Viva la France

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Back in the 1960s Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and TV cooking show became phenomena for American readers and viewers. In her distinctive trilling voice, this former employee of the CIA’s predecessor (that’s Central Intelligence Agency, not Culinary Institute of America) and Cordon Bleu culinary student gave us a taste of cooking à la française. She was a pioneer in the now crowded fielded of you-too-can-make-it food resources now at hand.  Is your technique for an omelet or other concoction up to Julia’s standards? Are you using the correct pan? You can still see her in action on YouTube and follow her direction in her much reprinted books.
But what if we could take the next step and get to know what residents have been cooking in the different regions of Frances for centuries? Like Vikki Moran’s article on culinary traditions in Italy, from the February 2015 issue of Capital Region Living, we find that the traditional dishes are: (1) tied to what can successfully grow, graze or swim in that particular environment and (2) differ across the country because of these diverse conditions and cultural influences.
Alsace – This fertile region hugs Germany and Switzerland, as reflected in the cuisine. Try the choucroute garnie, a sauerkraut served with potatoes, sausage such as knackwurst, and white wine. This kraut dish is prepared by finely grating cabbage, adding seasonings and fermenting for about a month. That brings back memories of grating, fermenting and putting up kraut in the Krueger family. Not a quick process but much tastier than its pale commercial counterparts.  An onion-topped tart (flame cake or flammekuche) and egg-flour dumplings (spaetzle) are on tables in Alsace. Like Lorraine, goose and fish are frequently prepared. Mushrooms and berries are gathered. Fruit brandies from raspberries, plums and more are praised, as are the area’s wines, including Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. Save room for sweets: streusel; apple and dried fruit-filled strudel (another familiar recipe at the Krueger household); Kouglof (the region’s celebrated brioche with almonds and golden raisins); and Black forest cake.
Aquitaine– Aquitaine is a region diverse in cuisine. Think wine. Thousands of vineyards and varieties. Bordeaux is in this region. Foods of distinction include oysters, sole, shad and sardines. Dishes also include beef and lamb. Artichokes and garlic sprouts are on the vegetable menu. Bordeaux is the land of pastries—macaroons and, of course, the small fluted canelés, caramelized on the outside and with a soft vanilla and rum-flavored interior. King’s Cake of candied citron and sugar is served at Christmas and the Epiphany.
The region includes the area of Périgord, known for its mushrooms (used frequently in the many goose, duck dishes as well as with fish), and a truffle termed the “black diamond,” walnuts, chestnuts, paté, and blood sausage. Sweet wines, such as the white Monbazillac, are produced in Périgord, along with brandies and liqueurs from regional fruits.
This region also contains Basque country, along the coast and in the Pyrenees. Basque continues across the border into Spain. As expected, the influences of these two countries can be tasted in Basque dishes.  Chicken, tuna and other dishes, such as piperade, have the Spanish flavors from olive oil, tomatoes, spices, peppers and chilies. The mildly hot Espelette pepper is celebrated there, with peppers decorating houses and the community and even a pepper festival. You can find them fresh, dried, ground, pickled or pureed. Also popular in the region is charcuterie, prepared meat including ham, sausage, chorizo, bacon, and an unsmoked salt-cured bacon known as ventreche. In addition to tuna, sardines, shrimp, anchovies, mackerel, and calamari are drawn from the sea. For sweets, the region harvests black cherries, used in jam, accompanied by ewes’ milk cheese.

