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Northern French Cuisines

Northern French Cuisines

The Loire River has long served as a divide between northern and southern France. It runs from Nantes on the Atlantic coast to the south of Burgundy, where it veers south at Pouilly, though the French mentally continue the division line eastward to Geneva. Roughly half of France is north of the Nantes-Geneva line, including Brittany, the château country (Orléans to Tours), Normandy, Paris and the surrounding area known as Île-de-France, French Flanders, Alsace, Lorraine, Burgundy, and the Franche-Comté.

Farmers here are basically well-off. The wheat fields of the Beauce, just south of Paris, produce the finest wheat in France, Normandy is famous for its beef and cheese, and the lambs that graze near the sea in Brittany and in Picardy are among the most esteemed in France. Paris itself was once surrounded by vast gardens that supplied the capital's needs.

Beer, Gin, and Sugar Beets

Running along its most northerly perimeter and extending out to the tip of Brittany is France's longest coastline. From the English Channel to the Atlantic seaboard, fishing has always been a major industry. Herring was the dominant fish along the northeastern part of the Channel, and today salted and smoked herring are still a specialty there. French Flanders, howeverlike neighboring Belgium, with which it has strong cultural tiesdoes not spontaneously come to mind as a gastronomic haven. Coal mining was a major industry here, and those who survived the backbreaking work often sought relief in taverns and bars. Beer and hard liquor were consumed in great quantities, and a French version of gin (genièvre ) wreaked havoc on the health of those who overindulged. It is therefore no surprise that this province holds the sad record of having the highest rate of cirrhosis of the liver in France.

One can nevertheless find something positive here: nowhere else in France is there as great a variety of traditional beers, of every conceivable taste and ranging in color from rich brown to amber, blond, and white. Not surprisingly, beer is the perfect accompaniment to the hearty local cuisine, whether one of the many forms of herring, a Flemish hotpot (hochepot flamand), or a pungent Maroilles, "the most delicate of strong cheeses." A by-product of beer production, brewer's yeast, also contributes to the character of the pastries, many of which use raised doughs, such as the light and airy Flemish-style waffles (gaufres flamandes) or briochelike cakes with names like craquelin, cramique, or couquebottrom.

The North is also the largest sugar-producing region of France. It has been ever since the British navy imposed the Continental blockade at the beginning of the nineteenth century, depriving France of cane sugar from its overseas colonies and prompting Napoleon to reward anyone who could apply a newly-discovered technique for producing sugar from beets on a commercial scale. The North quickly became a center of production of the precious commodity, and it is surely no coincidence that this is the only region where people use brown sugar (called vergeoise here), not only in desserts like the sumptuous sugar tart (tarte au sucre) with its light or dark brown-sugar filling, but in savory dishes prepared à la flamande, including the local blood sausage (boudin), sweet-sour red cabbage (chou rouge), and beef stewed in beer (carbonade).

Foie Gras and Sauerkraut

Like the ties between French Flanders and Belgium, Alsace, in the northeasternmost corner of France, shares many traits with Germany, its neighbor across the Rhine. Up until the treaty of Westphalia in the mid-seventeenth century, both Alsace and adjoining Lorraine were part of Germany. In the course of ensuing wars, they went back and forth between France and Germany until the end of World War II. As a result, trade with Germany has long been an important source of income for this region, as has tourism, which has increased in the course of time.

In this land of lager beers, bretzels (pretzels), and sausageswhere white wines have names like Edelzwicker, Sylvaner, Riesling, and GewürztraminerAlsatian culture at first seems purely Germanic. Fat white Alsatian asparagus, which originated in Germany, is a springtime favorite served with slices of smoked ham and Alsatian Riesling. Even mustard is different here. Unlike the sharp Dijon-style mustard preferred elsewhere in France, the white mustard seeds used in Alsace result in a truly sweet mustard that reigns on virtually every table, as in Germany. The celebration of Saint Nicholas Day (6 December) is as important as Christmas in both places. In Alsace, it provides the occasion for making ginger-bread effigies of the good bishop and Mannala (little man), a doll-shaped cookie associated exclusively with this day.

