The Joys of French Food
One of the disadvantages of being a university student in a country that has really good food is that you usually cannot afford to eat in restaurants. One of the advantages of living in France, however, is that good food is pretty easy to find, from the fromagerie at Les Halles (down the street) to the boulangerie beneath your apartment building.
There are several rules of thumb to follow when you are living in (as opposed to simply visiting) France, especially if you are a student on a budget or if you have certain dietary restrictions. If you are just traveling through, I’d recommend that you simply indulge. Eat that croissant aux amandes, that pain au chocolat, that delectable cheese that you won’t find anywhere outside of France. Sip back a glass of vin rouge if that’s your thing. Choose a great Algerian restaurant in Paris or Nice, or fraternize with the locals at a corner kebab. Pick something that looks and sounds good, and enjoy it.
As for the thrifty backpacker, impoverished foreigner, and generally broke college student, there are other ways to enjoy the quality and variety of cuisines you can find in France, whether or not French cooking is your cup of tea. My first rule of advice is to try to buy as much as you can (fresh vegetables, cheese, even bread and meat) at the weekly outdoor markets. The price of the food is almost always worth the quality of fresh produce, and the more vegetables you buy, the cheaper it is to live in France. This is because when you cook your own food, even the exorbitant cost of living is balanced by the greatly reduced price of meals.
The great thing about buying food at a farmer’s market, in addition to meeting a lot of the wonderful “agriculteurs” or “maraîchers” de France, is that you are also discovering some of the unique vegetables that make up the French cuisine. From “pêches plates” to the famous “topinambours,” you will be forced to be more creative with your cooking as well as with your diet.
To take advantage of French food, you also need to take advantage of the “specialty” food stores that the French are so well known for – fromagerie, charcuterie, boucherie, pâtisserie, boulangerie, traiteur. These local businesses survive in a world of convenience by the quality of their products and the loyalty of their customers. Eating especially well sometimes only costs a few centimes more. The difference in the baguette is profound between Carrefour and a corner bakery. These staples and the French tendency to spend more money per household on food usually results in an outstanding quality in the ingredients that make up French cuisine.
Another rule of thumb when attempting French recipes is to try their more “exotic” staples that are so hard to find elsewhere. For instance, crème fraîche, or fromage blanc, or even the ultra-pasteurized milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated until opening, at which point it lasts a mere 48 hours in the refrigerator before expiring. A real challenge, however, is converting between American recipes and French measurement. Even something as simple as flour can differ greatly between the two countries! Here I found a fabulous website that gives a rough measurement of the equivalents between American and French ingredients. Besides having to juggle between two different systems of measurement, as well as the way in which things are measured (volume vs. weight), the quantity and texture of the ingredients themselves greatly differ.
For those who are vegetarian, gluten-free, eat only kosher or halal, or prefer to eat “sustainably” or with a social conscience, the good news is that there is a little bit of everything in France. There will be your typical “bio” stores selling organic produce or your “équitable” Fair trade marks, and there is plenty of Muslim boucheries, Arab markets, and kosher delis. The only downside of eating out in France, as opposed to cooking chez toi, is that navigating a French menu is particularly daunting for “special diets.” You will usually find little in the way of vegetarian options, and most Muslims I know avoid French restaurants altogether, wary of the cheeses and the alcohol or pork lurking behind certain dish names, or they are simply tired of ordering fish *again*. As my gluten-free, vegetarian cousin who’s living in Angers will attest, it is also very difficult to find things to eat in France from the standard diet. But for the health-conscious traveler, don’t fear the butter or cream you often find in French dishes. The French lifestyle, which involves copious amounts of walking and a general taboo on snacking, compensates from the fat content.
What have I been eating so far in France? Well, besides consuming a vast quantity of bread, I’ve sampled a wide assortment of food. Un libanais at my favorite Kebab restaurant. Une salade au chèvre, a salad of greens and dried fruit along with goat cheese heated up on little toasts. Un couscous tunisien, a first attempt with Hedi to make couscous with our little couscoussier for a group of international friends. Un 3aja, a Tunisian dish with harissa (see this wonderful NPR article for more information), tomato sauce, merguez sausages, and eggs eaten with French baguettes. A galette hortillon, a crêpe made of buckwheat (a recipe originating from Brittany), stuffed with the local weekly harvest vegetables of Amiens’ famous hortillonages. Cheese. Fish. Pizza. Bagnat au thon, a round sandwich with tuna, lettuce, tomato, and hard-boiled egg slices. Pâtes et émincé de poulet au boursin, pasta with thinly sliced chicken with a Boursin (creamy French cheese) sauce. Pique-nique de gruyère et de pain, slices of Gruyère cheese on Sesame bread. Macarons, brightly colored round meringue-like cookies, in flavors of pistachio, chocolate, café.
What are your thoughts on French food? What experiences of open-air markets have you had in France?