French cuisine has distinctive regional flavours, with the produce, climate and traditional way of life of each region influencing the dishes featured on menus across the country.
Our guide lists some of the more traditional recipes from each region, the cheeses you are likely to find on the cheese board, and the best wines.
At the end of each section we also recommend some of our favourite hotel-restaurants, places where we have enjoyed delicious meals showcasing the best of the local cuisine.
Cuisine: Given that Brittany tends to set itself apart from the rest of France, it is surprising that it does not have its own distinctive style of cooking that sets it apart from other French cuisine. The only true Breton speciality is the pancake. Crêperies are a common sight, offering an imaginative range of savoury and sweet pancakes (galettes and crêpes, respectively). The other regional dish is cotriade, a fish stew traditionally made from conger eel and the remains of the catch. Generally, Breton cuisine is simple, with little use of sauces, and features much fish and seafood. Try palourdes farcies (baked clams stuffed with garlic, herbs and shallots) or pot au feu d'homard (lobster, shrimp, scallop, mussel and oyster stew). Brittany's young lambs, raised on the salt meadows, are also very good.
Cheeses: The region's few cheeses are all made from cow's milk. Trappiste de Campénéac is mild and supple with tiny holes. Mingaux is a soft, mild cream cheese, often served with fruit or simply sprinkled with sugar.
Wines: Crisp and dry and excellent with seafood, Muscadet is still considered to be a Breton wine, even though the vineyards around Nantes now fall under the administration of the Loire. Cider is the main drink associated with Brittany, but it is inferior to Norman cider.
Cuisine: The region is renowned for its apples and dairy produce. Traditional dishes invariably feature creamy sauces laced with apples, cider or calvados, such as filet mignon de porc normande (pork tenderloin cooked with apples and onions in cider and served with caramelised apple rings). The proximity of the sea means that fish and seafood feature commonly on menus. Look out for moules à la normande (mussels in a cream and white wine sauce) and sole normande (Dover sole poached in cider and cream with shrimps). There are also some good meats. The lamb and mutton from the Cherbourg Peninsula are rated very highly, as are the andouilles from Vire (smoked and cooked pork and tripe sausage, usually served cold as a starter).
Cheeses: The brown and white Normandy cows produce the world-famous Camembert and Pont l'Evêque cheeses, as well as many others.
Wines: No wines are produced in Normandy – instead there is cider, Calvados (the 'brandy' distilled from cider), and Bénédictine (a sweet liqueur first produced by monks in Fécamp).
Nord Pas de Calais & Picardy
Cuisine: The traditional cuisine of the north tends to be quite hearty, with the forests of the Ardennes providing game such as venison and wild boar. Flemish influences are clear – it is common to come across carbonnade (beef cooked in beer with onions and spices), hochepot (stew made of beef, pork, mutton and oxtail with vegetables), caudière (seafish stew with mussels and onions) and veau flamande (veal braised with dried apricots, prunes and raisins). Despite the proximity to the sea, surprisingly little fish and seafood is found on menus inland.
Cheeses: Northern cow's milk cheeses tend to be strong and fruity with a pungent smell. Maroilles is supple and tangy with a brown rind. It is often mixed with herbs and pepper and shaped into cones to make boulette d'Avesnes, or aged and then mashed with herbs to make fromage fort de Béthune. Abbaye de Mont des Cats is pale yellow in appearance and mild-tasting.
Wines: The north produces beer (ranging from light lagers to strong ales) rather than wines. The regional spirit is Genièvre, gin flavoured with juniper berries.
Cuisine: There is no single culinary style. In the valley itself, referred to as 'the garden of France', numerous types of fruit and vegetables are grown, and fruit tarts are common – tarte tatin originated in the Loire. Freshwater fish, caught from the Loire and its tributaries, features widely on menus, particularly pike, shad and eels. These are often accompanied by beurre blanc, butter whipped up with white wine and shallots or with vinegar. Game, from the Sologne forests to the east of the region, is a common ingredient in the region's excellent charcuterie.
