Everything You Want to Know About France and More...

A to Z of French food

France is rightly famous for its gastronomy. In this A to Z of French food, we鈥檒l look at some of the most historic, classic and famous dishes of France from amuse bouche to zut alors!

France is the nation that invented the restaurant, haute cuisine and Cordon Bleu, the pique-nique, baguettes and cr猫me brul茅e. The French certainly live to eat, not eat to live.

The great American cook Julia Child once said, 鈥業n France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport鈥. She was not exaggerating. If the French are not talking about food 鈥 what they will have for lunch or dinner, prepare for guests or a celebration 鈥 they鈥檙e shopping for meals, planning to cook or eating. Food is on everyone鈥檚 lips.

Every region has its own specialities – Brittany鈥檚 buckwheat galettes, Normandy鈥檚 cider and camembert. Renowned Bordeaux cuisine includes terrines and p芒t茅s like foie gras, duck confit and wild duck p芒t茅. Provence is the home of the glamorous French Riviera, but its food is anything but ostentatious luxury; the region boasts its own distinctive rustic, homely cuisine that shows flashes of Italian influences, seen in its use of ingredients like olives, garlic, and tomatoes.

The Loire Valley has its wines and cheeses like Crottins de Chavignol and Valencay, which is shaped like a pyramid with a flat top. Why a flat top, well it鈥檚 said that when Napoleon Bonaparte was served the cheese after losing a battle in Egypt, he lopped the top off with his sword in anger! Probably not true but a great story 鈥 and maybe! Plus there are tarts and quiches from Alsace and Lorraine, strawberries from Dordogne 鈥 the list is endlessly delicious.

Amuse Bouche

So, let鈥檚 get stuck in and kick it off with an amuse bouche 鈥 the first stage of the meal in a gastronomic restaurant. Literally it means to amuse your mouth and an amuse bouche is a little taster of something that the chef has made and is offered as a sort of gift from the kitchen. It鈥檚 a bite-sized appetiser served before the entr茅e, or starter. You can鈥檛 order them, and they are given free of charge. It can be a tiny cup of soup, or a small pastry, mousse 鈥 anything really that the chef chooses.


B is for baguettes. No one knows when they became the baguette shape, we know and love today. Loaves used to be much longer, up to 8 feet long! Imagine carrying one of those under your arm on the way home.! You could pole vault over the Seine with an 8 foot loaf!

Some claim that Napoleon Bonaparte invented the modern baguette when he requested they be made to fit in the pockets of his soldiers! Baguettes are a way of life for the French, a cultural symbol though people don鈥檛 eat as many baguettes as they used to in the old days, about 6 billion baguettes are produced each year in France and 98% of French people eat bread every day!

Caf茅, cheese and croissants

C is for caf茅, who doesn鈥檛 love a little cosy French caf茅, I love the old style ones with little lace curtains at the windows, red and white check tablecloth, chalkboard menu鈥

And C is for cheese 鈥 no one knows how many cheese there are (and if you are a cheese fan, have a listen to our French cheese podcast episode).

And C is also of course for croissants. Croissants are as French as the Eiffel Tower but 鈥 are they really French?

History has it that croissants originated in Austria. There are several versions of the story and no one knows for 100% but the most accepted version is that Austria was at war with Turkey in the late 1600s, and a baker working late at night heard Turkish soldiers tunnelling under the walls of the city of Vienna and alerted the Austrian guard. They collapsed the tunnel which saved the city – and the baker in a moment of genius created a pastry in the shape of a crescent moon, the emblem of the Turkish empire. It is said that he intended that when his customers bit into the pastry, they would be symbolically devouring their enemies. He called his creation a kipfel, the German word for croissant. However, historians say that there is written evidence that the kipfel was being made as far back as the 13th century…

A later story tells that Marie-Antoinette bought the kipfel to France from her homeland of Austria. Feeling homesick, she commanded the royal bakers to make the pastry for her. Unlike the bread dough that the Austrian version was made with, the bakers used puff pastry. An unlikely story but, a legend was born…

Yet another tale, and far more likely, claims that an Austrian artillery officer named August Zang founded the “Boulangerie Viennoise” at 92, rue de Richelieu in Paris in the 1830s. He brought the recipe for kipfels with him.

In the early twentieth century, French bakers improved on the recipe by adding even more layers of deliciously buttered puff pastry, and so the croissant as we know and love it today was born. That鈥檚 so French 鈥 you can never have too much butter in French cooking!

