French Food Culture
On today’s episode Annie and Elyse have a good time talking about French food, food culture in France, and the way French people eat at home.
We also talk frankly about difficulties that people with special diets may encounter in France, particularly those who are vegetarian/vegan or have food allergies.
French people are quite set in their ways when it comes to food. What does that mean for visitors?
Can you listen to the whole thing without wishing for a lovely French meal? If you can, we didn’t do this right!
Would you like to tour France with Annie and Elyse? Visit Addicted to France to choose an upcoming tour.
- Ready to go to France? Ready-to-eat French Food?
- If I Say Let’s Have French Food, What Do You Think About?
- What Percentage of the Monthly Budget Do French People Spend on Food?
- Food is NOT cheap in France
- What Do French People Have for Breakfast?
- Breakfast at a French Hotel
- Breakfast on Sunday in France
- Biscottes, It’s a French Thing
- French Adults Often Have a Tiny Breakfast
- Why Are French People Skinny?
- Meals Are Served at Set Times in France
- Lunch in France
- When It’s Meal Time French People Eat a LOT!
- French People Are Choosy About What They Eat
- Where Do French People Buy Their Food?
- French People LOVE Yogurt and Cheese
- Bread in France
- French People Want to Know Where Their Food Comes From
- Wine Drinking in France
- Vegetarians in France
- Older French People Don’t Think of Wine as Alcohol
- French People Are Not Adventurous When It Comes to Food
- The Only “Ethnic” Food You Will Find Everywhere in France is North African
- French People Will Tell You What You Should and Shouldn’t Eat
- France Is Tough for Vegans and People Who Suffer from Food Allergies
- Smoking in Restaurants in France
- Halal and Kosher Food in France
- French Regional Food
- Do French People Really Eat Frog’s Legs and Escargots?
- Foie Gras Is Not Controversial in France
- French People Eat a Lot of Oysters on the Half-Shell
- “Lait Cru” Cheeses (Made with Unpasturized Milk) Are Common in France
- For more on French food, listen to our other episodes on Cheese, Pastries of Southern France and Pastries of Northern France, Chocolate and Macarons, and all the episodes in the Food and Wine category on this website.
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Ready to go to France? Ready-to-eat French Food?
This is going to be hard because by the time we’re done you’re going to be chewing on your fingers, I can tell! Well, I have a big nice cup of coffee. Not very French by the way. You are the French who is not French, and I am the American who is very French!
If I Say Let’s Have French Food, What Do You Think About?
Now, you are someone who was born in France, and has spent a lot of time in the United States, and you taste in food tends to be very hybrid. So, what do you associate with foods that go with French? If I say to you: we are going to have French food. What comes to mind? Well, I think of good old family traditional dishes. More of the regional dishes. Cassoulet, Choucroute, Daube, these sorts of traditional French dishes. So, you are talking about specialty dishes that come out of various regions of France. So, for you talking about French food still is talking about regional differences. That’s interesting!
So, what you think that other people, people who have never been to France, what do you think they associate as French food? Probably they think of wine, bread, cheese. So, wine and bread and cheese? Yes. I think that my American friends, that’s something they bring up first. And the pastries. The cliché of the guy with a beret and he’s holding a baguette in his hand, and a camembert or a piece of cheese in the other, and obviously there’s a bottle of wine somewhere in the picture.
If I asked you what is the percentage of a typical family’s budget per month for food in France? I think it’s pretty high, just based on the prices I see at the grocery stores. Maybe it’s 30% of their monthly budget? Actually, it’s somewhere between 30 and 35%. Yes, we eat pretty well, and it’s not cheap!
Food Is Not Cheap in France
That’s right, it’s not cheap. And what that tells us is that unlike some other cultures and some other places, food is very important. So, we are going to talk about food and friends.
What Do French People Have for Breakfast?
I’m sure most people have heard of the term continental breakfast. A continental breakfast is typical of what used to be the normal breakfast in France. It is very small. It’s a breakfast that does not have a lot of protein, if any, you will have a hot drink.
For children it tends to be hot chocolate, for adults it tends to be coffee, a big bowl of black coffee, or café au lait, coffee with milk, and in the recent past people have started drinking a lot of tea.
And then you have either toast, what they call pain grillé, or this strange thing that does not exist in the United States called “les biscottes”. Elise loves them, Annie does not. The typical French breakfast is bread with butter and jam. That’s what Annie has. And now people also have some orange juice or something like that. That is basically your continental breakfast.