Brittany – Brittany’s mild climate is conducive to growing fruits and vegetables, including Camus artichokes, chicory, white Paimpol beans with nutty or buttery flavor, Plougastel strawberries, sweet and aromatic petit gris (gray) melons (which becomes dark green when ripe) and samphines, a salty green vegetable growing on the coast soil. Brittany also has another distinction—the only region that does not produce wine—but does have a cider from fermented apples. The region is known for shellfish including lobster and pork, found in a stew with vegetables in broth and accompanied by rye bread. Galettes with buckwheat flour may be served simply with salted butter, accompanied by thick yogurt, or stuffed with ham, cheese and a sunny-side egg. And leave room for dessert, such as lacey crêpes dentelles and caramel candies like Kouign Amann.
Burgundy – Certainly, Burgundy is known worldwide for its wines—white and rosé as well as red from centuries-old vineyards. Accompany the wines (or vice versa) with the region’s flavorsome cuisine, featuring shallots, onions, garlic, spices and the signature Dijon mustard. In addition to Beef Burgundy, regional dishes include coq au vin or chicken with mushrooms, snails in parsley butter, crapiaux or thick crêpes, marked “très facile” in recipes, and rabbit with mustard.  Truffles, cherries and black currants are locally-grown ingredients, the latter also used in liqueur. Among the region’s cheeses, Burgundy Époisses has been dubbed “king.” Creation of this custardy pungent cheese from cow’s milk favored with brandy died out around World War II but the tradition was revived in the 1950s. On the sweet side, gingerbread is big in Burgundy, as well as corniottes, puff pastry with filling.
Champagne – A toast to the extensive vineyards in Champagne!  But fertile Champagne also offers food specialties, such as matelote, a highly seasoned fish stew with wine. Other recipes call for fish to be poached, fried or braised, sometimes with champagne. Various sausages are and pigs’ feet are among regional dishes. Vegetables include asparagus and lentils. Cheese, including brie, comes from cow’s milk. Top this off with a regional sweet, such as the pink biscuits of Reims, soft cake or gingerbread nonettes.
Centre – Home of the mild and fertile Loire valley, this region, including Tours, produces an array fruits and vegetables, as well as red, rosé and especially white wines. Pork and poultry are on the region’s farms. The area contains the ancient lands of Touraine. The Gèline de Touraine is a celebrated black-feathered chicken. The area agriculture chamber says that its quality and mark on the rich soil make the hen “the star of many tables.” That fertile ground produces excellent fruits and vegetables, including asparagus fava beans, peas, strawberries and apricots, as well as mushrooms.
Corsica – Take a boat over the mountainous island of Corsica and enjoy a cuisine that infuses the flavors of this Mediterranean location and neighboring Italy.  On Corsican plates are fresh pasta, stuffed eggplant, zucchini, omelets containing a milk and whey cheese called brocciu, a lemon tart known as a fiadone, and migliacci pancake.  Dishes contain locally produced olive oil and herbs.  The chestnut also is the star on the mountain lands of Corsica, with chestnut flour made into cake, fritters and more. A variety of honey flavors come from the flowers on the island. The meat menu features pork, wild boar and various sausages and the sea produces salmon, trout, shellfish, urchins and more. Enjoy nectarines, clementines, figs and lemons.  Accompany your menu choice with a wine from the vineyards along the coast.
Franche-Comté – This land of mountains and lakes that neighbors Switzerland includes cattle, dairy, poultry and pork. A variety of cheese and sausage are among high quality products.  Dishes also feature trout, eel and other fish, and wild boar, squab and other game from the forests. Mushrooms and griottes cherries are regional but local production of fruits and vegetables is limited. Among specialties in sweets are cherry fritters, crispy pastries and soft caramels.