Cheeses: The Loire produces a good range of both cow's and goat's milk cheeses. Olivet bleu, made from cow's milk and often wrapped in plane leaves, is rich and fruity, with a blue rind. Couhé-Vérac is a square goat's cheese with a nutty taste, covered in chestnut or plane leaves.
Wines: The Loire is one of France's main wine-producing regions, and the wines produced are very diverse, including dry and semi-sweet rosés and whites, sparkling rosés and whites (eg Saumur Mousseux) which compare well with Champagne, delicious sweet whites, and excellent reds. Some of the best reds are Chinon and Bourgeuil, which both have a bouquet of raspberries and a taste of redcurrant, and Saumur-Champigny. The Vouvray white is among the finest of the Loire wines. It can be dry, semi-sweet or sparkling, though the best is the sweet. In the eastern part of the region, the wines are different, and are made from sauvignon blanc grapes. The most well known are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, which have a smoky fruitiness.
Cuisine: Champagne has no distinctive regional cuisine of its own, adopting instead dishes from neighbouring regions such as quenelles de brochet (poached pike mousses in a creamy sauce) which originated in Burgundy.
Cheeses: Most Champenois cheeses are mild and creamy. Barberey and cendré des Riceys are both soft cheeses made from skimmed milk and coated in ash. Chaorce is supple with a slightly fruity taste and a downy white rind. One strong-smelling cheese is Langres, which has a tangy taste.
Wines: Unlike most French wines, champagnes are known by their brand name rather than by the vineyard, as they are made from a blend (cuvée) of grapes from different vineyards and from different years (the exception are vintage champagnes, which are made solely from grapes of that year when the harvest is particularly good). The méthode champenoise for making champagne was invented by Dom Pérignon, a monk. Once the wine has been fermented and blended, a mix of cane sugar and yeast is added into the bottle to induce a second fermentation and produce the sparkle. It is left to mature for between one and five years, then the cork and any sediment is removed and the sweetness adjusted before being recorked and sold.
Alsace has a distinct gastronomy. Unlike other French cuisine, the German influences are very evident – choucroute
(sauerkraut) and sausages etc are common sights on menus – but Alsatian cooking is lighter and more delicate than German cooking. Pork is the most common meat, though game from the wooded Vosges Hills, pike and trout from the mountain rivers, and salmon from the Rhine, also feature. Look out for backenoffe
(marinated beef, pork and mutton stewed with onions and potatoes in wine), oie à l'alsacienne
(roasted goose stuffed with sausage and served with sauerkraut) and flammekueche
(quiche made of bacon, onions, cream cheese and cream). The plain between the Vosges and the Rhine produces lots of fruit, which is incorporated into tarts (tarte à l'alsacienne
is an open fruit or custard tart) and also added to meat dishes.
The region's most famous cheese is the strong-smelling, tangy Münster.
With the exception of Pinot Noir wines, Alsatian wines are white. Until recently they were differentiated by the grape variety used, namely Riesling (dry yet fruity, excellent with fish and choucroute), Gewurztraminer (fruity bouquet), Muscat (dry), Tokey d'Alsace, Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc, though nowadays individual vineyards also appear on labels. Alsatian beer is also very good, with Strasbourg one of the main brewing centres.
La Cour du Bailli which has its own winery and features on our Castles, Vines & Forests of Alsace walking holiday
People eat well in Burgundy and the region boasts some of the best produce and meats. The cuisine is delicate without being overly 'fussy'. Common components are pork, beef and chicken, onions, mushrooms, garlic, snails and cream (used sparingly!). Many of the traditional dishes are well known outside France, such as coq au vin
(chicken in a red wine, mushroom and onion sauce) and bœuf à la bourguignonne
(beef stewed in red wine with mushrooms and onions). Other regional specialities include marcassin farci au saucisson
(young wild boar with a sausage stuffing), escargots à la bourguignonne
(snails served with parsley and garlic butter) and meat or fish dishes en meurette
(in a red wine sauce).
Burgundy reds are world famous, and prices are high. The Côte de Nuits produces classic reds – firm wines with a deep colour – while Marsannay is the best rosé. Wines from the Côte de Beaune appellation can be red (full-bodied) or white (dry and crisp with a wonderful bouquet). Near Auxerre, Chablis is famous for its powerful dry white wine, a superb accompaniment to fish.
