Cuisine goes hand-in-hand with French culture; rich and refined, meal times are a big event in any household with families typically spending several hours chomping and chatting around the dining table. And, for backpackers on a budget, it’s a great country to eat cheaply because of how much of how much local food and drink is produced in France . So, you can have a dose of decadence with a platter of French cheeses teamed with an exquisite glass of red wine for next to nothing in many eateries throughout the country. Food and drink in France is a true highlight of every trip!
Eating in France
France is a foodie’s paradise, a haven for the hungry hedonists, a diner’s dream. It’s not all about frog legs and snails though (but if you do visit, you should at least try the delicacy just to say you have). From cafés to bistros to luxurious Michelin starred restaurants, you’ll be overwhelmed with amount of choices available.
If you’re staying in the big cities like Paris or Marseille, the chances are you’ll be able to find something you like with all the well-known brands and high street chains adorning the street corners. But, sampling what the country has to offer food-wise is just as much an experience in itself as the sights and sounds you’ll experience on your travels, so try to avoid McDonalds and Subway if you can.
From the moment you wake up, the smell of rich coffee and freshly baked pastries waft through the air and breakfast is a time to be savoured. The French aren’t fans of eating-on-the-go with a takeaway coffee in hand (in fact it often isn’t even an option on the menu) so, take your time with a buttery croissant or chocolate eclair and wash it down with a cup of extra strong espresso. There’s no rush.
Lunchtime is often the biggest meal of the day and can include an eye popping four courses in total. Starters (hors d’oeuvre) typically consist of soups, fresh bread, cold cuts of meat or pâté. The main dishes (plat principal) vary considerably depending on area (for example, coastal towns like Brittany and Normandy specialise in seafood while Lorraine is known for its quiches). Your main course will usually be rounded off with a dessert and a varied cheese course served with a small salad or bread on the side.
Although many travellers will be tantalised by the sumptuous selection of delicious dishes, vegetarians do need to be on their guard. Vegetarianism hasn’t quite “caught on” in the same way as other countries and red meat and poultry prove to be ever popular, as well as offal which is typically found in things like pâtés and sausages. Planning and researching places to eat beforehand will ensure you’ll get a suitable option. Try to look out for “végétarien” on menus and be extra careful of simply guessing that things are vegetarian as appearances can be deceptive.
Drinking in France
Along with Spain and Italy, France consistently comes up trumps for being one of the highest rankers in the world for wine production, so it’s no shock that wine is the national drink. Pretty much any eatery will serve a diverse selection of wines which have been exclusively produced in the different regions. If you’re planning on travelling extensively through France then why not try the trademark wines of these provinces? Bordeaux is famous for its red wines, while Burgundy produces both red and white in equal measure. Provence on the other hand prizes its rosé wines while Champagne mainly produces – drum roll please – sparkling champagne!
As well as wine, stronger liquors are also widely produced (Cognac and Armagnac to name a couple) and are often enjoyed before and after certain meals. Aperitifs (appetite stimulants) are generally served before a meal and are quite light and fruity including things like fortified wine and champagne. Try pastis for an authentic apertif (a French liquorice liquor). Digestifs are normally served after your meal to supposedly aid the digestion process. You’ll find stronger liquors in them such as Cognac, Armagnac or Calvados and they aren’t for the faint hearted.
Beer isn’t as popular as wine but the country does have its fair share of breweries. You’ll find a number of well known lagers there – think Kronenbourg, for example – as well as some delicious brews from smaller breweries. Certain areas of the country are also passionate about cider, so make sure you have a taste if you get the chance.
We briefly covered coffee in the food section but it should be noted that there are some big differences from drinking coffee in France to many other places. If you choose to eat out, coffee will typically be served in espresso form meaning it comes in a teeny tiny cup with no milk. If you want to add milk then you’ll have to ask for it or look out for “café au lait” on the menu.
Also, although France’s drinking culture is more laid back than some other countries (you still have to be over 18), drink driving is a strict no go with some stringent laws. The maximum allowance is 0.5mg/ml of alcohol per litre in the blood which is the equivalent of just one small beer. Going over could result in an hefty on-the-spot fine of hundreds of euros or, in the worst case scenario, a jail term. It just isn’t worth it people!
The good thing about most eateries in France is that the service charge (usually 15%) is included in the overall bill. Plus, this charge is always included on the prices advertised on menus so you won’t get a big whopping surprise when you come to settle the funds. Leaving an additional small tip (around €1 or more) for your waiting staff is, of course, welcomed as the inclusive service charge fee on your bill often doesn’t fall in to their hands. It should be noted however that this isn’t in any way an obligation.