What is traditional French cuisine? Our complete guide

By Sue Quinn

The cooking of France has an outstanding reputation that has evolved over many centuries.

The Romans influenced its development, as did the church, along with the cuisines of neighbouring countries Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and others in the Mediterranean.

But it was in the 19th and 20th centuries that French cookery gained a reputation for being the best in the world. This is partly thanks to renowned chefs Marie-Antoine Carême (1783-1833) and Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846 – 1935). Both culinary geniuses worked in the finest kitchens in France, cooked for royalty and wrote highly regarded books that influenced chefs around the world, and still do.

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Carême is recognised as the founder of grande cuisine, a grandiose style of cooking featuring spectacular and refined dishes, embellished with garnishes, decorations and innovative compositions. He is credited with classifying the basic sauces that form the backbone of traditional French cooking. Escoffier went on to simplify and modernise Carême’s elaborate recipes and culinary approach, making it more accessible for home cooks.

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French cuisine is so highly regarded around the world that it features on UNESCO’s list ofintangible cultural heritage. According to UNESCO, a traditional gastronomic meal in France comprises four courses: a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. In practice, however, mealtimes are often less formal.

French cuisine is not characterised by one uniform, national style of cookery; traditionally each region of France has its own distinctive dishes underpinned by local ingredients and culinary traditions. But there are many dishes considered fundamental to traditional French cuisine.

Bread is one of them, as evidenced by the profusion of boulangeries throughout the country. Distinctively long and slender baguettes, with crisp and crunchy crusts, are probably the best known and enjoyed throughout the day with every meal. But there are numerous varieties, from the thinner ficelles through to pain au levain (sourdough). Boulangeries also sell other French staples including viennoiseries, flaky pastries originally from Vienna that include classics like croissants, pains au chocolate and pains aux raisin. Both bread and viennoiseries are famously enjoyed at the French breakfast table.

For savoury courses, traditional French cuisine is renowned for its sauces, which are served with various meats, seafood, poultry and vegetables. Hot sauces, by far the most numerous, are divided into brown and white.

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Basic brown sauces comprise espagnole, demi-glace and tomato sauces, from which numerous others are derived to form the foundation of classic French dishes. These includeboeuf bourguignon,a rich stew made with beef braised in wine,andcoq au vin, a chicken and mushroom braise.

The basic white sauces are béchamel and velouté. Béchamel, made with hot seasoned and/or flavoured milk and thickened with roux (a flour and butter paste), is used in array of vegetable, egg and gratin dishes. Velouté, made with white veal or chicken stock, and also thickened with roux. As well as being a popularaccompaniment to chicken, fish and mushroom dishes, it’s used as the basis for soup. Cold sauces like mayonnaise andvinaigrette anoint many dishes.

Eggs are highly prized and used widely in traditional French cuisine. French omelettes are a stalwart of every French chef’s repertoire, and eggs also feature in salade Niçoise (tuna, green beans, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, and potatoes among other ingredients) and authentic Breton galette (a folded buckwheat pancake with an egg in the centre).

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Cheese is also a cornerstone of traditional French cuisine, enjoyed on its own as a third course, before dessert, or incorporated into cooking. Soufflés, the puffy baked egg dish, often involve deeply flavourful cheese such asComté or Gruyère. Cheese also plays a starring role infondue, the classic dish of the Savoie region in the French Alps, aligot the gooey cheesy mashed potato from the south, andtartiflettethe rib-stickingpotato gratin dish made with Reblochon cheese and smoked bacon.

Many home cooks buy in their desserts from patisseries, where the counters are brimming with the elaborate, delicate and decadent sweet treats for which French pastry chefs are famous. Classics include tarte aux fruit (open fruit tarts) andeclairs (airy choux pastry buns filled with cream and topped with icing of various flavours) through to madeleines, macarons and meringues.

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Sue Quinn

Sue Quinn is an award-winning food writer, journalist and cookbook author. Her articles and recipes regularly appear in national newspapers and magazines, including the Telegraph, The Sunday Times, the Guardian, delicious, The Washington Post and BBC Good Food magazine. She has written fourteen cookbooks on a range of topics, from Japanese and Spanish cuisine to children’s cookery and vegan food. Her latest, Cocoa: an exploration of chocolate, with recipes, was published by Quadrille in 2019 to wide acclaim. In 2018 Sue won the Guild of Food Writer’s Award for articles showcasing British food producers, and in 2016 she received the Fortnum & Mason Online Food Writer Award for her work in the Guardian and the Telegraph. Sue has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme and Woman’s Hour, and Channel 4s’ Sunday Brunch. In 2019 she was awarded a bursary from the Guild of Food Writers to research the life of British Food Writer Florence White. Trained as a journalist in her native Australia, Sue now lives by the sea in Dorset with her husband, two teenage children and a loveable hound Cookie.

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