The French are renowned for caring a great deal about what is on their plates, which suggests that they devote time to preparing and eating their meals. The French cuisine is important. Of course, the modern era of globalisation and the demands of work are prompting changes to some of France’s long established habits. So which dining customs and dishes do locals still have an attachment to?
In France, mealtimes are sacred and so people tend to take longer lunch breaks than their counterparts in many other countries. Even though some workers are happy with a simple sandwich or snack brought from home, on average French people stop working for 40 minutes, and asking them to give this up would be out of the question. The figures here speak for themselves: a recent survey showed that a third of Americans and 45% of Brits skip their lunch break, while only 11% of French employees do the same.
Despite a sharp decline in consumption, bread still accompanies every meal. On average, French people eat the equivalent of half a baguette every day, three times less than they ate in the 1950s. Their preferred option remains the ‘traditional’ baguette, made by hand, which is favoured for its honeycomb crumb and unmistakeable crunch. Who doesn’t enjoy walking into a bakery early in the morning and smelling the crusty bread and croissants straight from the oven?
The traditional breakfast in France is an important opportunity to get your day off to a good start, even though it’s not necessarily the most balanced in terms of composition! It’s generally quite a light meal. Often carb-focused with little protein, it’s not always sufficient to prevent the 11 am ‘munchies’. Bread, butter, jam, baguette, pastries (croissants, pains au chocolat (chocolate croissants), etc.) and a hot drink (coffee, tea, etc.) form the basis of the traditional p’tit déj (breakfast).
Most people eat three meals a day (except perhaps children, who tend to have a snack after school). What is certainly true is that mealtimes are a chance to come together and enjoy good company. They go together with every important occasion in life. Only 20% of French people like to eat alone. Does that mean that they don’t snack, that no one in France ‘grabs something to eat on the go’? Of course not – the French are very fond of sandwiches, as is evident from the 2.4 million of them that are eaten in the country every year! Half of these are simple ham sandwiches made with butter, showing that the locals remain attached to their traditions, and that burgers don’t yet have a monopoly!
If you’ve already visited France, you’ll know that enjoying an aperitif – or apéro – is a ritual followed by large swathes of the population. A good aperitif stimulates the appetite, as indicated by the word’s Latin origins (from the verb aperire, meaning ‘to open’). Fifty percent of French people enjoy an aperitif at least once a week. What they drink depends on a number of factors, including the region, the social status of the host and the hors-d’œuvre served – it might be a glass of champagne or rosé, perhaps some crémant (sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region) or a pastis, the aniseed-flavoured aperitif that is popular in the South of France. The options are almost endless! For those who fancy it, the aperitif may be dinatoire, meaning that it is accompanied by something to eat. Typical accompaniments include verrines (small glasses of sweet or savoury layered food), feuilletés (filled puff-pastry cases), jambon cru (raw cured ham) and other small appetisers (known in French as petits fours).
The French continue to be great cheese lovers – and that’s only to be expected from the world’s leading producers of the stuff. Did you know that there are more than a thousand different cheeses, and that French people eat nearly 20 kilograms of it per person every year? Emmental, Camembert and Coulommiers are still the most widely consumed, but Comté, Brie, Tomme de Savoie, Reblochon and Roquefort are also popular on domestic dinner tables.
What are some of the favourite dishes enjoyed by people in France? This is quite difficult to answer since what people eat varies according to region, age and even social background. There are, however, some dishes which are central to French culinary traditions. Sociologists believe that these classic dishes are sources of comfort at difficult times. Blanquette de veau (a type of veal ragout), which is made using rice, button mushrooms, carrots and veal, is one of these constants. It takes its name from the stock-based white sauce (sauce blanche) and the crème fraîche (or soured cream) that accompanies it. Pot-au-feu is another example of this type of cosy stew enjoyed by many families. In this case, the name of the dish comes from the cauldron, or pot, once used to cook it – in earlier times, this would be placed over the fire (feu) in the hearth. A good pot-au-feu is made with beef (top rump, chuck, top rib, etc.) cooked in a vegetable stock and served with potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbage, leeks, and more. Don’t forget to throw in some bone marrow and remember that it’s better to cook it in a good, old pot rather than a pressure cooker!
When it comes to desserts, it goes without saying that French pâtisserie (pastries and cakes) enjoys an international reputation. Cherry clafoutis, crème brûlée, tarte tatin, cream puffs, Paris-Brest and the famous chocolate eclairs are among the most popular choices. What about a dessert that is characteristic of the Côte d’Azur? We’ll go for the tourte sucrée aux blettes – or tourta de blea in the local dialect. Blette means Swiss chard, a vegetable used in gratins and soups, so this is a sweet tart which incorporates a filling made from Swiss chard, apples, pine nuts and raisins. A true icon of the region’s cuisine, and easy to find in Antibes, this dessert is an absolute delight!