Southern French Cuisines

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Southern French Cuisines

Broadly speaking, southern France extends southward from the Loire River to the Mediterranean, and eastward from the Atlantic coast to the Alps along an imaginary line running from Nantes to Geneva. Numerous cultures and cuisines coexist in this vast area. Walnut oil and goose fat in the southwest give way to olive oil along the Mediterranean coast which, in turn, yields to butter in the foothills of the Alps.

Most of southern France is covered with grape vines but the wines they produce differ greatly from one another. South and east of the prestigious Bordeaux châteaus lie the vineyards that produce the earthy reds of Madiran and Cahors. Along the Mediterranean seacoast, the lighter reds and whites of Languedoc-Roussillon blend into the rosés of Provence. At their juncture, the Rhône Valley runs north, with full-bodied wines that range from the rich reds of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage to the flowery white Condrieu, a far cry from the crisp white wines of Savoy, nestled in the Alps.

Although Bordeaux on the Atlantic seaboard, Toulouse in the southwest, Marseilles in the south, and Lyons in the northern Rhone Valley all function as regional capitals in southern France, none of them acts as a center for concentrating wealth and stimulating production as Paris does in the north. On the whole, the south is more varied from both a physical and culinary point of view.

Of Oysters and Mussels and Goat Cheese Cakes

Proceeding southward along the Atlantic coast from Nantes to Bordeaux by way of La Rochelle, one encounters two provinces rarely visited by the casual tourist: Poitou and Saintonge. Grouped together into the administrative region of Poitou-Charentes, this is a transition area that shares some aspects with the north of France and some with the south. One of the most famous butters in all of France, beurre d'Echiré, is produced here and butter-based dishes are common, though they in no way resemble those made in Brittany or Normandy. One of the most popular is embeurré de choux, literally "buttered cabbage," made by crushing boiled cabbage with a fork, then stirring in a healthy amount of fresh butter. Steamed new potatoes from the Île de Ré, served with butter and sprinkled with the sea salt ( fleur de sel ) also produced on this island off La Rochelle, are another treat far more sumptuous than the simplicity of the preparation would lead one to imagine. And the local goat cheese, called cabichou, although delicious on its own, is also turned into desserts, whether the tartlike fromageau or the astonishing tourteau fromagé, with its jet black, rounded top and light, moist inside.

Curiously enough, the food most frequently associated with the Charentes is the snail, so much so that people here are called les cagouilles (snails). They like their snailsnot the large Burgundian snail but the smaller, southwestern petit gris grilled over an open fire or simmered in red wine. Mussels, too, are popular, particularly when transformed into mouclade, that is, opened over the heat with a little white wine, then finished with cream (and occasionally a pinch of curry powder!). Oysters from the Arcachon basin (huîtres de Marennes ), both sought after and plentiful, are preferred raw on the half-shell here with an accompaniment of grilled sausages and a glass of white wine.

From Lamprey Eels to Foie Gras

South of the Charentes is Bordeaux. The wine capital of France, this city is also a major port with numerous links to the sea. Given its location on the estuary of the Gironde River, it is perhaps not surprising that the most emblematic fish of the region are estuary fish: shad, lamprey eel, and sturgeon. The first two swim in from the sea and up the Gironde in the spring and are highly prized by local gourmets who relish grilled shad with a sorrel sauce (alose à l'oseille ) and prefer their lampreys in a red wine sauce thickened with the fish's own blood (lamproie à la bordelaise ). In centuries past, however, the sturgeon was the king of fish, not only around Bordeaux but on aristocratic tables throughout France, where it reigned supreme until the end of the sixteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the French had also discovered the joys of caviar, which so decimated the wild Atlantic sturgeon population that, since 1982, its fishing has been banned. In recent years, however, a slightly smaller species has been successfully farmed, permitting the curious to once again sample sturgeon and caviar from the Gironde.

