France Travel - A Cook's Tour

France Travel - A Cook's Tour

As one travels in France it is impossible not to be impressed by the sheer size and scale of the countryside, and by the ability of France to resemble her neighbors and yet remain completely French.

In the north of France, in Artois, close to the Belgian border, the villages seem curiously unstylish with few flowers or gardens. This is a beer-drinking area and the restaurants are few and far between. Further east on the German border is Alsace - Lorraine, an area famous for its pork-based charcuterie, freshwater fish and Strasbourg geese. Mirabelle plums and cherries match the light Alsatian wines such as Sylvaner and Riesling.

To the south-west of Alsace lies Burgundy, arguably the gastronomic heart of France, from where come some of the greatest French wines, such as Chablis, Cotes de Nuits, Beaune, Macon and Beaujolais. Burgundy's secure and settled countryside, with its pepper pot farm towers, produces an enormous wealth of foods - chickens from Bresse, beef and game, freshwater fish, snails and various mushrooms and edible fungi.

Provence, in the far south-east of France, has a very different culinary style and landscape. Big farms or maas and their attendant cottages make up the hamlets, with dark cypresses making the farmsteads and graveyards. The flavor of the food is Italian-influenced, with plenty of fish, garlic, black olives and olive oil, but also with the subtle herbs, such as thyme, bay and parsley, that grow wild in the countryside of the Midi and mark the food as French.

Further west along the Mediterranean coast is Languedoc, famous for dishes made with the produce of the region: fish soups from Sete and Montpellier at the coast, and, from the west, the cassoulets of Toulouse and Carcassone. Inland also there are the sheep from whose milk cheese is made, notably Roquefort. The harsh, stony land of the Garrique is perfumed with wild herbs, and the snails, rabbits and other game that live there have a particularly delicate flesh. Everywhere in the south there are vineyards. From these comes the basic French vin ordinaire which, though it may not excite the connoisseur, is very pleasant to drink.

Along the Spanish frontier in the Basque land there is a curious fusion of Spanish and French. The sports page of the local paper features a column on bullfighting. The food is full of sweet peppers, but they are cooked in lard or goose fat and one of the most famous foods of the region is the Bayonne ham, a sweet cured ham that can be eaten thinly sliced and raw or cut into thicker slices and fried.

Further north in the west of France is the wine-growing area of Bordeaux, from where come Sauternes and the great clarets such as Medoc, and also Armagnac brandy. Here, between Aquitaine and Poitou, is the Dordogne, a region of wild landscapes with steep gorges and soaring wooded heights, where every charcutier has his own confit d'oie, game pates and potted truffles.

In contrast to the Dordogne is the Loire valley with its chateaux, wide river and harmonious landscape. This is the home of the light Anjou wines, among them Muscadet and Vouvray. From the Loire valley come the freshwater fish - salmon, tench and bream - for which this region is famous.

Along the northern coast lie Brittany and Normandy with their fish and shellfish. Normandy is also a land of milk and cream and of cheeses such as Camembert and Pont l' Eveque. The cows graze in orchards of apples from which are made clear and Calvados. Normandy also has an unparalleled reputation for charcuterie.

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