Gourmet icons of France
It’s the humble ingredients that elevate a cuisine. Amelia Hungerford pays homage to the simple things that have become gourmet icons of France.
Le pain (the bread)
A baguette is as stereotypically French as berets and Breton-striped shirts. While debates continue to rage about whether the nation’s bread is empirically better than its overseas counterparts, what we certainly can agree on is that French bread culture is rich, complex, ingrained in the national identity and, for many of us on the other side of the fence, enviable. ‘Buying a baguette from the local boulangerie’ is high on the wishlist of countless visitors, whether it’s their first trip or their 100th.
Bread as a product is ephemeral, lasting a few days at best, but that doesn’t mean it is free of the protections that surround the likes of wine and cheese. In 1993, France introduced a law known as le décret pain that outlines what, how and where bread is made.
To bear the name tradition, the dough may only contain four ingredients (wheat flour, water, salt and yeast and/or a starter) and no additives, and must not have been frozen at any point in its creation. The result is usually sold by an establishment bearing the blue-and-yellow mark of an artisan baker, which guarantees that the bread was made on the premises.
There are no rules that officially govern the buying and eating of bread, but there is definitely an etiquette. If you’re after a baguette, you can ask for it to be bien cuite (well cooked) or pas trop cuite (not too cooked). Once you have your prize, make like the locals and eat le quignon on your way home; the only time you’ll see a French person eating on the street is after twisting and snapping off this irresistible ‘heel’.
Le vin (the wine)
Champagne may be associated with the high life, but it is wine that epitomises good living à la française. A glass, a bottle or two, over dinner with friends and family is never an indulgence; it is de rigueur. It isn’t just drinking a first-growth Burgundy or an exceptional Bordeaux vintage that is part of the ritual; it is savouring it, discussing it.
With more than 300 French wines allowed to use the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) agricultural designation of protection and provenance on their label, it’s clear that, to the French, the production of wine is a higher art form worthy of recognition. The concept of the AOC is rooted in terroir, the idea that soil and the site of a vine is unique and that this environment imparts certain qualities to the grapes.
Le sel (the salt)
It seems like such a small thing, but even salt has a big reputation in France. Fleur de sel harvested by hand in Guérande on the Atlantic coast has been hailed by chefs and gourmands as the caviar of salt. Its name, translating as ‘flower of salt’, comes from the snowflake-like crystals that are so delicate only women were permitted to harvest them in the past. Thanks to the presence of other minerals, fleur de sel tastes ‘saltier’ than usual. Its moisture content is high, too, meaning its delicacy will all but dissolve when cooked, but will linger longer on the palate when used as a finishing salt, and brings out the sweetness in chocolate and caramel.
Le beurre (the butter)
As with salt, the French take butter seriously (we’ll just ignore the fact that margarine was invented for Napoleon III’s army) and there are butters from three regions that bear AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) status.
Le beurre Échiré, in the Deux-Sèvres département, has been making butter in wooden churns since 1894. Frequently named the best butter in the world, Échiré is favoured by the greatest chefs for its malleable, crumble-free texture that allows for exceptional pastries.
Beurre d’Isigny from Normandy is known for its buttercup-yellow hue resulting from its ‘grand cru’ milk and maturation process.
La moutarde (the mustard)
Whether you prefer silky-smooth Dijon or nutty wholegrain, mustard is the most beloved of French condiments. Its production is particularly tied to the region of Burgundy where you’ll still find Moutarderie Edmond Fallot producing classic and flavoured varieties, just as it has since 1840. The family-owned mill is the last independent moutarderie in Burgundy, while in Beaune, visit the factory and stock up on your favourite flavoured mustards.
Pommery is the last remaining creator of the extra-coarse moutarde de Meaux. The current company revived the Pommery name and mustard tradition in 1949, and is now known for its stoneware crock and wax seal packaging, as well as its tart flavour. Break out the black-and-gold Moutarde Royale, infused with cognac, for festive occasions.
This article appeared in volume 28 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.