Not everything in Alsace has a German origin, however, and Alsatians proudly assert their differences with their imposing neighbor to the east. Not only are their wines and beers lighter, but a specific repertoire of dishes and a French penchant for fine gastronomy all distinguish them from their German cousins. A favorite Alsatian specialty that does not seem to have a German equivalent is Bäckeoffe, made by marinating beef, pork, and lamb in white wine and baking them slowly for several hours with sliced potatoes and onions in a special earthenware terrine. Even sauerkraut is prepared so differently herebraised in Alsatian white wine with smoked, salted, and fresh cuts of pork and served with additional Strasbourg sausages and liver dumplingsthat Germans cross the river in droves to enjoy choucroute à l'alsacienne as a special treat.

The great cheese of Alsace is Muenster, a French-style soft, creamy cheese, albeit served with a decidedly un-French accompaniment of caraway seeds (called cumin here). Alsace is also the home of foie gras, a quintessentially French specialty that, curiously enough, appears to have been introduced by the large Jewish population that settled here. Over the centuries, the Jews perfected the art of force-feeding geese to increase the quantity of fat, to be used for cooking since pork fat was prohibited by their religion. The enlarged, buttery livers or foie gras, a by-product of this operation, had become a highly sought-after specialty by the eighteenth century. Unlike southwestern France (the site of Jewish immigration from Spain), where foie gras is most often baked simply in a terrine, the livers are traditionally baked in a pastry shell in Alsace.

Baba and Quiche

The Germanic influence is much less evident in neighboring Lorraine, where specialties more closely resemble those encountered elsewhere in France. One could name the potée lorraine, a poached salt pork and vegetable dinner very similar to the ubiquitous beef-based pot-au-feu, the macarons from Nancy, or the madeleines from Commercy. Another product specific to Lorraine, and the emblem of the region, is the mirabelle, a small yellow plum that is enjoyed eaten on its own, distilled to produce an aromatic brandy, made into preserves, or baked into a tart.

Lorraine is also the home of one the best known specialties in all of Francequiche. Mentioned as early as the sixteenth century and initially made with a simple filling of eggs and cream, it was prepared only in the region until the nineteenth century, then started to spread to the rest of country. Today the word, and the pastry, can be found around the world with a bacon-studded filling, an early-twentieth-century variant on the original, meatless filling rarely encountered today.

Like French Flanders and Alsace, Lorraine is beer-drinking country, where many pastries are made with egg-and yeast-rich doughs. The most famous of these is the baba, a light, raised cake with raisins. It is derived from a cake of the same name that was introduced in the eighteenth century by the exiled Polish king, Stanislas Leszczynsky, whose daughter, Marie, married King Louis XV of France. As Duke of Lorraine, Stanislas held court in Nancy, where local bakers adopted and perfected the baba. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, its fame had spread to Paris, where a pastry chef named Stohrer (whom many believe was from Lorraine) added the final touch of making individual babas and dousing them with rum.

Smoked Meats and Hefty Cheeses

Directly south of Lorraine is the mountainous region of Franche-Comté, sandwiched between Switzerland and Burgundy. It is a land of hilly, green pastures that produce some of the finest cheeses and meat products in all of France as well as some of the country's most unusual wines. The mountain cheeses, made from the milk of the local Montbéliard cow, range from the creamy vacherin of the Mont-d'or, encircled with a strip of spruce wood, to large, hard-pressed wheels of comté, the French version of gruyere. Every bit as fruity as its more familiar Swiss cousin, comté improves with age. Another cheese peculiar to the region is cancoillotte, made in the valleys. After skimming off all the cream to make butter, the milk is allowed to curdle naturally, the curds are dried, and the resulting metton, as it is called, is broken up and aged until it has become yellow and waxy. To make cancoillotte, a piece of metton is melted with butter and water and seasoned with garlic or caraway. Definitely an acquired taste, the creamy, pungent cancoillotte is a favorite local topping for baked or steamed potatoes, or scrambled eggs.