Anyway, whoever invented these golden, buttery, flaky little moons of deliciousness 鈥 we thank you! And, if you want to eat croissants like the French 鈥 dunk them in your morning coffee for breakfast!

Dom Perignon

D is for Dom Perignon, the French monk who lived and worked in Hautvillers in Champagne and who is credited for creating Champagne! And, whisper it but but these days most historians think he was trying to get rid of the fizz in the wine and it was actually the English that invented Champagne! Ask a French person and they may concede the English invented sparkling wine but Champagne 鈥 absolutely not! The legend says that Perignon drank a glass of Champagne when he鈥 ahem鈥 first made it, and cried out 鈥淏rothers, come quick I am tasting the stars鈥 and that鈥檚 the story you should all remember! Dom Perignon is produced by champagne makers Moet et Chandon 鈥 and it鈥檚 bubbly expensive!


E is for Escargot 鈥 snails! They are much loved dish in France 鈥 with around 16,000 tons consumed each year, bout 6.5 snails for every man, woman and child 鈥 with around 60% eaten over the Christmas season. I have to say I鈥檓 not a fan, though I like the garlic butter sauce they are usually cooked in! There is a British snail farmer in my part of France who is making snail dishes like tikka marsala snails, snail sausages and smoked snails with goats cheese and fig 鈥 but with garlic butter is the classic way.

Far Breton

Now for F 鈥 which for me must be Far Breton – a rich custard and prune tart from Brittany. The word 鈥榝ar鈥 comes from the Breton 鈥渇arz forn鈥 which literally means far in the oven.聽The origin tart is said to date to the 18th century when it was dished up in a salty version and without prunes, alongside meat. But prunes were introduced for 鈥渟eafarers鈥 to take with them on long voyages because they are easily stored and provide good nutrition. Bretons recommend it with a glass of cider.

The French love their prunes – they even have聽a prune museum which has in a jar, the oldest prunes in the world apparently 鈥 now you don鈥檛 get that at the Louvre do you?!


Anyway, on to G for gateaux 鈥 cakes. That鈥檚 all I鈥檓 saying. French cakes 鈥 resistance is futile.

Saint Honor茅

H is for St Honor茅, the patron saint of French bakers, and we also have a cake named after him.

Riz Imperatrice

I is for riz Imperatrice 鈥 a rice pudding that was created for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and it鈥檚 different from a usual rice pudding as it鈥檚 made in a mould and eaten cold.

Coquille St Jacques

Coquille St Jacques 鈥 or scallops as they are called in English. When St. James (also known as St. Jacques, or Santiago) went wandering on religious pilgrimages, he took with him the shell of a sea scallop 鈥 the cuplike bottom half. If he asked for food or drink to sustain him along the way, he would only accept the small amount that fit in the shell. The scallop shell has been the symbol for him ever since. Scallops are so good and very easy to prepare. Sprinkle Espelette pepper and smoked saffron on top when you cook them, you won鈥檛 regret it.

Kouign Amman

Kouign Amman is a delicious buttery cake from Brittany, in fact it means in Breton – gateau au beurre, a butter cake. And believe it or not, the recipe was the result of pure chance! One crowded day in a bakery in Douarnenez in Finistere, there was nothing left to sell. But, in order to satisfy his customers, the baker made a cake with what he had left to hand: butter, sugar and bread dough. The Kouign-amann was born! The baker didn鈥檛 register the recipe but its reputation spread and it was made by many Breton bakers and over the years it was even more improved with more flaky folded layers. Utterly, butterly delicious! And yes Kouign Amman is hard to say 鈥 even for the French, here’s how: queen ah-mon.

Long, Long meals

For celebration meals you can expect to be sitting at the table for 5 hours 鈥 or more! It鈥檚 a French thing. It鈥檚 a family thing. It鈥檚 a mandatory thing. But quite easy to get used to鈥


Macarons, Millefeuille cake, madeleines, moules frites and Maroilles!


Now nougat isn鈥檛 French in origin, the Romans made it and they bought the recipe to Gaul and of course we French improved the recipe. The most famous nougat of France is made in Montelimar (in the Drome department) which is said to be the best in the world 鈥 even Princess Diana loved it!

