For most people, when they think of high end dining and “fancy food” they tend to think of France. With their incredible history and intimidating menus, made up of largely unpronounceable words, nothing screams classic cuisine like French food.
So, What’s The Deal With French Food?
Before we break down the list and talk about some classic dishes and wine pairings, it’s important to take into consideration the history of a place like France.
France has an incredibly long and interesting history, but even though the Kingdom of France was established in 843, many regions for hundreds of years after that were largely independent.
Because these regions pretty much ignored what was going on in the rest of the country, they saw themselves as separate parts that happened to be lumped into a larger country.
They avoided trading with neighbouring regions, and so each area developed their own unique food (and wine) traditions and tastes, depending on the climate and availability of ingredients in the area.
Remember the Riesling post? Alsace sits right on the border with Germany, and having been part of a tug of war between the two countries for quite some time, they had taken on quite a bit of German culture, shown in everything from their architecture to language and food.
So, after all these years of France being French, there are still very different cultures within the umbrella of “French”.
Everyone speaks French, but there are tons of minority languages dating back hundreds and even over one thousand years. People from one area still think they have the best food and wine compared to another.
So, there is plenty of diversity within French food that makes it interesting and overwhelming to read about.
But, since France is so big and different, I’ve divided the country up into two halves: north and south.
Below are a list of some classic northern French dishes that would both be as common on restaurant menus as they would in some old country home.
French Food and Wine
Camembert: This famous cheese comes from the Normandy region of France, probably being most known these days as the site of allied invasion during World War II. This creamy soft cheese is best enjoyed on its own, or spread on a baguette and munched on with grapes. Thirsty? Get that Champagne ice cold, and see how the bubbles melt the cheese with each sip.
Epoisses: One of the stinkiest of all cheeses, époisses is a soft and creamy cheese from Burgundy. Regional pairings are always a no brainer, and usually the best, so stick with the local juice for this. Red or white, doesn’t really matter, as both will do. For white, try a buttery Chardonnay from the Cote de Beaune region, like a Meursault. For red, there is no need to break the bank – a Cote de Nuits Villages would be perfect.
Comte: This semi hard cheese from is from Franche-Comté, right beside Burgundy. Due to the mountainous terrain, this is seen as an alpine cheese and is classically paired with Vin Jaune from the Jura. Vin Jaune is a really cool oxidized style wine, made more or less exactly like Fino Sherry from Spain. If you have a hard time finding it, or can’t justify spending the extra cash on it, go for the Fino Sherry – your taste buds probably won’t even notice the difference.
Fondue: Also from French/Swiss alpine regions, fondue is a throwback to the 70s when you couldn’t go to a dinner party without seeing one of these on the table. Also popular with tourists skiing in the area in France, who come to enjoy it un-ironically. Because fondue is basically just cheese and wine, the wine used in making it is always a good choice. Chances are it will be one of a few similar wines, made from either Chasselas (used a lot in Swiss wine under the name Fendant) or Jacquère. These wines are light on their feet with great acid, with some soft herbal and citrus flavours to round it out.
Rillette: Similar to the mighty foie gras, rillettes are made with a variety of different meats or fish. In this case, we’ll go with the standard pork version, which is common in central France, around the Loire valley. Pork fat and meat is simmered, ground to a pulp, and then preserved in more fat. The paste is traditionally eaten on baguette slices or crackers. For this, a nice tannic and acidic red from the Loire like a Chinon (Cabernet Franc) would be perfect. With enough punch to take on the fat and protein in the dish but not heavy enough to weigh you down, and a good regional pairing to boot.
Oysters: Not just your typical oysters, but Belon oysters from the Brittany area. Once again, if you are an Anthony Bourdain fan, you should already have seen him go here for his No Reservations shows. These squiggly little bi-valves are a perfect foil to the high acid and lean wines of Muscadet, beefed up by some lees ageing. Look for Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie – a Muscadet with a bit more flavour and weight. These wines, with their salty sea spray and lemon flavours are a natural match with raw oysters on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Flammekueche: This pizza looking dish is a German/Alsatian take on just that. A thin rectangular crust of bread is topped with onions, cheese, and some bacon, and then fired in the oven. A simple and savoury plate full of this calls for a Crémant d’Alsace rosé. All those bubbles, acid, and extra oomph from the red grapes are a nice balance for the savoury flame cake.
