Many people mistakenly think French cuisine is extremely rich and "fancy." And while some French cuisine does fit this bill, the food of France is diverse in both flavor and complexity. Regional French cuisine can range from peasant-style dishes to upscale "haute cuisine." French cuisine is many things, but boring is not one of them.
At its heart, French cuisine reflects a long tradition of treating food and cooking as a fine art to be mastered and taught to others. Provincial cooking is the backbone of French cuisine, as many gourmet recipes in haute cuisine were adapted or have evolved from provincial foods.
The regions of France best known for their unique cuisines include Ile de France, Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace-Lorraine, Touraine, Franche-Compte, Languedoc and Provence. You'll surely recognize many of these regions for the fine wines associated with them.*
Ile de France is home to Paris, where most of the country's provincial cuisines have converged to develop haute cuisine. Culinary education is of the utmost importance in Ile de France, although a true regional food identity is slightly lacking.
Normandy and Brittany are located in the north of France, bordering the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, respectively. Consequently, fresh fish and seafood are incorporated into many of their regional recipes. The most common include oysters, sole and lobster.
In addition, Normandy plentifully utilizes dairy and fresh fruit, and Camembert cheese originated nearby. Brittany is famous for its desserts and fish recipes, including those cooked in butter, wine or cream sauces.
Bordeaux widely uses truffles and locally produced Cognac and Armagnac brandies in everything from cream custards to pate de fois gras. This outstanding wine region naturally incorporates its finest in many recipes, as well.
Burgundy, another famous wine region, is famous for pairing wine with meat, such as in French bourguignonne. Dijon mustard also hails from Burgundy, and it is flavored with the juice of unripe grapes. Classic dishes such as poached snails and coq au vin are typical of traditional Burgundian cuisine.
Alsace-Lorraine is influenced by German cooking. The food in Alsace-Lorraine is hearty and filling; sauerkraut is commonly used, and goose fat is the preferred alternative to shortening. In Lorraine, food is decidedly more akin to French cuisine. The famous quiche Lorraine originated in this region, as did almond macaroons.
In Touraine, small game birds and meat frequently end up in stews. Fruits, such as prunes and grapes, are popular, and sauces incorporated red wine and fresh herbs.
Franche-Comte borders Switzerland and Italy, and dairy is king in the region. Comte and Reblochon are produced in this mountainous region, and freshwater fish abound. Wild herbs grow freely in the area and are used to flavor the cuisine.
Languedoc, which borders the Pyrenees, exhibits some Spanish influences. Popular dishes include omelets with tomatoes and green peppers, and cassoulets with white beans and numerous meats such as pork, mutton, sausage, duck or goose.
Provence neighbors Languedoc, but here Italian influences are very apparent. Garlic, olive oil and herbs are used lavishly in their recipes, such as Provencal sauce and bouillabaisse.
It's obvious, even from this brief look at regional cuisines, that the very root of French cuisine is simplicity: fresh ingredients and traditional cooking methods. Be sure to explore all the flavors France has to offer, and remember that French cuisine isn't always about extravagantly rich or expensive dishes.