure.
With this in mind, we have put together some pointers on how to master eating out in France, as well as a list of the most traditional dishes that you ought to try whilst there.
Firstly, be aware that traditional French food is very meat and fish heavy so not ideal if you are vegetarian. Don’t expect there to be many, if any, alternatives for vegetarians. This isn’t meant to be offensive. It is just how things are over there. If in doubt, check the menu beforehand to see if it offers vegetarian alternatives or research specific vegetarian eateries.
Now, do you the difference between a bistro and a restaurant? Bistros are small and very bustling! Although a bistro is less formal, you may find it pretty stressful if you are expecting a quiet bite. The tables are close together, there will be no one to explain the menu to you and you should not expect to be pandered to as there are only a few servers to cover the entire place. If you need anything after you have placed your order then you will need to ask for it.
Menus will mostly be in French so you should learn some basic French food and wine vocab to help you through it. Be especially prepared for the food you DON’T want to eat so that you don’t make any incorrect orders and get disappointed.
The meal will play out as follows: Entrée/starter/main/cheese and/or dessert/coffee. This is as standard and can’t be re-arranged. Also note that no alternatives will be offered, especially if it is a fixed menu. They will have ordered produce in for that menu alone and won’t have anything else if there is something you’re not keen on. The same can be said for asking to split or share elements of the menu. The answer will be a straight “non”.
Bread is an accompaniment in France, not something to pick at while you wait for the main event. It will be served with your meal so that you can mop up the delicious sauces. It usually won’t come with butter either.
When you are asked how you like your meat cooked, always ask for it to be done the next level up to what you are used to. French cooks generally serve meat on the rarer side for flavour and think that “well done” is bad cooking so stick with medium-rare if in doubt.
When ordering wine, bear in mind that it is listed in regions, not types so do a bit of research beforehand to make the best choices. Also remember that rosé wine is an appretif and won’t usually be served with a meal.
All of that may seem quite stressful, but once you have your food it will all seem worth it! When you want to pay, make sure you signal to the waiter or you will be left there all night. Be prompt with your payment and always leave a 10% tip (usually in cash as most places aren’t set up to add tips onto card payments).
Now for the best bit – choosing which French delights to indulge in. Here is a list of the top 10 you should definitely try!
Scallops poached in white wine and served in their shell atop a mushroom purée with the poaching sauce over the top and gratinéed under a grill.
Soup à l’Oignon
Traditional French onion soup. Thick, delicious and served with toasted bread and melted cheese floating on the top.
A traditional Breton dish, buckwheat crêpes can be served sweet or savoury. A delicious snack.
Hailing from the South-West of France, Cassoulet is a slow cooked mix of beans, pork sausage, pork shoulder, pancetta and duck. Very hearty and perfect for a cold winter’s night.
A Lyonnais dish, Quenelles are a mixture of creamed fish or meat with a light egg binding, poached and served with a rich sauce. High in cholesterol, but simply divine!
Melted cheese, wine and garlic served in a pot for everyone to dip bits of bread in. Traditional in the alps and especially popular after skiing.
A slightly controversial French dish, but very traditional, nonetheless. Pan seared Foie Gras is delicious and rich so should be served with figs and a sweet wine sauce to balance it.
A rich potato dish from the French alps that combines onions, lardons and cheese. Comfort food at its best!
Cooked in their shells with lots of garlic, onions, herbs and either a tomato or cream sauce. Once the mussels have been picked from the shells you can dip bread into the rich sauce and indulge your senses.
A cherbaked French desert containing fruit (usually cherries), arranged in a dish and covered with a flan-like batter. It is dusted with icing sugar and is usually served warm, with cream.
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Images sourced via Flickr Creative Commons. Credits: drburtoni, Isabelle Hurbain-Palatin, Ben Brown, francois schnell and Jonathan Caves.