A Brief Introduction to French Food and Cooking

croissants
Traditional Croissants. Westend61-Getty Images

French food and cooking is generally considered the backbone or the underpinning of many cuisines across the Western World. The influence and recognition of classical French cooking techniques are legendary, and this status is precisely why French cuisine can be intimidating for a beginner to learn. 

French food leaves many cooks feeling that they have something to live up to a certain unattainable elegance and flair.

In the US that fear comes mainly from the influence of Julia Child, reputed to be the writer who brought French cooking to the country with her.  Mastering the art of French cooking (the title of Ms​. Child's famous tomes)  is considered by many to be the pinnacle of her culinary achievement.

Regional Specialties With Local Terroir

What food is prepared by the  French depends on where they live as they will usually cook and prepare dishes local to their region. This is no way means they are parochial; the French have a real sense of Terroir which is why rural French cooking alive and kicking in France. In Metropolitan  France, they are likely to sample a wide array of regional and national dishes as is true in many cities around the world where the residents are multi-cultural or different ethnicities.

Typical French foods rely heavily on local products. Fresh apples, berries, haricot verts, leeks, mushrooms, and 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 location, France has an abundance of artisan cheese and wine.

Southern France features the rich, sophisticated flavors of mushrooms and duck as well as the dramatic herbs, tomatoes, and olives borrowed from neighboring Mediterranean cuisines.

Northern France also showcases a remarkable assortment of tastes, focusing heavily on farmhouse-style specialties using apples, dairy, pork, potatoes, sausage, and beer.

A History of French Cuisine

France hasn’t always been keen on garlic, mushrooms, and truffles. Before the 15th century, seasonings and decorations were used to disguise food that had spoiled. France had what many today consider peasant food, simple fare without extravagant adornment.

In the mid-15th century, Catherine de Medici of Italy moved to France to marry the future King Henri II, bringing with her Florentine-educated cooks and a sense of creative drama and manners. In the coming years, French cuisine turned into a magical art of beautiful presentation and innovative flavors.

The 20th century brought about dramatic changes in French cuisine as well. Traditional haute cuisine (grande cuisine) is the world-renowned food made famous by its elaborate preparation and a precise presentation. It was the model of French food preparation until food critics challenged it for being too inflexible.

New cuisine (nouvelle cuisine) was a 1970s backlash to the classic heavy French cuisine. It lightened up cream sauces and focused on the true tastes using fewer ingredients.

It is evident in today’s general French cooking by flexible preparation methods and more experimentation with non-traditional flavors.

Great Facts About French Food and Cooking

  • The French eat more cheese - an average of 45 pounds per person – than any other country in the world.
  • Vichyssoise, a pureed potato soup, was invented in New York City by a French chef.
  • The croissant, a delicate, flaky French pastry, was invented in Vienna, Austria.
  • Brazil’s coffee industry originated with an adulterous affair between French Guiana’s First Lady and Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta. He came to settle a local border dispute, and he left with smuggled coffee seeds she hid in a goodbye gift.

French cuisine is a unique, cultural experience that melds flavorful, nutritious foods with beauty, leisure, and therapeutic preparation.

Making and savoring French food is an art that takes a lifetime to master, yet requires that time stands still to appreciate its splendor. Explore French cuisine: an art, a tradition -- a way of life.

Updated by Elaine Lemm