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Last updated : Nov 2009
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Food and Drink

France has a more varied and developed cuisine than any other country with possibly the exception of China. The simple, delicious cooking for which France is very famous is found in the old-fashioned bistro and restaurant.

There are two distinct styles of eating in France. One is of course gastronomy (haute cuisine), widely known and honoured as a cult with rituals, rules and taboos. It is rarely practised in daily life, mainly because of the cost and the time which must be devoted to produce it. The other is family-style cooking, often just as delicious as its celebrated counterpart.

Almost all restaurants offer two types of meal, à la carte (extensive choice for each course and more expensive) and le menu (a set meal at a fixed price with dishes selected from the full à la carte menu). At simple restaurants, the same cutlery will be used for all courses. The bill (l’addition) will not be presented until it is asked for, even if clients sit and talk for half an hour after they have finished eating. Many restaurants close for a month during the summer, and a day a week. It is always wise to check that a restaurant is open, particularly on Sunday.

Generally speaking, mealtimes in France are strictly observed. Lunch is as a rule served from 1200 hrs to 1330 hrs, dinner usually from 2000 hrs -2130 hrs, but the larger the city, the later the dining hour. Dishes include: tournedos (small steaks ringed with bacon), châteaubriand, entrecôte (rib steak) served with béarnaise (tarragon-flavoured sauce with egg base); and gigot de présalé (leg of lamb roasted or broiled) served with flageolets (light green beans) or pommes dauphines (deep-fried mashed potato puffs). Other dishes include: brochettes (combinations of cubed meat or seafood on skewers, alternating with mushrooms, onions or tomatoes); ratatouille niçoise (stew of courgettes, tomatoes and aubergines braised with garlic in olive oil), pot-au-feu (beef boiled with vegetables and served with coarse salt), and blanquette de veau (veal stew with mushrooms in a white wine/cream sauce).

In the north of France (Nord/Pas de Calais and Picardy), fish and shellfish are the star features in menus, oysters, moules (mussels), coques (cockles) and crevettes (shrimps) are extremely popular. In Picardy, duck pâtés and ficelle picarde (ham and mushroom pancake) are popular.

In the Champagne-Ardenne region, there are the hams of Rheims and sanglier (wild boar). Among the fish specialities in this area are écrevisses (crayfish) and brochets (pike). Alsace and Lorraine are the lands of choucroute (sauerkraut) and kugelhof (a special cake), quiche lorraine and tarte flambée (onion tart). Spicy and distinctive sauces are the hallmark of Breton food, and shellfish is a speciality of the region, particularly homard à l’armoricaine (lobster with cream sauce).

Lyon, the main city of the Rhône Valley, is the heartland of French cuisine, though the food is often more rich than elaborate. A speciality of this area is quenelles de brochet (pounded pike formed into sausage shapes and usually served with a rich crayfish sauce). Bordeaux rivals Lyon as gastronomic capital of France. Aquitaine cuisine (in the south west of France) is based on goosefat. A reference to ‘Périgord’ will indicate a dish containing truffles. Basque chickens are specially reared.

In the Pyrénées, especially around Toulouse, visitors will find salmon and cassoulet, a hearty dish with beans and preserved meat. General de Gaulle once asked, with a certain amount of pride, how it was possible to rule a country which produced 365 different kinds of cheese, some of the better known are Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, Reblochon and blue cheeses from Auvergne and Bresse.

Desserts include: soufflé grand-marnier, oeufs à la neige (meringues floating on custard), mille feuilles (layers of flaky pastry and custard cream); Paris-Brest (a large puff-pastry with hazelnut cream), ganache (chocolate cream biscuit); and fruit tarts and flans.

The tourist office publishes a guide to restaurants in Paris and the Île-de-France.

Wine is by far the most popular alcoholic drink in France, and the choice will vary according to region. Cheap wine (vin ordinaire) can either be very palatable or undrinkable, but there is no certain way of establishing which this is likely to be before drinking. Wines are classified into AC (Appellation Contrôlée), VDQS (Vin delimité de qualité superieure), Vin de Pays and Vin de Table.

There are several wine-producing regions in France some of the more notable are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Rhône and Champagne. In elegant restaurants, the wine list will be separate from the main menu, but in less opulent establishments will be printed on the back or along the side of the carte. The waiter will usually be glad to advise an appropriate choice. In expensive restaurants, this will be handled by a sommelier or wine steward. If in doubt, try out the house wine, this will usually be less expensive and will always be the owner’s pride.