South of Bordeaux a once treeless expanse known as the Landes stretches down the coast almost to Spain. Planted with pines over a century ago, it is still sparsely populated but attracts tourists in search of a pleasant beachfront with inexpensive holiday accommodations. In the Landes, and extending inland for many miles, geese and ducks have brought fortune and fame to farmers for centuries. Force-fed until their livers swell to enormous size, they are then sacrificed, producing foie gras, a luxury product highly sought after both in and outside the region.

Although foie gras is indisputably a French specialty today, it was probably introduced into the southwest by Spanish Jews fleeing religious persecution in the seventeenth century. They had perfected the art of force-feeding geese as a means of obtaining a ready supply of cooking fat (pork fat being prohibited by their religion), much as northern European Jews introduced foie gras into Alsace (see Northern French Cuisines). Today, goose foie gras is produced on a very small scale, but fattened duck livers are a major cottage industry. Easier to handle than geese and demanding a much shorter fattening period, the plump ducks also provide locals with two other highly prized specialties: duck steaks (magret de canard ) and preserved duck (confit de canard ). The thick steaks, made from the meaty breasts of the fattened ducks, started becoming popular in the 1970s when local restaurateurs began putting them on their menu. Previously they were salted, then simmered in a cauldron of fat until completely tender, like the rest of the bird, to make confit, which could be kept for several months packed in their cooking fat in large stoneware jars. Today, this ancient technique is carried one step further, and the confit is subject to a second preserving process by being sterilized and canned. Jars of confit can be kept on a kitchen shelf for many more months than the traditional preserve and are sold at roadside stands all year round.

The area northeast of the Landes, Périgord, produces perhaps the most expensive delicacy in all of France: black truffles. Specially trained dogs and pigs smell their location in the ground since, to this day, no one has found a way to successfully cultivate the elusive subterranean mushrooms, which explains their high price and scarcity even in France. Thinly sliced and barely warmed, truffles can be used to garnish many dishes. They are frequently served with foie gras or poultry although many people maintain that they are best with very simple foodssteamed potatoes with butter and salt, or creamy scrambled eggs, for exampleor on their own, wrapped in waxed paper and buried in the embers until the truffle has been warmed through.

Although truffles are in season from December to March, they are in such high demand during the holiday season that patient gourmets wait to purchase them until after 15 January when prices drop to more "reasonable" levels. Like foie gras, canned truffles also form a lucrative part of the preserving industry, but neither of these exceptional foods survives the canning process unscathed. Though they are exported in this form around the world, they are in no way comparable to their fresh counterparts, which are rarely available outside of France.

Nations within a Nation: The Basque Country and French Catalonia

Although only 500 miles (800 kilometers) separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea, the culinary traditions that straddle the Pyrenees Mountains along these two seaboards are as different from each other as the people who created them. On the Atlantic coast is the Basque country that extends roughly from Bayonne to Bilbao. Much like the Bretons in the North, the fiercely nationalistic Basques have long demanded independence from both France and Spain and struggle to keep their native customs and unique language alive on both sides of the mountains. They are proud of their "differentness," which is reflected in their cuisine. Unlike almost any other in France, Basque cookery is marked by a preference for spicy tastes. A special variety of chili pepper grown near the town of Espelette is particularly sought after and used in preparing piperade, a spicy tomato stew, most often stirred into scrambled eggs and garnished with a slice of Bayonne ham, or served next to the ham with a fried egg on top. Inveterate fishermen, the Basques were among the first to exploit the great cod banks of Newfoundland in the sixteenth century, and their love of fish is expressed in dishes like ttoro, a fish stew, stuffed squid (encornets farcis ), or sweet red piquillo peppers stuffed with a creamy codfish purée. Irouleguy wine is a perfect accompaniment to all these delicacies, unless one prefers to taste the local sparkling cider (sagarnoa in Basque), another specialty of this most remarkable corner of France. And to finish the meal in a typically unusual way, Basques like to serve their famous Ossau-Iraty sheep's cheese ( fromage de brebis des Pyrénées ), with orange marmalade or black cherry jam from the village of Itxassou and a glass of sweet Jurançon wine from the neighboring Béarn region just to the east.

