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25 responses to “Reflections on French Food and Wine”

  1. Carly Jugler

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one that hates those god awful soft cheeses.
    The strawberries sound superb! I think it takes real skill and creativity for a chef to refrain from overdressing a dish and let the ingredients shine. Especially desserts!

  2. Lou

    Try Italia :)

  3. Rebecca

    I’m with you on soft cheeses; cheddar girl here.

    You know, the only European country where I am totally wowed by the food every time is Italy, and its often such simple things as sandwiches from roadside stalls. But the food scene here in CA really is astonishingly good and so I don’t think the comparison is as great as it used to be. Plus, you know, European food in general has gotten worse. Reheated meals in lots of restaurants… you can’t go to Spain without seeing plastic paella on every street. Disappointing, but then it makes me much less Europe-sick :).

  4. michael

    i could respond here at length, but i have to run, so i’ll keep it short… my family goes to france every year for 5 weeks, and we take our eating there very, very seriously. (my wife and i both speak french, and we’ve spent years there over the course of our lives.) we plan for weeks in advance, and do a lot of intelligence work, writing friends and scouring french foodie websites. and we revisit areas repeatedly.

    much of what you say here is very true, especially about the overall level of food culture (generally very high but old-fashioned and unimaginative), and the difficulty of finding really, really good food. we always say it’s really easy to eat well in france, but exceptionally difficult to eat exceptionally well. you really, really have to know an area, a town, a restaurant, a menu. you have to talk with people. it’s all so very, very local in france.

    i know the area where you were–i lived a summer in perpignan, and we’ve a fair amount of time in aigues-mortes and the area. i love the pyrenees, but it is NOT the culinary center of france. (my vote would be haute normandie, which combines all the things i love in life, like seafood and amazing dairy…) french food is so regional. it’s funny, for instance, that you ate duck in the pyrenees. it’s fine there, but, man, if you want duck, go to perigord noir. THAT is where real canard comes from… in the area where you were, you need to eat catalonian food, which is good, but not great. snails, steak, peppers, tomatoes. lots of red wine. lamb cooked on the beach over vine trimmings. etc.

    i disagree completely with your assessment of markets. you didn’t go on the right day, or you didn’t go to the right one, or you just didn’t do it right. we eat approximately 2/3 of our meals straight from the market, cooking it at home (in our apartment kitchen). the range of cheeses, fruits, veg, prepared foods, etc. in france is WAY WAY better than any US market i’ve ever visited. i’ve lived in santa monica and chicago, where farmers market are really serious things, and even a local village market on a saturday is better than the evanston market or the santa monica market at its best.

  5. michael

    oh, and, couilloure is a lovely town, famous for its anchovies. why would you ever eat gambas there? it’s like going to alabama and eating lobster…

    eat the shrimp from the north sea and the channel… tiny little crevettes grises that are still alive when you buy them from the market in rouen.

    and, you’re right about bread in france. damnably difficult to find a good loaf. easier in NYC or LA than paris, sadly. but if you seek out a artisanal, organic bakery there, you’ll find the bread superb.

  6. jim Linton

    Hey, here we have New Orleans.

  7. Lou

    Duck gumbo. Case closed. ;)

  8. Sporting Days

    I’ve only visited France, but I did live in Italy as a student on a couple of different occasions and have visited a few times since then. I think you’re right in that the best of American food today rivals, if not surpasses, some of what you can now find in countries such as France and Italy.

    The difference to me, however, is that the high quality and diversity of food in Europe is much more accessible to the average European compared to the average American. Case in point the French markets you visited, which are accessible and affordable to the average French family. Not so the average American family. The foodies can find it here and the well-to-do can seek that food or ingredients out online or in the specialty shops or the expensive restaurants.

    I used to say that the average Italian bus driver eats better on a day-to-day basis than the average American CEO, because of the easy access to quality, fresh, well-prepared food at the local market, the local restaurant, the local food truck, etc.

    The food IQ is also higher among average Europeans. I mean the average Italian 18-year-old likes to talk about cars, sports, boys/girls, etc. — but they’ve also got a very high food IQ.

    Last point: The food and restaurants in rural French and Italian communities is often better than what you find in the cities — because of the close proximity to farms, growers, fresh ingredients, etc. The food in rural America is a train wreck.