Opera cake

It鈥檚 made up of three layers of Joconde almond flavoured sponge soaked in coffee syrup and topped with coffee butter cream and chocolate ganache. The top is covered with a deep dark chocolate icing. It was created in 1955 by a Paris pastry chef at the Dalloyau patisserie which has been trading since 1682 and were suppliers to the court of Versailles. The wife of the pastry chef- Cyriaque Gavillon, said the layers reminded her of the Paris Opera House, Palais Garnier – the name stuck, the Opera cake was born鈥


Patisserie shops specialise in cakes and sweet things. They love our patisseries in France! I said shops, but I should have said little paradise.

Doigt de Charles Quint

This translates as the Finger of Charles the 5th.聽 There are some days when I think I鈥檓 actually 鈥済etting鈥 France and some days when I realise I have so much to learn. In my local boulangerie they sell a cake called the Finger of Charles 5th. He was one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages and reigned as Holy Roman emperor for decades, controlling territories that spanned the globe. But it wasn鈥檛 all fun for Charlie 鈥 he suffered from painful gout. When he died one of his pinky fingertips was cut off as a religious relic (they did that in those days). The mummified morsel has been held for centuries at a monastery in a red velvet-lined box. And the cake, the 鈥渄oigt de Charles Quint鈥 cake is in honour of the great man鈥檚 pinky, a delicious sponge cake filled with red jam! It tastes a lot nicer than it sounds!

Rocamadour cheese

A goats cheese from Rocamadour, a beautiful medieval village in the Lot department. Pilgrims have been visiting the village for many centuries and hundreds of years ago they would have enjoyed this cheese. It鈥檚 made as a small round disc, weighing just over an ounce per piece and it鈥檚 one of the smallest goat cheeses made in France.


Light airy dishes, whipped into a puff of deliciousness 鈥 souffl茅s are both savoury and sweet. They鈥檝e been around for a few hundred years in one form or another but it was the first French celebrity chef Marie Antoine Careme who perfected them in the 1800s. If you鈥檝e ever seen the film Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, you鈥檒l know they can be tricky to make 鈥淭oo low; too high; too heavy; sloppy鈥 says the teacher. They should taste like you鈥檙e biting into a cloud!

Tarte Tatin

Tarte Tatin was created in the 1880’s at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, about 100 miles (160 km) south of Paris. The hotel was owned by the Tatin sisters. One of them, St茅phanie Tatin did most of the cooking. Overworked one day, she started to make a traditional apple pie but left the apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long. It was too late to start again so she tried to rescue the dish by putting the pastry base on top of the pan of apples, quickly finishing the cooking by putting the whole pan in the oven. She cleverly turned the tart upside down and served it. Her dish was a huge success with the diners – and it has never looked back.

And tartare 鈥搑aw mincemeat mixed with an egg and some spices.

Unesco listed

In recognition of the importance the French place on celebrating food and gastronomic meals –聽 French gastronomy is UNESCO-listed. It also includes things like the art of laying the table, the use of local products, rituals like the aperitif before the meal and the digestif at the end, and especially the social aspects聽 鈥 family and friends enjoying excellent cuisine. UNESCO might have accepted this only in 2010 but of course the French have known how special their cuisine is for a very long time! I鈥檝e never met anyone French who thinks that another country might have better, or not even as good, food as the French!

Vonnas, Burgundy

Vonnas is a little village and its very famous in France because of Georges Blanc 鈥 an absolutely legendary chef in France. I met him a couple of weeks ago when I was undertaking a gastronomic odyssey from Dijon to Marseille, following the route of the Vallee de la Gastronomie 鈥 a route which showcases local produce and producers. Anyway Chef Blanc has pretty much made the village a Mecca for foodies, he has a 3 Michelin star restaurant 鈥 which has a 3 month waiting list for a table, a fabulous auberge, like an old fashioned inn, it鈥檚 so beautiful, a hotel, shops and basically it鈥檚 a foodie鈥檚 fantasy destination.


And I shall leave that there because there is too much to say about French wine (French wine podcast!)

Xtremely smelly cheeses

Epoisses and Vieux Boulogne 鈥 which is officially the smelliest cheese in the world! Trust me on that.


Which is what I say when any of my French friends ask me if I鈥檇 like something to eat!

Zut alors

French Gastronomy is really amazing!

Janine Marsh is the author of聽 several internationally best-selling books about France. Her latest book How to be French聽鈥 a celebration of the French lifestyle and聽art de vivre, is out now 鈥 a look at the French way of life. Find all books on her website聽

Want more France?

Discover more fabulous destinations in France with our聽

Love France? Have a聽listen to our podcast聽鈥 everything you want to know about France and more!

All rights reserved. This article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten (including translated) or redistributed without written permission.

Scroll to Top