Unlike their treatment in most of France, meat products are traditionally smoked here, rather than simply salted and dried. This preference is related to the structure of the typical farmhouse of the area, built around a large central chimney called a tuyé. The ham from the Haut-Doubs, the sausages from the towns of Morteau and Montbéliard, and an unusual smoked beef tenderloin known as bresi to name only these feware among the finest charcuterie in France.

As for the wines, the most striking are the whites, made with a local grape variety, the savagnin. Their almost sherrylike taste is surprising at first but perfect with the charcuterie, cheeses, and cream-based dishes from the region, especially those garnished with morel and chanterelle mushrooms from the Jura mountains. The most astonishing is the "yellow wine" (vin jaune ) produced near the village of Château Chalon. Always served at room temperature, it can be aged for up to a hundred years, and its particular fruit and walnut flavors are unique.

Snails, Wine, and Aperitifs

To the west of Franche-Comté lies Burgundy. The most famous dish associated with the region, boeuf bourguignon, combines wine and beef, two of Burgundy's most valued resources. Though wine comes immediately to mind when Burgundy is mentioned, there are few vineyards in the southern part of the region where equally famous white cattle are raised on small farms near the town of Charolles. A very large breed with tender, lean meat especially well suited to grilling and roasting, Charolais beef has few rivals in France, and the breed is now raised in some seventy countries worldwide.

Driving north on the road back toward Paris, one sees multicolored tiles covering rooftops in the valley that runs through some of France's most prestigious vineyards. There are virtually no imposing estates here, and the wines take their names from the towns, the most famous of which lie along the stretch of the N7 highway between Chalon-sur-Saône and Dijon: Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault, Pommard, Aloxe-Corton, Vosne-Romanée, Vougeot. . . . Producers live in simple farmhouses and tend small plots of land, so one must know the names of the specific growers whose style one prefers. Production is small compared to Bordeaux and prices are, on the whole, higher.

For many, the food most associated with Burgundy is snails, once plentiful in the vineyards. Naturally, if they were not gathered, they feasted upon the precious grapesa sort of eat-or-be-eaten situation. Burgundians long ago chose the first option, consuming them with such gusto that the local snail is now an endangered species that can be gathered for personal use, but not marketed. The large Burgundian snail (Helix pomatia ) is harder to raise than its southern cousin the petit gris (Helix aspersa ), so the majority of the escargots de Bourgogne sold in France are shipped alive to Burgundy from such faraway places as Turkey, where they are still plentiful in the wild and do not fit into the national diet.

In the upper end of the region, Dijon is famous for several specialties. Moutarde de Dijon has been renowned throughout France since the thirteenth century and is an indispensable item in French kitchens. The hot, tangy mustard enters into the vinaigrette salad dressing familiar to all, or into sauces of all kinds (particularly those for rabbit and pork), or is served alone to accompany a wide variety of dishes: grilled meats, the homey boiled-beef dinner or pot-au-feu, and even French fries, dipped into the mustard pot for an extra "zing."

Pain d'épice, a honey-rich gingerbread loaf, can be bought in shops throughout the city. Often eaten casually in the course of the day, Dijon's pain d'épice differs from others in that it is always made with wheat flour rather than rye, more popular in the rest of the country.

Crème de cassis, a lightly alcoholic, sweet black-currant liqueur produced in Dijon since at least the eighteenth century, can be sipped on its own, or added to a glass of dry white wine (traditionally from the aligoté grape). It was in this latter form that it became enormously popular starting in the 1950s, when the mayor of Dijon routinely served the mixture at public events. As a result, it is now known by his nameKirand served as an aperitif throughout France.

Pigs' trotters and . . . Champagne!