  9. James Chavez

    Ok, just my opinion and anyone can feel free to hack into me. Why is France superior? Because you can walk into a store and buy foie gras if you want to. You are able to make that choice for yourself. In addition, when I can walk into a market anywhere in town and buy rabbit or duck hearts or duck gizzards, then we’ll be on a par with France. And when we have several (or even a few) charcuterie shops in this town, then we’ll be on some kind of equal footing. I believe that you are right about creativity in restaurants. We are not tied to tradition like in France. But many of those traditions are the reason you can walk into a market and find fresh rabbit. Sacramento and the Central Valley is one of the greatest producers of fruit and vegetables in the world. They’ve got nothing on us on that score.
    I’m still sore about the idiotic foie gras ban, in case you didn’t pick up on it!

  10. Jim G

    While I have never travelled to France and as such can’t speak to certain specifics IE: Quality of produce at the market you went to, the quality of the shrimp in Collioure, etc. However I’ve had much this same conversation with quite a few folks who have worked and eaten across the overwhelming majority of France. So I can safely say that most of your observations are very well in line with the general consensus.

    While I’ve heard that almost all the markets, except the more ‘supermarket’ type stores you were in all have amazing produce. I’m inclined to think that they are as subject to whims of farmers, mother nature, inclement weather, etc as anyone else. As such I doubt the produce is amazeballs 24/7/365. Bread, yeah the bread. I learned baking at the feet of an old mexican baker and have baked for pastry chefs working Michelin starred restaurants who could’t believe what I’ve churned out of my dink little kitchen, so I’m right there with you on the bread.

    The cured meat issue really is one of individuals and how well they are paying attention. I’ve had some absolutely amazing charcuterie smuggled in and some that I could have gone to the local Safeway and gotten as good if not better. I’m jealous regarding the duck, but I am a total duck slut and frankly going a bit stir crazy from this moronic Foie ban here in Cali, but I digress.

    In so far as the general level of and food IQ in France. Yes it’s a notch or more above that here in America, hell the general food IQ is most all of the EU is a notch above the average American. What is spot on and what I think leads to the over all ‘fair to middlin’ experience you are left with is what you experienced in most restaurants. It’s the slavish and unimaginative adherence to what has been done to death in French gastronomy for the last two hundred years. This mindless adherence is the common thread among most chefs when speaking of the over all state of French cuisine not just right now but for the last 20+ years. A desire to push past that fevered adherence is what prompted some of the top chefs working today to branch out and innovate while maintaining a solid but appropriate homage to classic technique and ideals.

    Now should you go back with a plan? Oh hell yes, plot, plan, stalk, and scout like you would a champion buck. Then go back and really hit the spots that nurture and advance and love the best of French culinary tradition.

  11. Keline

    Its is because you are American.

  12. E. Nassar

    “ambient level of food in at least the part of France we were in was considerably better than in a comparable place in the USA”

    This is really what it boils down to Hank. It’s not about comparing Esperaza to the Best of The Best in California. It’s the fact that you can much easily find a good and well prepared meal in a small town in France or Italy or Spain than in a run of the mill large city in the US.

  13. Mike M.

    Nice blog, first time here.
    The point has been made, but to elaborate the difference is in the day-to-day life people live. I’ve visited Europe many times over the last 45 years, the usual 2-3 weeks at a time. Then in 2009 I moved there for a year, to Germany. I traveled a lot, spending time in mostly Italy and France. Our apartment in Germany was typical; small kitchen, very small fridge. In the US we tend to shop for food once or twice a week, there it’s daily. I live in Montana, so our produce is not the best, except for summer, so the vegs I got there were vastly superior. But it really showed up in the meat and fish…..there is simply no comparison. And….if you want bread that has no par in the US, go to Germany. We had 5 bakeries within walking distance, each day had several varieties of brot and brotchen that even in NYC have no equal.
    And, as other comments have said, it’s regional. Pizza in Germany? Don’t bother, it’s horrid. Italy? You’ll never want to eat it anyplace else.
    Cheers,
    Mike

  14. michael

    what sporting days said… in spades. he (or she) nailed it about accessibility.