Le Montrachet, which feature on our Treasures of Southern Burgundy cycling holiday
For such a rural region, the cuisine of the Dordogne is surprisingly sophisticated. Two common ingredients are truffles (used in soups, sauces, pâtés, stuffing and with meats) and foie gras
(enlarged liver of goose or duck that has been force-fed on maize, which is either served by itself as a starter, or used in other dishes). Items on menus that are served à la périgourdine
are stuffed with, accompanied by or have a sauce of foie gras
and truffles. Ballottine de lièvre à la périgourdine
is hare stuffed with veal, rabbit or pork, foie gras
and truffles, and flavoured with brandy; while cassoulet périgourdin
is a stew of mutton, haricot beans, garlic sausage and goose neck stuffed with truffles and foie gras
. Food is often cooked in goose fat, giving the cuisine its own distinctive taste. Walnut oil is a common salad dressing.
Bleu de Quercy and Bleu de Causses are firm, blue-veined cow's milk cheeses with a strong taste and smell. There are numerous types of cabécous
(goat's milk cheeses) such as Cabécou de Rocamadour which is soft with a nutty taste. Picadou is Rocamadour wrapped in leaves and aged, resulting in a much stronger taste. Made from sheep's milk, Roquefort is one of the best blue cheeses.
The Bergerac reds are inferior to Bordeaux reds but good value nonetheless. The reds from Cahors are full and robust with a good longevity. The best dry whites are Bergerac sec.
Le Pont de l'Ouysse and Auberge du Vieux Port, which feature on our Paths to Rocamadour
and Villages of the Dordogne
walking holidays, respectively.
Cuisine: Auvergne being a remote and rural region, its traditional cuisine is simple and filling. Dishes often feature a combination of pork, cabbage, potatoes and cheese, such as potée auvergnate, a soup-like stew of pork and cabbage with potatoes, onions, turnips, leeks and garlic. Truffade, mashed potatoes with cheese through it that is then fried with bacon and garlic, is a common accompaniment to meat.
Cheeses: Auvergne produces a huge variety, such as bleu d'Auvergne, a sharp-tasting firm blue cheese, and Cantal or Salers cheeses, which are supple with a taste ranging from mild to nutty.
Wines: There are no AOC wines. The red Côtes d'Auvergne are light, pleasant wines, best drunk young.
Jura & Savoie
Cuisine: The Ognon and Doubs rivers, as well as the mountain lakes, provide a plentiful supply of fish, particularly salmon, and the forests are a good source of game. Fondue, and cheese in general, is common – try brochette jurassienne (pieces of cheese wrapped in ham and fried on a skewer) or escalope de veau belle comtoise (veal escalopes covered in breadcrumbs and baked with slices of ham and cheese). Other specialities include brési (cured beef in thin slices) and poulet au vin jaune (chicken and morels in a creamy sauce flavoured with the local wine).
Cheeses: Most of the Jura's cheeses are made from cow's milk and include some sharp-tasting blues, and local versions of Swiss emmental and gruyère.
Wines: The Côtes du Jura appellation includes red, rosé and white wines, plus vin jaune. Vin jaune is made from savignan grapes and the fermentation process is similar to that of sherry - it remains in the cask for 6-10 years before being bottled. The result is a golden, potent wine with a nutty bouquet. Another regional speciality is Hypocras, red wine mixed with spices and sugar.
Provençal cuisine is known for its use of herbs, olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, onions, artichokes, olives and sweet and hot peppers. Dishes prepared à la provençale
are made with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, onions, herbs and sometimes aubergine, while dishes made à la niçoise
are similar but also include olives, capers, anchovies and tarragon. Vegetables are often baked or fried in oil for dishes such as ratatouille
, or used in salads. Fish and shellfish – sardines, red mullet, tuna, monkfish, sea bass, and anchovies – are commonly found on menus, even inland, and are often accompanied by raïto
(red wine, tomato, garlic and ground walnut sauce). Other fish dishes include bouillabaisse (stew-like soup with conger eel, scorpion fish, gurnet and other fish, saffron, fennel, garlic and bitter orange peel, served with garlic mayonnaise) and soupe aux poissons
(smooth soup made from white fish and chilli and garlic mayonnaise). Slowly-cooked stews such as estouffade
are based on beef or mutton. On the Côte d'Azur, Italian influences are noticeable, with wide use of pasta, especially ravioli and cannelloni, gnocchi, and pistou
(similar to pesto).
