Bonjour monsieur/madame. Merci beaucoup. Au revoir. Pied de cochon (pig trotters). Salade de gesiers (salad with poultry gizzards). Cheval (horse). That’s an example of my rudimentary French. I’d run out of time to learn more but I had some basics and a few menu items to avoid.
I flew into France’s most renowned gastronomic city—Lyon, in the Rhône-Alpes. Many French people travel here to eat, at prices cheaper than Paris. I had the best meal of my trip at Le Potager des Halles—three courses of fine dining for 39 euros, including the signature chocolate fondant dessert.
I walked mouth agape through Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Named after the city’s superstar chef, it’s a covered market with around 60 gourmet stalls. Nearby chocolatier, Bernachon whipped up the best hot chocolate and chocolate cake of my life. Lyon is a dedicated, discriminating culinary mecca where even the supermarket sandwiches taste better than elsewhere.
Eating in the cities of Provence (Avignon, Arles, Orange, Aix-en-Provence) was patchy. Vivid landscapes that inspired Van Gogh and Cezanne and 300 days of sunshine a year lures tourist hordes, which spawns tourist traps. Good cooking and friendly service exists, but a longer stay and local knowledge helps. Mercenary coolness undercuts the warm Mediterranean welcome.
In Avignon’s main food hall, a cheeky madame tried to flog a tiny piece of sponge cake to me for five euros. I’d already hit up enough patisseries to know she wouldn’t dare charge a local that. I shook my head and walked. I ate tough, under-seasoned duck at a place that refused to offer a good value two- or three-course set menu that’s standard in nearly every French restaurant. Gruff waitress included for free.
But Soleileiss in Arles is a gem. A sweet, patient lady doled out gelati to an adoring queue. Pure, all natural flavours made with local milk from a farm using no pesticides or fertilizers. I loved the traditional biscuits filled with apricot, strawberry and lemon pastes from La Cure Gourmande in Aix-en-Provence.
Author and historian Graham Robb cycled through France for four years to research his book, “Discovery of France.” His encounters with local dogs revealed telling regional human differences. Whether dogs barked and attacked, wagged their tails or were indifferent to him corresponded with people’s attitude to foreigners.
How are Provencal dogs trained? The far-right National Front’s largest following is in Provence. Marine Le Pen is the national leader, but her blustery rooster father Jean-Marie Le Pen ruled the party for decades. “France for the French,” he crowed. It’s a senseless, anti-immigration stance that edits out the massive contribution of former colonies such as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, to name a few. These people and resources helped build France.
Provence’s southern location has led to a cuisine rich in olive oil and tomatoes. The Greeks founded Marseilles. Nice was once Italian. Keep dialling back the time machine to find ancient tribes—Romans, Celto-Ligurians, Cimbrians, Teutonics, Visigoths, Burgundians, Ostrogoths…
As I raced through preserved, manicured inner cities it hit me that I was skimming over a France curated for tourists. I don’t ride trains to the end of the line. I don’t seek the African or Arab enclaves. This holiday was shaped and predetermined before I left Australia by glossy coffee table books, particularly French renovation porn. Tales of Brits, Aussies and Americans buying rundown country houses and comically bumbling through village life—formulaic but enchanting.
French clichés perpetuate because they are pleasurable. Every town has a vintage merry-go-round. I anticipate the best croissant by joining locals at bakeries with the longest line. I can experience thriving Arab and African communities at home in Melbourne. For an Australian Chinese, postcard France is exotic. Wherever I travel, I never hang in Chinatown.
If you ask French people which part of the country is “La France Profonde” (Profound France) many will say Burgundy. Contemporary French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy dislikes the term, stating, it has a “…very bad political act of birth. It is from the French extreme right.”
For others, it’s less nationalistic fervour and more misty-eyed romanticism. Burgundy’s vineyards and rolling hills are quintessential France. It’s the origin of escargot, bouef bourguignon and coq au vin. Dijon (where dijon mustard was created) became my favourite city. I slurped the escargot. They were like tender, black mushrooms. The butter, champagne, garlic and parsley sauce definitely helped.