Given the celebrity of its wine, whose bubbles are synonymous with elegance, one might believe that Champagne, directly north of Burgundy, is a region with a highly sophisticated cuisine. Nothing could be much further from the truth. Although the pain d'épice of Reims, the wine capital, has been famous for centuries and the pink ladyfingers made there (biscuit de Reims) are the ultimate in refinement, for the most part the cuisine of Champagne is hearty country fare. Particularly wellknown is the charcuterie of Troyes, most notably the andouillette, a tripe sausage served either grilled with mustard or baked with a cream-shallot-mustard sauce. Other regional favorites include the boiled-vegetable and salt-pork potée champeoise, and salade au lard, a deceptively simple dandelion salad that has become the subject of such hot debate that a local historian wrote a 150-page book comparing the merits of different versions: Should the dandelion greens be cut or left whole? Should the bacon be fatty or lean, smoked or just salted? Should the potatoes be cooked in their skins or peeled? And so forth.

Another humble but delicious specialty from Champagne is grilled pigs' trotters à la Sainte-Menehould, delightfully creamy inside and crisp on the outside. Named for the town in which they have been served for over three hundred years, the trotters are simmered for up to fifty hours in an aromatic stock, then breaded, broiled, and eatenbones and all.

Champagne also shares one very prestigious product with the Île-de-France, the region surrounding Paris immediately to the west. For hundreds of years, the northern half of Brie country belonged to the province of Champagne, with its capital at Meaux. The cheeses from the area have been famous since the fifteenth century, and when made with unpasteurized whole milk, brie de Meaux is still among the finest cheeses in France. After the French Revolution, however, Meaux was incorporated into the newly created département of the Seine-et-Marne, with its capital at Melun, which was (and still is) part of the Île-de-France. This, of course, did not stop farmers in the Marne département, to the east of the new administrative line, from continuing to make "Brie de Meaux" as they had for centuries. In 1980, when the coveted appellation contrôlée (Denomination of Protected Origin) status was awarded to the cheese, this fact was taken into account. To this day, a small proportion of the mammoth wheels of Brie that can be seen in Parisian cheese shops come from Champagne.

Feeding Paris

Along with cheeses from Brie, until very recently the Îlede-France could count on the farmland encircling Paris to come close to meeting the needs of the capital in fruits and vegetables. With the spread of suburbs since the 1960s, virtually all of the orchards and vegetable gardens have disappeared. The peaches from Montreuil and the succulent grapes from Thomery (trained against a labyrinth of sun-heated walls near Paris in order to ripen on all sides) are now a thing of the past, as are the mountains of fat white asparagus from Argenteuil that were once served at the finest tables. Nevertheless, although the great majority of the once-famous fruits and vegetables developed in the Île-de-France are now produced outside of the region, their names remain, reminding us of the past glory of the cherries from Montmorency, the champignons de Paris (button mushrooms first cultivated in the limestone quarries that tunnel under Paris), or the delicate, pale-green dried beans (flagéolets) from Chevrier.

All of this legendary produce, as well as the finest fish and meat from all around France, was sold for centuries at the equally legendary central wholesale market, les Halles, until 1969, when the demands of a constantly growing population and the paralyzing traffic jams it caused forced it outside of Paris, to Rungis. Nevertheless, the bistros that grew up around les Halles still thrive and continue to serve quintessentially Parisian dishes like steaming onion soup (gratinée), calf's head (tête de veau) with a tangy vinaigrette or highly seasoned mayonnaise (sauce gribiche), or the exquisitely simple but refined boeuf à la ficelle, beef tenderloin tied to a string, dipped for only minutes in an aromatic vegetable bouillon, served rare with the vegetables, and accompanied by coarse salt, mustard, and pickles or, for an even more refined presentation, by béarnaise sauce.

In the past, much of the produce that arrived in les Halles came from Picardy, directly north of the Île-de-France and sandwiched between Champagne on the east, Flanders on the north, and the English Channel and Normandy on the west. A rich agricultural province, Picardy's main city, Amiens, is only 137 kilometers (85 miles) from Nôtre-Dame. Parisian connoisseurs could order excellent lamb from Beauvais, duck pâtés (pâté de canard) from Amiens, eels baked in pastry (pâté d'anguille) from Abbeville in the north, and a wide variety of vegetables long before the existence of modern transportation. Artichokes from Laon, beans from Soissons, peas, and even potatoes were once important "exports," although today they can hardly compete with the same products shipped by train or truck from all over France. The small, moist macaroons from Amiens have been famous for well over a century, and few cakes can match the lightness of the Picard gâteau battu, a tall, fluted brioche shaped like a chef's hat.