Another product that arrived from the Americas four centuries ago and took hold in the traditional cuisines of the French southwest along with the chili pepper and its relatives is corn (maize). Originally a replacement for the once popular millet, ground cornmeal is used principally to make a bread ( pain de maïs or mesture ), and a thick porridge known variously as cruchade, escauton, or millas, eaten hot as a garnish with any number of stews or allowed to cool, cut into slices, pan fried in butter, and sprinkled with sugar for dessert. Cornmeal quickly became a staple in the peasant diet, and the grain had the added advantage of fattening both ducks and geese much more efficiently than native European cereals.

At the other end of the Pyrenees facing the Mediterranean is another community that takes great pains to preserve its proud traditions. Catalonia, a powerful nation during the Middle Ages, straddles the border between France and Spain, roughly from Perpignan to Tortosa, south of Barcelona on the Costa Brava. The Catalan language is still spoken on both sides of the Pyrenees, and Catalan nationalists have long argued that the two provinces should be united again to make an independent border state. Much of Catalonia hugs the Mediterranean and it comes as no surprise to find that the people excel in preparing seafood dishes of all kinds, among which are the bullinada (a fish soup similar to bouillabaisse), the llagostada made with spiny lobster (langouste ), or the pinyata from Collioure, which includes everything from octopus, shellfish, and eels to red mullet cooked in a tomato sauce. Fresh anchovies, sardines, and tuna are also used to create many a Catalan dish but for centuries, the tiny village of Collioure, nestled near the Spanish border between the foot of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean sea, has made a specialty of salting them. Used as condiments, or eaten alone, the salted anchovies (anchois de Collioure ) are especially esteemed and used extensively in Catalan cooking. Unfortunately, they have become a rarity, and canned or salted anchovies from North Africa tend to take their place.

Fish are not the only strong point of Catalan cooking. It also boasts a wide range of pork products including an air-dried prosciutto-like ham called gambajo, and sausages (embotits ) of all kinds that fall generally into two categories: boutifarra, or blood sausages, and llonganissa, long pork sausages that can be either fresh ( fresca ) or dried (seca ). And no meal would be truly complete without touron, the multifaceted Catalan sweet that can be anything from white and creamy to crunchy and dark (with lots of almonds or pistachios), or a glass of one of the naturally sweet wines from Rivesaltes and Banyuls, either at the start of the meal or to accompany dessert.

Cassoulet, Clafoutis, and Cantal

North of the Pyrenees and east of the Landes is a vast expanse that continues the southwestern traditions of foie gras and confit, and where a third American "immigrant," the white kidney bean, has become the basis of yet another emblematic preparation, cassoulet, traditionally cooked and served in a large earthenware bowl known as a cassole hence its name. As with most legendary dishes, the number of recipes is countless, but two towns claim to have invented it: Castelnaudary, where the beans are cooked only with pork products, and Toulouse, where lamb is added. Both include at least one kind of sausage and generally duck or goose confit as well. Although most people consider that the original cassoulet was that of Castelnaudary, each has its partisans who religiously defend their local version as the only "authentic" one.

Extending north of Toulouse, toward Limoges, are some of the finest orchards in France, producing the inimitable, plump prunes ( pruneaux ) of Agen, the sweet white grapes (chasselas ) and greengage plums ( prunes Reine claude ) of Moissac, and the walnuts and melons of Quercy. And although the Limousin has long been one of the most destitute regions in the entire country, it can nevertheless lay claim to producing not only some of the finest china in the world but beef, veal, lamb, and pork that are among the best in all of France. In centuries past, the impoverished peasants lived principally on a diet of chestnuts and a large variety of turnip called the rave du Limousin, one of the vegetables that is still a must in a true potée limousine, a one-pot boiled salt-pork and vegetable dinner. Another essential potée ingredient is the mique or farcidure, a dumpling (either plain or flavored with various leaf vegetables or herbs) originally made of millet flour, then corn flour, but more often today with wheat flour, which has become more widely available in the last half century or so. And no potée limousine would be complete without its accompaniment of moutarde violette, purple mustard from Brive-la-Gaillarde, which gets its color from the grape must with which it is still made.