Coffee is always served after the meal, and will always be black, in small cups, unless a café au lait (or crème) is requested. Liqueurs such as Chartreuse, Framboise and Genepi (an unusual liqueur made from an aromatic plant) are available. Many of these liqueurs, such as eau de vie and calvados (apple brandy) are very strong and should be treated with respect, particularly after a few glasses of wine. A good rule of thumb is to look around and see what the locals are drinking. Spirit measures are usually doubles unless a baby is specifically asked for.

There is also a huge variety of aperitifs available. A typically French drink is pastis, such as Ricard or Pernod. The region of Nord/Pas de Calais and Picardy does not produce wine, but brews beer and cider. Alsace is said to brew the best beer in France but fruity white wines, such as Riesling, Traminer and Sylvaner, and fine fruit liqueurs, such as Kirsch and Framboise, are also produced in this area. The wines from the Champagne region of the Montagne de Rheims district are firm and delicate (Vevenay Verzy), or full-bodied and ful-flavoured (Bouzy and Ambonnay).

The legal age for drinking alcohol in a bar/cafe is 18. Minors are allowed to go into bars if accompanied by an adult but they will not be served alcohol. Opening hours depend on the proprietor but generally bars in major towns and resorts are open throughout the day and some may still be open at 0200 hrs. Smaller towns tend to shut earlier. There are also all-night bars and cafes.


Special purchases in France include lace, crystal glass, cheeses, coffee and, of course, wines, spirits and liqueurs.

Arques, the home of Crystal D’Arques, is situated between St Omer and Calais, en route to most southern destinations. Lille, the main town of French Flanders, is known for its textiles, particularly fine lace. Most towns have fruit and vegetable markets on Saturday. Hypermarkets, enormous supermarkets which sell everything from foodstuffs and clothes to hi-fi equipment and furniture, are widespread in France. They tend to be situated just outside of town and all have parking facilities.

Shopping hours: Department stores are open Monday-Saturday 0900 hrs-1830 hrs. Some shops are closed between 1200 hrs-1430 hrs. Food shops are open 0700 hrs -1830/1930 hrs.
Some food shops (particularly bakers) are open Sunday mornings, in which case they will probably close Monday. Many shops close all day or Monday afternoon. Hypermarkets are normally open until 2100 hrs or 2200 hrs.

Special Events

For details of events and festivals throughout France, contact the French Tourist Office.

The following is a selection of special events occurring in France in 2005:
Until February 3rd Nativity, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
January 8th-9th Kandahar - Alpine Skiing World Cup
January 15th-March 8th Dunkerque Carnival
January 28th-February 5th International Film Festival.
February 12th-27th Nice Carnival
April 10th Marathon, Paris
May Jazz Under the Apple Trees (one of Normandy’s most important annual music events), Coutances
May 21st-22nd Monaco Grand Prix
June 21st Summer Solstice and Music Festivals, countrywide
July Tour de France
July 13th-14th Bastille Day Celebrations
September27th-October 10th International Festival of Theatre, Music and Literature, Limosin.
Social Conventions:

Handshaking and, more familiarly, kissing both cheeks, are the usual forms of greeting. The form of personal address is simply Monsieur or Madame without a surname and it may take time to get on first-name terms. At more formal dinners, it is the most important guest or host who gives the signal to start eating. Meal times are often a long, leisurely experience.

Casual wear is common but the French are renowned for their stylish sportswear and dress sense. Social functions, some clubs, casinos and exclusive restaurants warrant more formal attire. Evening wear is normally specified where required. Topless sunbathing is tolerated on most beaches but naturism is restricted to certain beaches and the local tourist offices will advise where these are.

Smoking is prohibited on public transport and in cinemas and theatres. Tobacconists display a red sign in the form of a double cone. A limited choice of brands can be found in restaurants and bars.


A 12 to 15% service charge is normally added to the bill in hotels, restaurants and bars, but it is customary to leave small change with the payment and more if the service has been exceptional.

Other services such as washroom attendants, beauticians, hairdressers and cinema ushers expect tips. Taxi drivers expect 10 to 15% of the meter fare.
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