Breakfast at a French Hotel
If you’re in a hotel, they usually give you a croissant or something like that which is what everyone associates with France. And they are lovely, but the truth is, most French people do not have a croissant every morning or they would turn into blimps. Yes, it’s full of butter, although with the amount of butter I put on my toast sometimes I wonder!
Breakfast on Sunday in France
But, it is the Sunday morning thing to do. On Sunday, you go to the bakery and get fresh croissant, or pain au chocolat, which is like a croissant but has a sliver of chocolates on the inside. There are three others that you can get: pain au lait, or brioche, or you can also get pain au raisins. The pain au raisins is rolled up like a snail with a little bit of raisins and custard. Where Elise comes from in the US (New York State) it’s called a snail. So that is what constitutes a typical continental breakfast in France.
Biscottes, It’s a French Thing
To go back to the biscottes, Elise loves them because they are crunchy and light. What is a biscotte? It comes from the Italian word biscotti. They are not cookies, they are not sweet, they can be made with whole wheat flour or regular flour, they are several different kinds. They are the kind of bread that has been sliced and rebaked, so it is crunchy and very light, and a lot of people have that in the morning with a little bit of butter or jam. Annie associates biscottes with older people on a diet. It reminds Elise of something called Zwieback. Annie thinks it’s a dried-up bread essentially.
There are some hotels in France that offer a buffet breakfast, it will have cheese, boiled eggs, but you will not get bacon and eggs for breakfast in France, it does not exist. But a lot of French people have a small yogurt for breakfast because that is a way of getting some protein in and yet it is still light. Basically what we’re saying is that breakfast in France is a light meal.
French Adults Often Have a Tiny Breakfast
A lot of French adults do not have anything more than just a coffee, and then they go off to work. What does that mean? It means that by 12 o’clock all of these hordes of people are starving! And they get really cranky. Especially if you have to go to the post office or the bank or one of these places where people go around lunch, you do not want to go to these places right before 12 o’clock because they will snarl at you. They think: didn’t you look at the clock?
Didn’t you know we have to close because it’s lunchtime? This is something that’s really important to understand about French people.
Why Are French People Skinny?
Why French people overall are pretty skinny compared to North Americans. And that’s because they only eat enough to hold them over until the next meal. And they do not eat in between meals. They do not snack. And so when it’s mealtime, they want to eat. They do not want to delay. It’s like a pregnant woman, I had never experienced anything like that before pregnancy, but you get hungry like I MUST EAT NOW! And I think that’s how French people feel most of the time because they have no reserves. And, even those who do have some reserves, mealtime is really important.
Meals Are Served at Set Times in France
And this is something that sometimes a little difficult for tourists and foreigners to get used to. There are regular hours for meals. In France, lunch is between noon and 2 PM. If you go to Spain and Italy, it is later. Today we’re not talking about restaurants. We’re talking about how French people eat in general. If you are in a touristy area there’s always somewhere you can get something to eat at anytime of the day. But if you’re talking about people’s homes and lives, those who work in an office, they will have their lunch time between noon and two. That means that they are done by 2 PM. There are people who live in small towns who go home for lunch.
Lunch is often a warm meal, not always. It is the meal where you will have your first significant amount of protein for the day, since you didn’t have any in the morning. Then people might stop for an afternoon tea or coffee around 4 PM, maybe 5 PM, notice the hours this is much later than in the United States, and then you have dinner with the family, everyone is sitting around the table together, this is absolutely essential in France. Annie shocks people because their dinner is often around the coffee table while watching TV. Her siblings are shocked that she doesn’t set the table every night. That is not very French.
When It’s Meal Time French People Eat a LOT!
Most French people do not eat dinner before 7:30 PM. In the summer people tend to eat later maybe until 9:00 PM. Most people we know will begin their dinner between 7:30 PM and 8 PM. Some people might have some coffee with a cookie or an apple at four 5 PM but when people are done eating dinner, they do not snack anymore. They do not have anything until the next morning and maybe until next lunchtime. So it’s a very different rhythm.
But, on the other hand, on occasions when I do eat out, I see all these skinny French people who have on their tray and appetizer, a main dish, a desert, cheese, bread, wine. They have a big meal at lunchtime. So they have a big meal at lunchtime at dinner time and the rest of the time no more. And for children, up until the time when there are seven or eight years old, it’s perfectly acceptable to send them to school with a snack for middle of the afternoon or middle of the morning but for people older than that it’s frowned upon. Yes it’s frowned upon, because they will get fat.