Camembert and Calvados

To the west of Picardy, green pastures and half-timbered houses welcome you to Normandy. A land long famous for the quality of its butter and cream, Normandy is also a land of great cheeses, and the little town of Camembert can lay claim to producing what is arguably the most famous cheese in the entire country. Curiously, most people don't know that Camembert is a relatively recent invention, as cheeses go. Dating back to the eighteenth century, it is said to be a variant of Brie, and its popularity dates only from the nineteenth century, when railways made it possible to ship the cheese to distant markets. An authentic Camembert is made from unpasteurized whole milk and aged until its white crust is streaked with rust-colored stripes.

Those who associate Norman cooking with butter and cream are often surprised when they encounter another specialtytripes à la mode de Caen. One of the gastronomic glories of the region, the tripe is simmered for hours with carrots, onions, and condiments before a dash of calvados is added as a finishing touch. Made by distilling apple cider (apples are another product indissociable from Normandy), calvados is a popular digestive brandy (digestif) both in and outside the region. It is as common as (and generally cheaper than) cognac, although the finest old calvados can equal its more famous rival in both taste and price.

Another unusual Norman specialty is ducknot just any duck, but a special breed developed in Rouen and slaughtered by suffocation so that blood remains inside. Only this duck should be used when preparing canard à la Rouennaise. Young and tender, it is cooked and served in a complex mannerwhich involves crushing the carcass in a specially designed silver press to recover the blood and juices for the making of a sumptuous sauce.

In addition, the Normandy seacoast is historically the site of intense fishing, and many ports are associated with specific fish. Fécamp, for example, was once an important center for the fish-curing industry. Inexpensive and nonperishable, salt cod and herring were in centuries past a staple throughout Europe, particularly sought-after during Lent when meat and poultry were banned. The curing industry has now vanished, but the fresh fish remain. Other ports are known for other specialties: particularly prized are the sole from Dieppe, the shrimp and lobsters from Cherbourg, and the oysters from Etretat and Granville.

Castles in France

As one travels south toward Orléans and the Loire valley, the culinary landscape changes. After the flat, wheat-growing plains of the Beauce around Chartres, game becomes plentiful, eel stewed in red wine is a popular dish, and white asparagus is abundant every spring. In Orléans, one can sample a delicious quince paste called cotignac, already famous in the sixteenth century, and the vinegar made in the city is considered the best in France. Some 37 kilometers (23 miles) south of Orléans lies Lamotte-Beuvron, the birthplace of one France's favorite desserts. It was here, in the modest Tatin hotel run by two sisters, that the famous tarte tatin, a rich and buttery caramelized apple tart baked upside down, is said to have been invented.

Nestled in the gentle hills along the Loire River from Orléans to Tours are the extraordinary châteaus built by the kings and high nobles of France. Rabelais was a native son of Chinon, and his love of good food is no wonder in this idyllic region of excellent lamb and poultry, fruity and delicate goat cheeses from Chavignol, Sainte-Maure, and Valençay, and wonderful pork products, among which the rillettes de Tours, a creamy, spreadable pâté, has no equal. Not to mention the local wineslight, elegant reds from Chinon, Anjou, and Bourgueil, and lively whites from Vouvray, Pouilly, Quincy, and Sancerrewhich are the perfect companion to these and other delicacies of the region.

A bit farther back from the river, caves hollowed out of the chalky hillsides are used for growing button mushrooms, and as one wends one's way westward, the lambs are joined by cattle; the Pays-de-la-Loire is the largest beef-producing region of France, providing 20 percent of the total production. Poultry is first-rate, especially in the département of the Sarthe, where the capon (chapon) from Le Mans has been famous since the sixteenth century.