By far the most famous of the specialties from this region is clafoutis, a Limousine cherry flan that has become a favorite all over France. But beware! In order to preserve the intense flavor of the black cherries and keep them from losing their juice, the people of the Limousin are adamant that the fruits must be baked with their pits!

To the east of the Limousin, in a vast, mountainous area called the Massif Central, lies the Auvergne, another very poor region where the peasants once survived on a diet of chestnuts, dairy products, and black rye bread baked into mammoth, round loaves. Nevertheless, it is a region that can be proud of its gastronomic heritage. Clermont-Ferrand has been famous for its fruit jellies ( pâtes de fruit ) since the sixteenth century, especially those made with apricots that were unequalled even in Paris, according to one early traveler. The sausages and hams made from chestnut-fed pigs and dried in the cool mountain air are sought after nationwide, as are the tiny green lentils from Le-Puy-en-Velay, considered to be distinctive enough to have been awarded the coveted AOC status (Appellation d'origine contrôlée ) usually reserved for fine wines and cheeses. The lentilles vertes du Puy were so famous by the end of the eighteenth century that they were not only shipped all over southern France but as far as Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Nevertheless, Auvergne's claim to fame, as well as that of the neighboring Rouergue, immediately to the south, is undoubtedly the quality of its cheeses. Most of them are made from cow's milk; among them are bleu d'Auvergne, tender Saint Nectaire, and Cantal, a large, thick cylindrical cheese whose taste ranges from buttery to pungent, depending on its age. When very young, it is used in cooking, often with potatoes in dishes like the crusty truffade or the creamy aligot that, when properly made, forms a rope when the spoon is lifted out of the pot and must be cut with scissors to be served!

Cantal is made over a large area, with famous variants from Salers in the Auvergne, made from the milk of mahogany-colored cows of the same name, and from Laguiole (pronounced lye-ole), made from the milk of the Aubrac breed of cow in the area around Rodez in the Aveyron département. But the most celebrated cheese of this area is made from ewe's milk in and around the little town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon near Millau, southeast of Rodez. In the course of fermentation, the cheese is strewn with crumbs of moldy rye bread, creating the greenish-blue pockets that give Roquefort cheese its distinctive look and taste.

Olives, Olive Oil, and Honey

Continuing south from Roquefort toward the Mediterranean coast, one passes through almond, apricot, and peach orchards, leaving the domain of lard, goose fat, and walnut oil and entering the realm where the olive reigns supreme. All along the crescent that forms the French Mediterranean coast, olive trees abound. Introduced by the Greeks, olives and olive oil have had a checkered history in Languedoc and Provence. Although the best oil has always been a valuable export, in the not so distant past, inferior oil was burned in oil lamps. Even to this day, a green soap known as Savon de Marseilles is made from low-grade oils of the region.

Gastronomically speaking, the olives and olive oils of southern France are as varied as wines, as are their uses. At the western end, the inhabitants of Languedoc-Roussillon are partial to the slender, delicate green picholine and the darker green, crescent-shaped lucque with its almost lemony flavor; in the east, although the wrinkled brown olives from Nyons, in the southern Rhône Valley, have gained national renown, the people from Nice remain faithful to the tiny black olives produced in the hills rising up behind that city's famous pebble beaches. In between, the number of varieties and the ways of preparing them are countless, as are the flavors of black or green tapenade, an olive paste spread on toast as an appetizer.

Among the oils of southern France, those made in the Valley of Baux-de-Provence north of Arles, in Aixen-Provence, in Nyons, and in Nice are the most sought after today. However, because oils can vary widely in taste depending on the variety of olive used and whether the fruits are pressed green or ripe, it is best to sample as many as possible since some go best with steamed vegetables, others with fish, and yet others are better adapted to making sauces, according to personal taste. In this part of the country, not only is olive oil ubiquitous in the preparation of savory dishes, it even enters into traditional pastries such as the fougassette, pompe à l'huile, or gibassié, an enriched hearth bread lightly flavored with orange-flower water that is the most substantial of the thirteen desserts served at a traditional Provençal Christmas banquet, or gros souper de Noël (the others being walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, white nougat, black nougat, figs, raisins, dried apricots, peaches, apples or pears, fresh mandarin oranges or clementines, a special melon called a verdau, and finally, either calissons d'Aix or fruit jellies from Apt).