French People Are Choosy About What They Eat
Some countries have a serious health problem with people being too fat, here in France it is an obsession almost the other way. You have to be careful about people getting obsessed with I can’t eat that, I can’t eat that, I can take that. But what they do do, and it really makes a big difference, is that they do not snack between meals. Some people have their big meal of the day at lunch time others have it at dinner time but they do not snack between meals. If Elise gets a little hungry between 4 and 5 PM she may have some tea with an apple or a couple small cookies but that’s it. So these are the times when French people eat.
People are always asking what do people eat in France? There are big differences between what you’ll find in a restaurant and what people cook and eat at home. In France, everywhere, you still have wonderful open-air markets. And that is where people will buy their fruits and vegetables not all the time but if they can.
Although open-air markets are sometimes quite a bit more expensive at least around where Annie lives. Some of these open-air markets are cheaper than others. We’re talking about a country where people spend a third of their budget on food. To this day in France people would rather spend money on food than on furniture.
So yes, there are lots of supermarkets, there are lots of supermarket chains, some of them are better in quality than others, and some of them are now starting to have huge sections of organic fruits and vegetables. There are big differences in prices between mass-produced food and foods that are not.
French People LOVE Yogurt and Cheese
A lot of fruit come from Spain because of their climate, but French people tend to spend a lot of money on fruits and vegetables and on dairy products.
People buy some junk food but you will not see piles and piles of junk foods in their carts. Even people who are not rich will buy foods in the basic food groups and not junk. One of the most important food groups in France is dairy products. The yogurt isle in a French supermarket is to die for! There are lots of kinds of yogurts and other types of dairy products (fromages frais, petit Suisses, etc.).
What the French have been able to do in creativity in using milk products is really astounding. Americans are surprised how big the dairy isle is in France. Then they turn a corner and realize that was just the yogurts, there’s another whole isle for cheeses! When visiting France, one of the things you should do is go to a supermarket and try some yogurt, you will be pleasantly surprised!
Color coding for fat content of dairy products: fat-free is green, reduced fat is blue, full-fat is red. We have yogurts where the products are full fat AND they add cream to them. 70-80 calories is normal for a yogurt, if you’re eating yogurt that has 200 calories, it’ll be wonderful! French people eat a lot of dairy, but they don’t add cheese to recipes the way Americans do.
Bread in France
Bread is another major staple of the French diet. We get fresh bread every day. Bakeries make wonderful and different breads. The “gluten-free” fad made it to France around 2016, but only a tiny portion of the population caught the bug.
Meat in France
Meats in France: French people eat a lot of pork. Charcuteries and such. We eat a lot of chicken too. In the southwest we eat duck too. Beef is not as good in France. French people eat some lamb, but not as much as the other ones. French people also eat a lot of fish, not seafood as much, usually the fish is baked.
Fish protection is a new idea in France, is barely making an appearance in the media. French attitudes about food sometimes clashes with European ideas about food. Organic and locally grown is important in France.
French People Want to Know Where Their Food Comes From
French supermarkets have to display where each fresh food comes from. We classify foods by provenance. Foods are eaten in season, often you can’t even buy fruit out of season. French people don’t mind waiting for a fruit or food to be in season, they’d rather wait than have a less flavorful version of that food. Pesticides and chemicals are not used as much in other countries.
Beef in France is almost never melt in your mouth because of the way it is raised. No growth hormones in France, or Europe. Annie tried locally grown organic beef and found it gamy and tough and not worth it. Beef meat is not as fatty in France as it is in the US, that makes it less tender. Lamb is really good in France, some of it quite expensive, but really flavorful.
Wine Drinking in France
Wine drinking in France. Young people don’t drink as much wine as they used to, older adults do. No juice or milk during meals in France, no sodas either for the most part.
Vegetarians in France
Vegetarians in France. Visitors who are vegetarian but eat dairy and eggs have it a little bit easier because French people eat so much dairy. If you’re offered quiche or vegetable “gratin” those contain eggs and cheese, but no meat. To a French person vegetarian means you still eat eggs and cheese. Be specific as to what you do and don’t eat.
Older French People Don’t Think of Wine as Alcohol
Same with alcohol. If you say someone doesn’t drink alcohol people may take it to mean no liquor (such as whiskey or any other really strong alcoholic beverage) but that wine is still OK. The vegan diet is even harder to deal with in France, it can be done, but it will restrict your choices a lot. French people will not know what to do with that, you’ll need to be very specific.
