Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide. You probably aren’t following the Tour in person this year, but let this travel advice be inspiration should you get the chance in the future.
To the Tour follower in a hurry, my advice is to start the day with a visit to a decent pâtisserie-boulangerie (a pastry shop that also sells bread) and select from the array of delicacies that in modern times have made the local bread shop an Aladdin’s cave of food treats. Unlike thirty years ago, the pâtisserie now stays open almost all day long, only closing for a few hours mid-afternoon after residents, visitors, and restaurateurs have got all the supplies they need. The shop then reopens around 17:00 (5:00 p.m.), in time to offer fresh bread and tempting cakes to accompany the evening meal. If, like me, you aren’t exactly turned on by the average petit déjeuner (breakfast), try browsing your pâtisserie window before ordering such delights as beignet de fraises (strawberry fritter), gâteau Suisse (cheesecake), or a pain aux raisins (raisin brioche).
It is still permissible in France to order a café au lait in a bar and then sit down and eat the pain au chocolat you brought in with you—as long as the bar doesn’t serve the same food. Pain au chocolat is a delicious variation on the standard croissant, rectangular in shape and filled with strips of chocolate and sometimes bits of hazelnut; it’s called a chocolatine in southern France. If it is a small lunch you are after, try one of many quiches (baked eggs and cream in a pastry shell). These days, there’s more to this style of cuisine than merely quiche lorraine, the original form of quiche, which adds ham or bacon to its base. Spinach, asparagus, leek, and even mushroom form a selection of quiches to enjoy.
Most boulangeries (bakeries) offer freshly made sandwiches as well, allowing one to speed on one’s journey with a minimum of delay; soft drinks and bottled water are always available, too. If you really want to immerse yourself into the French way of life, buy your baguette in the boulangerie, your pâté in the local charcuterie (delicatessen), and your tomatoes, salad, and pickles in an alimentation générale or épicerie (grocery store). Your fromage (cheese) should of course be bought in a fromagerie.
Of course, the real way to eat in France is as the French do, and that means taking the time each day to sit down in your chosen bistro and relax while the waiter does his job. Some of the better lunch places are actually brasseries, establishments that are a combination of an upscale bar and a restaurant, where the emphasis is on good food served quickly and with less expense than a more formal restaurant. You’ll find plenty of brasseries near railway stations, or in village centers opposite the boulodrome, that dusty patch of land used by the local men when they want to kill a few hours playing a round of boules, a game similar to lawn bowling or the Italian boccie.
A French waiter is quick to spot new clients at his tables, and before you know it he (or she, although table waiting is still very much a male-dominated affair) will be cleaning the tabletop, removing the debris from the previous tenant, and replacing the silverware. You’ll find this is done quite efficiently, and that’s because waiting tables in France is a serious profession—what the French call a métier—not a part-time job peopled by college kids earning just enough to keep themselves in cigarettes and beer.
Of course, you will have taken care to select a restaurant frequented by other people, ideally some locals, for in France that still assures one of a very decent meal. An empty restaurant is a tempting prospect for someone who wants a quicker meal, or who has had a slow service experience elsewhere. But that old adage of eating only where the locals go still stands today; break the tradition at your peril! Don’t be surprised if your chosen table still has used serviettes (napkins) and cutlery on it; those are evidence of a popular eatery, and one that doesn’t overcharge for its services.
Next step is to make friends with the waiter, who is immediately more appreciative of the latest client when his offer of an aperitif is accepted. The French hate to rush their food intake, so a good rule is to sit back and relax, let them see you’re relaxed, and let them see you plan on eating and drinking your way through a few hours of the afternoon, just as they would if they were not working. You’ll be so occupied enjoying that glass of Ricard (an anise-based drink) or white wine mixed with crème de cassis (a red, sweet, blackcurrant-flavored liqueur, also used in the aperitif kir) that you won’t have noticed the menus that have been slipped onto your table.
Again, do what the locals often do: Consider the plat du jour (daily special) before burying yourself in the contents of the menu. A good restaurant only serves good food, but the plate of the day is a personal choice of the chef, and unless he’s having a particularly bad time of it at home, the plate he recommends carries with it just a wee bit more thought and consideration than the regular dishes on the menu. Plats du jour tend to be less expensive as well.
In any case, one great way to learn more about France and its gastronomie is to throw caution to the winds and let your host call the shots, despite that habitual craving you have for steak au poivre et pommes frites (pepper steak and French fries). The same applies with the wine; the waiter knows far more than you about which wine to drink with which course, so ask him for recommendations. He’ll almost always suggest a local wine, often out of a pichet (pitcher), so unless you are eating in the extreme north of the country, go with his choice and learn. Up north they make beer, and they might offer you a glass of English wine as a way of making sure you drink their beer!
