French cuisine is a style of cooking derived from the nation of France. It evolved through centuries of social and political change.
It has been influenced throughout the centuries by the many surrounding cultures of Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, in addition to its own food traditions on the long western coastlines of the Atlantic, the Channel and inland.
Typical French foods rely heavily on local products. Fresh apples, berries, haricot verts, leeks, mushrooms, various squash, and stone fruits are among the most commonly used products. Poultry, beef, lamb, and veal are readily available year-round. Game meat is especially popular and abundant during the hunting season that runs from early autumn to February. No matter the region, France has an abundance of artisanal cheese and wine.
French cuisine varies according to the season. In summer, salads and fruit dishes are popular because they are refreshing and the fresh local produce is inexpensive and abundant. Green grocers prefer to sell their fruit and vegetables at lower prices if needed, rather than see them rot in the heat. At the end of summer, mushrooms become plentiful and appear in stews everywhere in France. The hunting season starts in September and runs through February. Wild game of all kinds is eaten, often in very elaborate dishes that celebrate the success of the hunt. Shellfish are at their peak as winter turns to spring, and oysters appear in restaurants in
Cheese and wine are a major part of the cuisine. They play different roles regionally and nationally, with many variations and appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) (regulated appellation) laws.
Culinary tourism and the Guide Michelin helped to acquaint commoners with the cuisine bourgeoise of the urban elites and the peasant cuisine of the French countryside starting in the 20th century.
French food and cooking are generally considered the backbone and underpinning of many cuisines across the Western world.
The foundations of the country’s culinary empire were laid as early as the mid-1600s when chef François Pierre La Varenne penned his hugely influential “Le Cuisinier François” recipe book, emphasizing regional and seasonal ingredients, highlighting complementary flavors, and beginning to document its terms and techniques.
One of the defining characteristics of a modern French meal is that there are several courses, served slowly and in succession. This concept was introduced at Versailles by King Louis XIV. Instead of allowing the food served ‘in confusion’ as before, the Sun King encouraged the servants to bring one dish at a time. It was also during this period that silverware became commonplace.
The French Revolution was integral to the expansion of French cuisine, because it abolished the guild system. This meant anyone could now produce and sell any culinary item they wished.
Bread was a significant food source among peasants and the working class in the late 18th century, with many of the nation’s people being dependent on it. In French provinces, bread was often consumed three times a day by the people of France.
French cuisine was codified in the 20th century by Auguste Escoffier to become the modern haute cuisine – Escoffier, however, left out much of the local culinary character to be found in the regions of France and was considered difficult to execute by home cooks. Gastro-tourism and the Guide Michelin helped to acquaint people with the rich bourgeois and peasant cuisine of the French countryside starting in the 20th century. Gascon cuisine has also had great influence over the cuisine in the southwest of France. Many dishes that were once regional have proliferated in variations across the country.
Since the 1950s, French food has been refined and pared down. While the basic principles of artistry and the refinement of taste remained central, this period reduced the serving size of the meal and increased the size of the plate to serve it on as well as the number of decorations around the food. The number of courses decreased, and varied according to the meal and the occasion. For example, while a midweek lunch may consist of only three courses, a seven course meal is common on weekends.
The term nouvelle cuisine has been used many times in the history of French cuisine. The first characteristic of nouvelle cuisine was a rejection of excessive complication in cooking. Secondly, the cooking times for most fish, seafood, game birds, veal, green vegetables and pâtés was greatly reduced in an attempt to preserve the natural flavors. Steaming became an important trend. Thirdly, using the freshest possible ingredients became of paramount importance.
There are over 5,000 restaurants in Paris alone, with varying levels of prices and menus. Open at certain times of the day, and normally closed one day of the week. Patrons select items from a printed menu. Some offer regional menus, while others offer a modern style menu. By law, a ‘prix-fixe’ menu must be offered, although high-class restaurants may try to conceal the fact. Few French restaurants cater to vegetarians. The Guide Michelin rates many of the better restaurants in this category.
In November 2010, French gastronomy was added by the UNESCO to its lists of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”.