Bagpipes and Butter Cakes

Proceeding west, one enters the Breton peninsula, which extends far out into the Atlantic, measuring about 150 kilometers (about 95 miles) from north to south at its widest point, but only half that at its tip. It is a province inhabited by one of France's most independent-minded peoples, who have long fought to preserve their traditional language and culture, descended as they are from the Celts who fled here from Great Britain during the invasion of the Angles and Saxons starting in the fifth century. Not only are the Bretons trying to preserve their Celtic language, but they celebrate holidays and festive occasions to the sound of bagpipes, as do their Celtic cousins in the British Isles. A separatist movement would like to see this province secede from France, but most Bretons consider themselves thoroughly French and are proud to be so.

Contrary to most of France, virtually no cheese is produced here. The Bretons churn virtually all of their cream into butter which, unlike that made elsewhere in France, is preferred salted. The importance of butter is nowhere better appreciated than in the local pastries, whether in the form of cookies like the paper-thin galettes or the crumbly, shortbread-like palets, the gâteau breton (a sort of cake-sized palet), or the inimitable kouign-amann (literally, "butter cake"), in which butter and sugar are rolled and folded together in a bread dough that is baked until caramelized. Although cider is the main beverage, this is also the only French province where buttermilk (lait ribot) is drunk, more often than not with savory buckwheat pancakes (galettes de blé noir ) or sweet wheaten crêpes, both spread out to an almost transparent thinness.

Given Brittany's extensive coastline, it is no surprise that the Bretons are a legendary seafaring people. From the sixteenth century onward, countless ships have set out from Nantes, Brest, and Saint-Malo, sailing thousands of miles to fish the great cod banks of Newfoundland. Sardines and mackerel are also plentiful, and, as in Normandy, the salt-cod trade once made towns like Saint-Malo the center of constant activity. Brittany is also a favorite vacation spot for those who wish to escape the crowded beaches in the south of France. Vacationers feast on seafood, particularly shellfish; most notable are lobsters, virtually absent from every other French coast and considered superior to the American variety that lives on the other side of the Atlantic.

Benefiting more than any other part of France from the Gulf Stream, the province has for centuries been renowned for the quality of its fruits and vegetables. In recent years, it has literally been transformed by industrious farmers growing cauliflower, strawberries, and even tomatoes. One vegetable that is especially associated with the region's agriculture is the globe artichoke. Despite competition in recent years from the purple artichoke grown in Spain and southern France, Breton artichokes are still highly sought-after, and plentiful, in markets throughout the country from June to October.

Northern Riches

Living in the most populated and by far the most industrial part of the country, few inhabitants of the northern half of France have suffered the hardships of those living in the most desolate parts of the south. Farmers in the north have benefited most from the presence of Paris in its center, since the French capital has always been a vast market for goods produced here. The extensive seacoast has been the source of a thriving fishing industry from the Middle Ages until today. Northern France is a patchwork of cultures where beer and cider can be more important than wine, not only on the table but in the dishes as well, although butter and cream are universally employed here. From the rugged, foggy coasts of Brittany to the green, low-lying mountains of the Franche-Comté, this gentle France is a far cry from the sun-baked fields, the olive trees, and the snowy heights of the Pyrenees and Alps only a few hundred miles to the south.

See also Cheese; Germany, Austria, Switzerland; Italy; Mustard; Wine.


Conseil national des arts culinaires. L'Inventaire du patrimoine culinaire de la France [Inventory of the culinary patrimony of France]. Paris: Albin Michel: Nord Pas-de-Calais, 1994; Bourgogne, Franche-Comté, Pays de la Loire, Île-de-France, 1993; Bretagne, 1994; Lorraine, Alsace, 1998; Picardie, 1999; Champagne-Ardenne, 2000.

Hanicotte, Colette, Jean Froc, et al., eds. La Cuisine des terroirs: 500 recettes [Regional cuisine: 500 recipes]. Paris: Larousse, 2000.

Mary Hyman Philip Hyman

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