Banon is a supple cheese made from either goat's, sheep's or cow's milk and wrapped in chestnut leaves. Picodon de Valréas is a goat's cheese with a delicate nutty taste.
Wines: There are two broad types of wines found in Provence – those of the southern Côtes du Rhône and Provençal wines. The vast majority of the Côtes du Rhône wines are red. The next category up is the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation, of which the best reds are Vinsobres, Chusclan, Cairanne and Vacqueyras, and the best white is probably Laudun. The Côtes du Ventoux produce some very good reds and rosés. The Côtes de Provence are best known for their dry, fruity rosés, while the reds of the Côtes du Lubéron have improved in recent years.
Hotel Villa Augusta, which features on our Secret Provence walking holiday
Languedoc-Roussillon & Midi-Pyrénées
Cuisine: The cuisine of south-west France is very varied, influenced by the harsher climate of the mountains and the warmth of the Mediterranean. In the south and east, olive oil, tomatoes and aubergines feature widely in dishes (foods prepared à la languedocienne are cooked with aubergines, tomatoes, wild mushrooms and garlic), while in the north and west, pork, wild mushrooms, truffles, dried beans, lentils and chestnuts are common ingredients (try cousinat, a rich chestnut and cream soup, in the Cévennes). Cassoulet is the classic Languedocien dish, a garlicky stew of haricot beans, pork and other meats depending on the area (in Toulouse goose is added, and in Carcassonne, lamb). The local lamb and mutton are very good, both often tasting of the herbs that grow in pastures where the animals graze. Despite the proximity to the Mediterranean, sea fish is only found in large quantities on menus on the coast itself; near the Spanish border you may come across dishes served in a Collioure sauce of anchovy and garlic-flavoured mayonnaise. Trout and eel are the most commonly found freshwater fish. Patisserie specialities can be found throughout the south-west.
Cheeses: As in other regions, there is a wide variety of cheeses. Try passé l'an, a hard cheese with a strong taste, or Pelardon de Cévennes, a rich goat's milk cheese.
Wines: Until the 1970s, the quality of the wines produced in the foothills of the Pyrenees was relatively poor, but efforts to improve the quality have succeeded, and the Côtes du Roussillon Villages, and in particular the Corbières reds, are now quite highly regarded. The fortified sweet wines of Banyuls are good as an apéritif or a dessert wine, as is Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling, fruity white. In the Tarn, Gaillac, to the west of Albi, produces delicious flinty white wines.
Basque cuisine is very flavoursome. Garlic, peppers, onions, tomatoes and herbs are widely used in fish and meat dishes. Regional dishes include pipérade
(scrambled eggs with peppers, ham, garlic and tomatoes) and meats such as chicken prepared à la basquaise
, which means in a spicy sauce of tomatoes and peppers. Bayonne (salt-cured) ham is eaten raw in thin slices, or cooked in stews. Chipirones
(squid cooked in its own ink) features widely on menus along the coast. A common sweet is gâteau basque
(black cherry pie).
There are numerous excellent varieties of sheep's milk cheeses (fromage de brebis
) such as Ardi-Gasna and Iraty. Made in large discs with a yellow rind, they range from mild to nutty and are typically served with blackberry jam.
The Basque Country's main wines are the reds of Irouléguy. Other wines that feature on wine lists are the light and fruity Vins de Béarn reds and rosés and the Jurançon whites. The Basques also produce a sharp-tasting cider (pittara
) and a herb liqueur (izarra
Argi Eder, Hotel Arraya and Jardins de Bakea, which feature on our Pyrenees to Atlantic walking holiday
If this guide to French cuisine has whetted your appetite, take one of our walking
holidays and sample it for yourself!