French people, as a general rule, are very attached to their food traditions and don’t like to try new things. For instance they don’t try ethnic foods very much. The only ethnic restaurants you will find are in very large cities in high traffic areas. There are none in smaller cities.
The Only “Ethnic” Food You Will Find Everywhere in France is North African
You will find North African cuisine in France because of the large population of North Africans we have in France, but not a lot of other ethnic food. French people are set in their ways when it comes to food and they don’t want to try anything new. They do not want to try to stop eating meat, to them not eating dairy is really far-out. Annie thinks it’s a flaw in our culture that we’re so narrow-minded when it comes to food, but it’s the way we are. Elyse thinks that French people take a lot of pride in their food, so it’s not so much that they don’t like other people’s foods, but it is that they love their own so much.
French People Will Tell You What You Should and Shouldn’t Eat
French people are very comfortable giving advice to others when it comes to food, but they’re not ready to listen to anyone who says stop eating meat, which is narrow-minded. Elyse tries to buy celery from a woman at the vegetable market and an old man butts in and tells her she should only use one stick of celery in the soup or it won’t be good, sales lady agrees. They definitely have strong opinions on what to do with food.
American products sold in France need to be re-branded or French people won’t buy it. In Spain they don’t have to repackage, but in France they do.
France Is Tough for Vegans and People Who Suffer from Food Allergies
Unfortunately, as a result it’s difficult to eat vegetarian and especially vegan in France. French people don’t have a lot of patience with food allergies. If you are truly allergic to a food, insist heavily in restaurants because they may not take you seriously otherwise. Make sure you are understood, hand them a card that states your allergy in French.
Smoking in Restaurants in France
Smoking and food, thankfully this is changing for the better in France, finally. Restaurants are required to be non-smoking, you can smoke on the terrace of restaurants. In people’s home they may smoke during meals and may not ask you if it bothers you. If you want to sit on the terrace of restaurants be warned that that’s where all the smokers congregate. French people do not have the same intolerance to smoking that Americans have. Smoking inside of restaurants has not been allowed for a few years in France. But still, French people may not understand why cigarette smoke bothers you so much.
Halal food is very easy to find in France, Kosher not so much. Kosher sections are tiny even in very large supermarkets. Food packages are not as obvious with their health labeling, but you can find food contents information on most packages.
French Regional Food
France divides into food regions: North, Mediterranean, Atlantic Coast, Mountain and central areas. There are different food tastes in those areas. North is synonymous with beer and hardy food. Mediterranean is Provencal cooking based on olive oil, herbs, garlic, tomatoes, light wines. Atlantic coast is seafood area. In Brittany it’s butter, cream and saindoux, a pork fat, very fatty. Normandy is apples everywhere and camembert, crêpes. Mountains is hardy food, in the Alps they have hard meats and hard cheeses, that’s where fondue comes from. Pyrénées is sheep country, cheese, soups and stews.
A standard serving of meat in France is 110-150g, that’s a lot less than what they serve in the US. Same with cheese, we eat it often, but not so much. How often do French people eat frog’s legs? Hardly ever. Snails, or escargots as we call them in France, are still eaten, especially in the area of Burgundy, but it’s unusual also.
Foie Gras Is Not Controversial in France
Foie gras is controversial with Americans but not with French people. It is still a festive food and people do serve it quite a lot for special occasions. Foie gras is forbidden in some places in America and in Europe. It’s a special food that Annie reserves for Christmas and New Year’s whereas we used to eat it a couple of times a month.
French People Eat a Lot of Oysters on the Half-Shell
French people also eat oysters, raw, on the half shell, those are heavily regulated for levels of bacteria, etc. French people don’t eat oysters in the months where there is no “r” in the name, so we tend to not eat oysters in mai, juin, juillet, and août.
“Lait Cru” Cheeses (Made with Unpasturized Milk) Are Common in France
Lots of cheeses are made with raw milk in France, nobody gets sick from it, so it’s probably safe for visitors to eat as well. If it says “lait cru” it means it’s made with raw milk. If you’re visiting France try some cheese at a cheese store, although it’s not customary in France to ask for a free tasting. We will do another podcast on cheese, another on chocolate, on restaurants, on apéro at a later date.
For more on French food, listen to our other episodes on Cheese, Pastries 1 and Pastries 2, Chocolate and Macarons, and all the episodes in the Food and Wine category on this website. But for this episode, it is time to say au revoir, et bon appétit !