The ideal way to enjoy a day in France is to have a three-hour lunch break followed by a walk and a sieste (nap), and then stir yourself early evening for another round of eating and drinking. In reality, most of us are only capable of eating one major meal each day, so a choice has to be made between a full lunch and a feisty three- or four-course meal in the evening.
My days on the Tour offer me no such choice. I eat a chausson aux pommes, that puff pastry with an apple and cinnamon filling I mentioned earlier, just before the stage begins, and then try to hang on for dinner late in the evening, with the hope that I will be able to get a sandwich along the way during the day, or that the salle de presse—press room, that is—will have a mini-buffet of local meats and cheeses available. That’s if the journalists have left anything for the likes of us photographers to enjoy.
Almost everyone else can make the choice of when to enjoy the big meal of the day, and by and large most traveling Tour fans are likely to opt for some evening extravagance, since they are on the move all day and therefore in more need of sustenance come nighttime. French meals in the evening are no different from French meals at lunchtime, except that sometimes the plat du jour might be a heavier version of its midday offspring. I do find, though, that the service is decidedly better in the afternoons than it is in the evenings. Turn up at a decent restaurant around 9:30 p.m. and you might be refused a table, as it is deemed too late to keep the kitchen open—either the chef is too lazy to cook for you or the owner doesn’t want to pay him overtime.
Every region of France has its revered specialty—spécialité de la région—and for utmost authenticity, it is recommended that you select your specialty while in the place of origin. However, when you have chosen and enjoyed a bouillabaisse (fish soup) in its birthplace, Marseille, who’s to tell you it cannot be reordered and enjoyed with even greater passion one week later in Nice? After all, one can order a salade niçoise almost anywhere in France.
Of all the complexities the traveler in France has to cope with, it is the choice of food that commands the most debate. Typically, you can eat the finest foie gras in the Béarn region of the Pyrénées, the tastiest sausage (saucisson) in Toulouse—also the home of the celebrated beef and bean stew, cassoulet—and the finest beef in the Lyon/Dijon area, where it forms part of the popular boeuf bourguignon stew.
It is the humble cheese that carries the flag of regional pride when it comes to food.
You’d think that because fish can swim wherever they want, and because France has three distinct coastlines, no one region could lay claim to having the best seafood; everything is available everywhere. In fact, however, a general guide is to eat your mussels (moules) from the English Channel coast, your oysters (huîtres) from Arcachon or Oléron, your shellfish (crustacés) from the Brittany area, your sardines (sardines) from the Mediterranean, and your cod (cabillaud) from the Bay of Biscay. Freshwater fish like trout (truite), salmon (saumon), and perch (perche) are, of course, found wherever there is fresh water, but they are said to be especially tasty if they come from the Ardennes or Picardie.
It’s just when you’ve spent a few decades enjoying and learning these little nuances and have settled into a comfortable familiarity with their idiosyncrasies that someone tells you there’s worse to come: the identification and selection of cheese.
Some French believe it is the humble cheese that carries the flag of regional pride when it comes to food. You can buy fresh moules when in Lyon because a plane, a car, or a truck brought them in overnight, just as you can order locally produced foie gras in a Marseille restaurant serving seafood; it’s just a question of what you want to believe.
Cheese, however, carries a distinction all its own, and that is partly because there’s so much of it available that its origin carries even more importance than meat or fish or charcuterie (cured meats from the deli). Also, cheese producers tend to be small outfits that can’t easily export their products outside of the area of origin, meaning you’ll have to go to Béarn to taste its wonderful Saint-Lizier cheese. Blue cheese has fifteen known sources, from which fifteen distinct cheeses take their names—including Bleu d’Auvergne, Bleu de Gex, Bleu de Corse, and Bleu de Sassenage—as does tomme, a kind of cheese that comes mainly from Provence and the Alps.
In total there are about 365 recognized cheeses in France, with regions specializing in certain types: Bethmale from the Pyrénées, Broccio from Corsica, Echourgnac from the southwest, and Mimolette from the north around Lille (in the city itself, it is known as Boule de Lille). Most cheeses are named after their villages of origin, like wines, and just like wines they all carry a label of origin and appellation—it’s a serious affaire!
What this all tells you is that the French know a fair bit about food and wine, and it is not a place for the foreigner to have any input, other than eating and drinking in copious quantities and trying to memorize a certain dish or menu for when you get home to your own kitchen. Thoughts of eating and drinking occupy the minds of most French people for 365 days a year; work is merely a means to earn the money needed to enjoy such a level of indulgence.
Adapted from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide by Graham Watson with permission of VeloPress.