Another southern product with extraordinary diversity is honey, which comes in as many flavors as there are aromatic flowers for the bees to gather pollen from: rosemary, thyme, and lavender from the plains, chestnut, heather, and any number of scrub plants from the hills. Of all these honeys, the most famous historically is that of Narbonne, a small town at the west end of the Mediterranean north of Perpignan, renowned for its incomparable rosemary honey (miel de Narbonne ) since at least the twelfth century.

From Nîmes to Bastia

The image of Provençal cooking as based on olive oil, tomatoes, and garlic is a much abused stereotype. For centuries lard was the dominant fat in the southern French kitchen, olive oil being reserved for the many meatless days imposed by the Roman Catholic Church (which explains at least in part its lingering presence in festive pastries). Although garlic has been around since the Middle Ages, tomatoes, now the pride of the region, were not used on a wide scale until the end of the eighteenth century. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find famous southern dishes that use no tomatoes. A particularly striking case in point is brandade de morue, a creamy purée of salt cod from Nîmes flavored with just a hint of garlic and into which warm olive oil and milk have been beaten. Another example is daube de búuf, an aromatic beef stew from Nice in which the bouquet garni always contains a piece of orange peel. Indeed, a great many of the traditional specialties sold in the street markets of Nice and other Provençal cities have not a hint of tomato: socca, a large, thin pancake made of chickpea flour; pissaladière, an onion-anchovy pizzalike tart with black olives; sardines, either grilled or stuffed with spinach. Among the desserts, one of the most astonishing is the tourte de blettes from Nice, a sweet tart filled with Swiss chard greens or spinach studded with pine nuts and raisins. And although vanilla, another newcomer from the Americas, is now a ubiquitous flavoring in pastries all over France, traditional cakes and cookies throughout the southfougassette, navette, gimblette d'Albi, or the spectacular gâteau à la broche (baked on a spit), to name only those fewhave remained faithful to lemon peel and orange-flower water, firmly entrenched here for centuries.

A rapid survey of French Mediterranean cooking would not be complete without a visit to Corsica, home of one of the most colorful figures in French history, Napoleon Bonaparte. Nicknamed l'Îde beauté (the isle of beauty), Corsica became part of France only in 1768, after a forty-year struggle for independence from a thousand years of Italian domination. The local language and products are still heavily impregnated with their Italian heritage, yet maintain their differences. The Italian origin of pork products with names such as coppa, prisuttu,and salamu is clear, but the excellent quality of the semi-wild Corsican pigs, fattened on the chestnuts and acorns of the island's extensive forests (le maquis ), sets them quite apartto say nothing of the inimitable ficatellu, a pungent liver-based sausage, grilled when fresh, sliced like salami when dried. The Corsicans themselves subsisted for centuries on chestnuts, and chestnut flour is still used in many local specialties like nicci (thin crepes) or castagnacciu (chestnut cake). But perhaps the most emblematic products of the Isle of Beauty are cabri, baby goat, the high point of every festive occasion, and brocciu, the "national cheese of Corsica," made from the whey left over from the fabrication of other cheeses. Although it may be consumed as is, fresh or aged, brocciu often enters into desserts, whether fritters ( fritelle ), turnovers ( pastelle ), or the king of Corsican cheesecakes, fiadone.

The Northeast and Lyons

Just north of Nice the Alps begin, extending all the way to Geneva. The olive groves blend progressively into a land of pasture, cows, and butter. Cow's milk cheeses such as the orange-crusted Reblochon, the creamy Vacherin, or the gruyerelike Beaufort are the pride of the region. Rich potato dishes abound, the most famous being the gratin dauphinois, from around Grenoble, where thinly sliced potatoes are baked in cream until brown. To put cheese on top is considered heresy here (but typical of the Savoyard version of the dish made high in the Alps to the north). Another specialty associated all over France with Grenoble is walnuts. The large tender nuts, shipped in their shells throughout the country during the fall and winter seasons, are considered so specific to the area that they have been accorded their own prestigious AOC.

