It has been 11 years since my last trip to France: the culinary landscape is changing and not necessarily for the better… I had heard that the country itself is rather perturbed by the invasion of Fast Food giants and processed foods in the grocery stores. However, and thank goodness, the little independently owned neighborhood food providers still seem to thrive and can be found everywhere even amidst the larger supermarkets! There is also a movement in France pushing to preserve the “original French way” of eating, phewee 🙂
1. The very good: the bakeries! They are everywhere and in easy reach (walking distance for the most part) of homes. The morning ritual has not change much as the French pick up fresh breads and croissants first thing in the morning and again on their way home from work.
2. More on the very good: the sweet shops! OMG! The art of dessert and treats seems alive and well. You can barely walk a city block without being lured in the many, many pastry and candy stores. It is culinary art at its best! When you walk into a “pâtisserie”, the aroma will cast a spell so strong that any resolve you may have had will be dissolved in an instant! You might be able to resist the sweet smells that emanate from the front door but once inside, just forget about it and dive right in. You will loose the fight anyways!!! Pâtisseries also tend to offer a small variety of handmade chocolates, macarons and other candies but leave that experience for the boutiques who specialize in those; because of course, you will certainly find one or two on the same street. “Chocolatiers” and “Confiseries” rule the art of candy making. Even if you have just indulged on a huge pastry or on a delicate yet rich “Opera”, you will not survive two minutes into one of these specialty shops without pulling your cash out. The best part: you can take these home to enjoy later!!! Just beware of the luggage weight restriction imposed by your airline because it is easy to go bonkers in ANY of these shops!!! Should you walk in one that offers pre-packaged gummy bears and sour worms, keep going: they are not the real deal!
3. The store fronts: nothing, I mean nothing at all compares to the shop windows here in France or in most European countries for that matter. Wether it is food related or any type of mercantile, showcase windows are exquisitely composed, especially during the holiday season. You can window shop for hours 🙂
4. The all inclusive price! I love that formula!!! Menu boards abound and the prices quoted are the prices paid with taxes and service included. I also love the “menu fixe” or “menu formule” which offers a 2-4 course meal for a fixed price (like a Table d’Hôte). Often, the meal includes wine (bonus!) and more than one choice for each course. However, don’t even think of asking for substitutions!!! The French are very punctilious: flexibility, adaptability and easy-going do not seem to be part of their vocabulary :).
5. The “regional” flavour: I love that each area has its own specialty! It makes eating out an adventure every time. Of course, it is easy to find the ordinary in restaurants. Just like at home, pizzas, sandwiches and other crowd pleasers are found every where. Unadventurous palates need not to worry: you are more likely to find pizzas and steak-frites than you are to be forced into “rognons à la moutarde” or “cervelle au beurre noir”!
6. Grocery store ready-to-eat meals: wether they are freshly prepared, frozen or canned, these easy meals seem by far much better than the North American counterpart. Of course I had to go snoop in a large grocery store: my gosh, it is part of exploration 101 for me ha ha ha! And because we are not in a hotel, we have the opportunity to eat a fair bit of “home cooked” meals. Not only is it easier on the traveller’s budget, it is also a great way to experience the local way of cooking while discovering new (and not so new) and regional ingredients. Sous-vide here is amazing and really offers a great alternative to the working parents. One of the best we have had so far were braised lamb shanks in a tick red wine sauce. Lip smacking good!!! They even sell duck confit in huge cans and I have also been blown away at the grocery store foie gras selection; an entire cooler section was dedicated to foie gras in every shape and form! It is as if foie gras is as mundane here as ground beef is at home…
7. Highway rest areas: not every pit stop on the highway offers dining but the ones that do offer really decent food. The toll highways are fantastic and the rest areas plentiful. It was not like that 20 years ago… The downside of taking the highway instead of the scenic route is missing all the small and quaint villages and towns. But for long distance travelling, these highways are the bomb!!! Many offer light menu fare similar to snack bars: sandwiches (hot or cold), pastries and beverages. The bigger stops provide full service cafeterias: complete meals, usually showcasing regional flavours, are surprisingly good. We have stopped in both France and Spain and have eaten quite well in both countries. My sons once tried pre-packaged sandwiches and said that these were better than any sandwich they have had in any Canadian pit stop!
The Good is very good here in Europe! Just dig right in with abandon… Unfortunately, there is a “Bad” and an “Ugly” to follow but I suspect they will be shorter texts than this one dedicated the the “Good”, as seen by me the tourist!