Potée Champenoise: Also known as a stew from Champagne. This is going to be quite different from the more well known Boeuf Bourguignon, and more in line with northern European and even English boiled stews. A mix of smoked and salted pork meats are tossed in a big pot with some root vegetables and cabbage, and are left to simmer for a few hours. What comes out is a rustic looking and hearty stew that is sure to warm you up. It’s interesting that this comes from an area so well known for luxury and refinement, yet Champagne was one of the areas hit the hardest during WWII. It is actually an impoverished area, minus the wine trade, and farmers still regularly find bullet casings when working their vineyards today. The classic wine would be a Champagne, but I couldn’t justify opening a bottle for such a simple meal. Save the cash and grab a bottle of Crémant de Bourgogne.
Sole Meunière: If you’ve read my book “Beyond Ramen & PBR: The Bachelor’s Guide to Food and Wine Pairing” you would recognize this one right away. This dish is basically a fried white fish, served in a sauce of butter, lemon sauce, and chopped parsley. In my book, I pair it with a Chablis from Burgundy, and I stick by that pairing today. The fresh citrus notes in the wine play off the rich lemon and butter sauce of the fish perfectly.
Boeuf Bourguignon: If the Potée Champenoise is not your style, then maybe this will set you straight. This cool weather standard is from, you guessed it, Burgundy. Beef cubes are stewed for hours in beef stock, red wine, and various vegetables and topped with bacon and mushrooms. Despite its legendary status, it is a simple and unglamorous dish invented by farmers and labourers. Go with a simple, easy wine like a regional red – Bourgogne AOC is just fine. The earthy flavours of the mushrooms and braised meat is perfect for Pinot Noir. Don’t complicate it.
Steak Frites: As bare bones as it gets, and a real bistro classic. Steak and a side of french fries, made popular in Belgium and northern France. Some restaurants will serve only this dish – you show up, sit down, and the waitress asks you how you want your steak done. It’s a beautiful thing. Order a beer or a bottle of wine, and you’re set for the night. A nice medium rare steak served with nothing else but fries needs a hefty wine to tone down all that fat – forgive me for breaking the rules here, but a Bordeaux is in order. Grab a bottle of Haut-Médoc, and call it a day. The tannins and acid will slice right through that perfectly cooked steak and leave you will a mouth full of delicious.
Crêpes: Crepes, if you’ve never had one, are just thin little French pancakes. Unlike pancakes, which are mostly filled or garnished with fruit and other sweets, crepes can be made either sweet or savoury. But, this being the dessert section, we’ll assume you’ve picked a sweet dessert crepe with apples and sugar. Even though crepes are seen as typical of the Brittany region, (right where Muscadet is from) a cider from nearby Normandy would be a nice complement to the sweet and sour apples. If you can sniff one out, go for a traditional method sparkling cider from Normandy. Made just like Champagne, they are lower alcohol and sweet, making them an ideal match for dessert crepes.
Pêche au Vin: Pretty much identical to a mulled wine, except with the addition of fruits that are served with the wine. Pour a bottle of red wine into a pot, add some spices, some fruit including peaches and cherries, simmer to incorporate flavours, and then serve cold. Since this is a dish from the Beaujolais/Burgundy area, I would recommend a Beaujolais Nouveau, but since there is already wine in the dish, just enjoy that! As it is now June, there won’t be any Beaujolais Nouveau around, so just go for a regular bottle of Beaujolais.
Tarte Tatin: A simple upside down caramelized apple cake. Easy and straight to the point. Play off the sweetness of the apples of this Parisian dessert with a late harvest “Vendange Tardive” Riesling from Alsace. These wines will likely have some notes of noble rot to them (remember that one?), but it isn’t mandatory for the designation. They are sweet wines, and because Riesling is being used, you can bet there will be supercharged flavours of apples all over this wine.
Well, that should keep you busy for a little while. Next time you go out to dinner at that fancy French place across town, be sure to take a look at this guide beforehand to give you a primer on what to expect, and some typical regional pairings too.