A small pocket of flat land lying roughly halfway between the Alps and the Rhone Valley prides itself on another unique AOC. Called Bresse, this area is familiar to all French gourmets as being the part of the country where the best chickens are raised. The white-feathered, blue-footed poulet de Bresse can sell for three to four times the price of other free-range birds. Served in the finest restaurants around the country, it is the only bird to have been awarded AOC status. Once a year the finest specimens are displayed to compete for blue ribbons in Bourgen-Bresse. Capons and pullets are specially fattened, slaughtered, and wrapped tightly in linen to press the wings and legs into the fat, producing a smooth torpedo shape. The slightest flaw, a bruise or tear in the translucent skin, immediately eliminates the bird. The prize winners bring not only prestige but also considerable income to their owners since they are sold at a premium at the conclusion of the fair.

About forty miles (sixty kilometers) southwest of Bresse is Lyons, which prides itself on being "the gastronomic capital of France." Lyonnaise cuisine is very hearty, with a penchant for extremities, innards, sausages, and lots of onions. Small restaurants, called bouchons, perpetuate local traditions and serve such typically Lyonnaise fare as sheep's trotters salad (salade de pieds de mouton ), crunchy, pan-fried smooth tripe (tablier de sapeur ), honeycomb tripe sauteed with onions ( gras-double à la lyonnaise ), pork sausage with potatoes (saucisson lyonnais, pommes à l'huile ), as well as more refined dishes like pike dumplings with crayfish sauce (quenelles de brochet, sauce nantua ), or a creamy cheese mixture laced with herbs and a little white wine called cervelle des canuts.

The French Paradox

Each part of France has its own culinary traditions. France's temperate climate, varied topography, different soils, and multiple coastlines combine to make it one of the richest agricultural countries in Europe. Nonetheless, like most industrial countries today, France's culinary landscape is changing. Although some foods like the wind-dried cod (stockfish) still favored in isolated communities in south-central France and in Nice rarely travel far from home, many that were once reserved for festive occasions are now consumed on a daily basis while others, once hardly eaten outside their place of origin, like confit de canard, are now readily available in shops and restaurants throughout the country.

The wide variety of French regional cuisines bears witness to the longevity of local cultural traditionsas well as of the country's inhabitants: France enjoys the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease in Europe (ahead of Portugal, Spain, and Italy) and, curiously enough, it is precisely in the southwest of French, the land of foie gras and confit de canard, that people enjoy the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease in the industrialized world outside of Japan. The famous French paradox. What is the secret? Nobody knows for sure, but goose and duck fat, garlic, and tannic red winesthe staples of the local diet along with a wide variety of fruits and vegetablesare all known to produce substances that protect the heart. Beyond that, the sheer beauty of a French open-air market with its multiplicity of fresh foodstuffs of every possible color and smell, and the enjoyment of savoring them at a leisurely meal with a glass of wine and good company, may provide part of the answer.

See also Cheese; Fish; Iberian Peninsula; Wine .


Froc, J., Mary Hyman, and Philip Hyman, eds. Inventaire du patrimoine culinaire de la France. Paris: Michel Albin (Conseil national des arts culinaires). Volumes on Poitou-Charentes, 1994; Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Rhône-Alpes, 1995; Corse, Midi-Pyrénées, 1996; Aquitaine, 1997; Languedoc-Roussillon, Limousin, 1998.

Hanicotte, Colette, and Jean Froc, et al. La cuisine des terroirs. Paris: Larousse, 2000.

Stouff, Louis. Ravitaillement et alimentation en Provence aux XIV et XV e siècles. Paris: Mouton and Co., 1970.

Mary HymanPhilip Hyman

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Southern French Cuisines

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Southern French Cuisines