    and, adding, what you don’t get unless you spend a fair amount of time in france (and spain and italy, and maybe elsewhere, i just don’t know…): unlike america, french cooking is astonishingly local. look, france is 2/3 the size of texas, and there are literally HUNDREDS of distinct food styles (everything from charcuterie to wine to cidre to veg to seafood, not just particular dishes). you can drive an hour, say from annecy to lyon, and PASS THROUGH four or five distinctly different food zones (from alpine cooking like raclette to bouchon mama’s cooking).

    that sort of diversity is at least as important as the quality… and it doesn’t exist anywhere in the us at the same density. maybe the entirety of the US has roughly the same quantity of food cultures as all of france, but i doubt it.

    and, a word about new orleans cuisine. i love NOLa, but culinarily, it’s not extraordinary. ten years ago, it was frankly bad, and i used to mock it. now there are very good places like peche, cochon, dick and jenny’s, sylvaine, etc. (places i’ve eaten at recently). they’re all new, or newly good. but they’re good, chiefly, because they build on a heritage of cajun and creole cooking, not because they cook creole. creole/cajun cooking is gummy, fatty, and just uninteresting. i would never go (again) to commanders or other such classic classic NOLa places, because creole cooking, even when it’s done right, is only OK.

    frankly, NOLa has a good food culture, but no better than resurgent food cultures in places such as louisville and charleston… and, in no way are creole or cajun cuisines comparable to even relatively minor food cultures anywhere in france… the combined repertoire in creole/cajun cooking is maybe 5 interesting techniques, 10 interesting ingredients, and a couple dozen dishes that rise above mediocrity.

  15. TommyP

    Food aside – how did you like Carcassone? I’m kind of a nut for castles and fortified towns… and that’s one of the coolest anywhere in Europe…

    Also, did you get to meet any hunters or learn anything about hunting culture in that region? Would still love to get you to Germany one day to meet the cousins – they’re all big boar hunters…

  16. Sporting Days

    Great points on the regional diversity in Europe. That’s absolutely true and the fun of traveling even short distances within France, Italy, Spain — the next town over often has its own unique specialties and traditions when it comes to local dishes, wine, cheeses, desserts, etc.

    Longtime travelers and visitors to Europe have told me that the quality of food you find today isn’t what it once was — as there are more two-parent working families, the pace of life has picked up, more focus on careers, etc. and the food tradition has suffered a bit as a result, making it harder to find those truly exceptional meals and dining experiences that were commonplace decades ago.

  17. Joss Delage

    Hi,

    I’m French, living in Seattle. I largely agree with your take on French food. Most French people don’t cook from scratch anymore. Also, the classics (like duck confit) have been completely reverse engineered in the US. I can get a cassoulet here as good as most of those you get in the SW of France.

    Also, J’Go is a chain. I don’t know who recommended it to you, the food is mediocre. I’ve eaten in one in Toulouse and 2 in Paris, and the food is just so so.

    The food to eat in Coullioure would have been some fish soup or anything with rock fish. Gambas are horrible everywhere. Michael is right that the small grey shrimps are best, but they’re very expensive if you’re not in Bretagne, etc. we used to gather them as kids and my mom would poach them in a broth. We would then eat them on black bread, whole, with salted butter. Yum. When I was living in Paris they were only exceptionally available, at 20 Euros / 100 gram….

    Cheers,

    JD

  18. equus_peduus

    Coming into this conversation a touch late – didn’t read this post til this morning – and I have to respond. 1) I’m not a foodie like you are, so maybe I’m not a good judge. 2) I moved to Toulouse about a year ago; I grew up near San Jose, went to university and grad school in Davis, and worked somewhat east of Walnut Creek for a couple years before moving here. 3) I like going to restaurants, but don’t make a habit of it.

    I will agree with what everyone says – it’s easy and not terribly expensive to eat reasonably well here. Both the supermarkets and the actual markets (Victor Hugo, across the street from J’Go, is where we go most frequently when we don’t go to a supermarket) have a larger variety of meats, fish, cheese and often produce than I’d find where I did my shopping in CA. The overall awareness of food here is higher than in CA, which means that a lot (not all) of the food quality is higher for the same price… but I am also aware that due to pressures mentioned by others (e.g., working families), the Food Culture that defines France is becoming less central to the way of life. And for cheese, you really have to go to a good cheese shop, not the supermarket cheese section – there are really good cheese places two within a block or so of J’Go, btw. Cheese from a French supermarket is pretty decent… but good cheese from a cheese shop that knows its stuff is a revelation (IMO).