Île-de-France – Paris is the celebrity of the region, with the fine dishes of the city’s restaurants creating fond memories. Of course, a visit to Paris would not be complete without a stop to a patisserie to sample the exquisite treats, such as macaroons, croquembouche (cone filled with pastry balls and laced with caramel threads), or Opéra (almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup, layered with ganache and coffee buttercream, and glazed with chocolate). However, Île-de-France also contains areas for gardening, cattle grazing, production of brie and other soft cheeses, and fishing from the region’s rivers. The Rungis fresh market, a few miles south of Paris, is the largest fresh produce market in the world, drawing local vendors as well as those from other regions and countries who offer vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and flowers. 
Languedoc – This southern region’s cuisine comes from its plains, mountains, rivers and seacoast, with olives, olive oil, onions and garlic among ingredients. Taste local dishes, such as cassoulet, slow-cooked in earthenware with white beans and meat— duck, goose and sausage. This concoction is thought to have been created during the desperate times of the Hundred Years War when scraps were pooled to survive. Also served in Languedoc are bouillabaisse (fish stew), brandade (salt cod, olive oil and milk with potatoes and garlic), oreilettes (rum and citrus fritters), gardiane de bœuf camarguaise (the area’s celebrated beef marinated in red wine, with vegetables and seasoning), and coupetade (French toast soaked in custard).  This is a region for red, rosé and sparkling wines.

Lorraine – Bordering Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, Lorraine is famous for Quiche Lorraine with bacon and gruyere cheese. But there is more. With cuisine influenced by German ties in the past, the area is renowned for sausages and other pork dishes such as Tourte Lorraine with plums. Veal and beef are on menus, along with potatoes and stews. This region produces cow’s milk cheeses, like Munster.  Berries and plums are used with entrees and desserts.  Also a regional specialty is a candy with the essence of Bergamot citrus, which can be traced back to the 18th century.
Midi-Pyrenees – This region produces a signature cassoulet, the slow-cooked white bean and meat dish also found in Languedoc. Some ingredients vary at the cook’s choice. In the Toulouse area of this region, cooks generally use pork (loin, hock, sausage), but also duck confit, bacon and neck of mutton.  Ducks, geese and sausage are frequently in other dishes. Toulouse is well known for its violets, which are used in jellies, syrups, honey and chocolate pralines.
Normandy – In northern France along the English Channel, diners enjoy savory dishes from the sea and freshwaters (such as pan-fried sole in butter, fish with butter, onions and cider, and shrimp).and from the land (poultry, meat, vegetables and fruits). The region is celebrated for its milk, butter, cream and cheeses, notably camembert, which is enjoyed separately and as ingredients. The area’s apples are used to their fullest,—in ciders, brandies such as Calvados, chicken cooked in cream and cider sauce with apples flambéed with Calvados, and for dessert, turnovers, pancakes with apple fillings, and apples wrapped in brioche.
Poitou-Charentes – Not familiar with Poitou-Charentes in western France? It includes the town of Cognac – the region’s famous beverage. In addition to sipping, it is found in sweets, such as Merveilles or fritters. This coastal area also is celebrated for its oysters, mussels, shellfish, and farmed garden snails. Dishes include oysters in bacon and trout with crayfish. Cheeses from the milk of goats or ewes are regional products, along with saffron and black truffles. Try the buttered cabbage, too.
Provence – The colorful dishes in this Mediterranean region contain garlic and various herbs such as rosemary, savory, chives, thyme and lavender, as well as olive oils, anchovy paste and tapenade. Tomatoes and pepper are often included with fish. Provence also is the home of the boullibaisse, a fish stew from Marseilles where locals include four varieties of fish or more. This was a recipe derived from the home cook, using scraps of fish on hand. Also ladled into dishes in Provence are soupe au pistou, a seasonal vegetable soup, and ratatouille, a stew with vegetables, originally with tomatoes, onions, zucchini, peppers, garlic. This, too, was a meal made at home out of what was available. This region includes Niçard Country, with the well-known Salade Niçoise, with traditional ingredients of olives, tomatoes, peppers and anchovies. There is even a sandwich filled with Salade Niçoise.  Olives and olive oils are key elements of dishes, along with fruits and vegetables. Seafood, such as sea bass and red mullet, are often prepared Niçoise-style with tomatoes, black olives and garlic. Anchovies also are popular, in such dishes as pissaladière or onion tart with olives. Menton lemons form the basis of a tart, a regional specialty. Orange flower water and orange jam are used in other desserts.

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