    I find it easier to cook actual food here than I did in CA. I love the variety of meats that are available – especially duck and lamb (and one day, I will get up the courage to buy a whole rabbit) – and while maybe the overall *quality* of produce maybe isn’t better here than in CA (and yes, the Sac farmer’s market is pretty amazing), there is probably more variety available here to the general masses, even those who don’t go to the markets.

    I will also agree to the restaurant comments – most of the restaurants I’ve been to have been very good, especially for the price, but not that many have been Excellent. It’s easier to get a pretty good meal for really not much money, especially lunch, around here. They tend to be relatively traditional in the style of food they prepare – but they do it pretty well. J’Go is a good restaurant – I’ve been there once – but it’s not crazy amazing. My favorite restaurant in Toulouse is a little place that competes for “favorite restaurant ever” in my view with Chez Panisse (cafe, never been downstairs). But they don’t have a website, and while it’s near some major landmarks, it’s kind of in student/university territory, so unless you know about it, you’re not likely to encounter it. But I would hazard to guess (not being the foodie you are) that even you would think it’s pretty good, and serves reasonably imaginative twists on traditional/local cuisine.

    I say, you should come back to France, and plan it around the food. Try to visit several different areas – people are right, there is a lot of regionality, and while you can probably get perfectly good Normandy food here in Toulouse, if I wanted to try really good Normandy food, I’d want to do some research, and make a trip. If I went to Sacramento or Berkeley or San Francisco without a plan to go eat Really Good Food, I wouldn’t be wowed by the food their either (but I also wouldn’t be all snooty about how I’d heard that food in SF is amazing but it just isn’t up to what I was expecting… which is pretty much what I’m reading from your post).

    I like this blog a lot, and I love that it’s a reliable place to find English-language recipes that involve things I can find to buy here (like the duck, and the various non-muscle-meat-edible-animal-parts). Keep up the good work. And come back to France with a plan in mind. :)

  19. equus_peduus

    Oh, and BTW, there is a war on… as to what town makes Real Cassoulet. The war is between Castelnaudary and Toulouse and possibly Carcassonne (depending on who you ask). Even if they’re not that far apart. Remember that it is a dish developed before things like cars that made what used to be large distances become small distances, so there is high regionality to stuff like that. And because Europeans in Europe have been around a lot longer than Europeans in America, there is a lot more local specialization and regional variations that are very place-specific.

  20. Ted

    I have a feeling that the reason Americans have generally swooned over French food is that the French maintained a lot of principles we lost in our cuisine–the usual suspects like eating local food in season. Now that it’s easy to find really amazing food in the US again, the French no longer have the tremendous culinary advantage over us that they did for so long. Maybe that’s why France didn’t wow you this time–it’s not that they aren’t good cooks, but we’ve gotten so much better. I have had some truly memorable meals in France, as much at homey places as spendier joints, but it’s good to know that we in this country do pretty durn good in the kitchen as well.

  21. Michelle

    We’ve been going to France for many years. Much of what you say is absolutely correct—especially that the good food in the U.S. has come so far in recent years (hooray!) that the French food sometimes suffers in comparison. I have to join those above who noted above that the food in the Languedoc can leave a bit to be desired (the ready availability of duck notwithstanding). In fact, a decade or so ago, I actually broke into tears after visiting both our village market and a nearby chain grocery when I realized that our month near Carcassonne with a beautiful kitchen was not going to live up to my dreams of cooking in France. All that said, there are wonderful meals to be had in France and many delightful markets, but in my experience it depends much on the region and the amount of research one does in advance. And loving those stinky cheeses helps, too.

  22. John

    I remember reading this post June and being a little vicariously disappointed about your French food experience. Now I’m vacationing in Italy for the third time in five years and I’m noticing that we in the states are rapidly closing the gap in food quality. At least in the “foodiesphere” bubble I live in in Seattle. Three years ago I was blown away, this time I’m thoroughly enjoying it but it’s not a magical food technology delivering a quality previously unknown to me. The ambient level of food is still way better here in Italy, but when I seek out the best and most notable food in both places, in US and here in Tuscanny, I gotta reiterate – the gap is closing.

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