The chouette (owl) is the icon of the city and owl souvenirs flood shops. You can follow the charming Chouette Trail to all the main sights:
9 a.m. on Saturday morning the streets were deserted but the food market was packed:
Too much French reality for me—pig face in jelly and lots of offal was for sale at this butcher:
France is arguably Europe’s most culturally diverse country. 100 years ago the majority of the population did not understand French. Old languages are still spoken in small pockets, such as Breton in Celtic Brittany or Basque in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The German dialect Alsatian is still spoken by some people in my next stop, the Alsace region.
Strasbourg, Riquewihr, Colmar and Obernai’s meaty, starchy Germanic food is not my preference but these cities garnered the most camera clicks:
Hearts on shutters are a common motif. It used to mean a lady looking for marriage lived in the house. After marriage, the heart was reshaped into a square:
In Colmar, blue houses once were allocated to Catholics and red houses to Protestants. Today, every house is required to be a different colour to its neighbour. Alsace’s tourism thrives on people flocking to picturesque perfection that is continuously maintained and rebuilt:
The biggest sensory assault was last: Paris. This summer, the tourist onslaught was so huge, the Palace of Versailles posted a request on its website urging people to postpone their visit. The weekend before my arrival, Eiffel Tower staff shut down in protest over harassment by pickpocket gangs up to 15-strong.
My dad’s wallet was pickpocketed once in Copenhagen. After that, when he went to Paris, he filled an old, beat-up wallet with paper scraps and put it in his front pants pocket. This decoy was bulging and obvious while the real wallet with money was inside his jacket. The ploy worked! What the thieves would have found on top of the scraps was a drawing like this:
I clutched my handbag a little tighter but it was gourmet temptations, not thieves, that lifted my money. Founded in 1863, Ladurée is famous for macaron biscuits which were the best I found. The pastries are also superior:
Established in 1854, Mariage Frères’ inventive blends of teas make great gifts:
My Gallic perceptions were only slightly challenged by the end of the trip. I’d indulged my French fantasy. Is it worth travelling so far to remain inside your comfort zone? I look down at the belly roll poking over my waistband. “Oui.”
Eating is more than gluttony. Grasping French culture is like trying to hold water in your hands but if you follow the siren call of your stomach you will find a satisfying, defined food history. Every region proudly champions its special dishes and produce.
Food is ancestry and identity. It’s also sharing and friendship. Provence harbours some prickly politics but enjoys the nation’s spiciest cuisine. Moroccan lamb tagine sits next to magret de canard (duck breast) on menus. Fiery North African merguez sausage is so popular across France I saw it in every city.
Food can sweeten and soften a bitter, brittle heart. It can break down barriers and absorb global influences. Sadaharu Aoki is a Japanese-born pâtissier who makes matcha (green tea) croissants:
The flavour was subtle. I preferred his brown rice tea and yuzu (Japanese citrus) macarons.
There’s so much more to France. Normandy seems like a dreamy pastoral heaven of cows and green grass. Many people go there for the World War II sites but I’m intrigued because it produces France’s best butter and cream.
There’s that dirty vein running through paradise again—it also has significant historical support for the National Front. But the allure of wallowing in fine dairy products is strong. Even if I have to fend off a xenophobic hound or two—I’m sure it would be worth it.
Addresses: Les Potager des Halles, 3 rue de la Martinière, Lyon
Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, 102 cours Lafayette, Lyon. I would recommend, go before noon. At noon, many of the stalls shut but you can still eat lunch in one of the many mini-restaurants.
Bernachon, 42 cours Franklin Roosevelt, Lyon. A few blocks walk from Les Halles de Lyon.
Soleileiss, 9 rue du dr Fanton, Arles
La Cure Gourmande, many shops across France.
Ladurée,75 avenue des Champs-Elysées, Paris. The original shop on rue Royale is very small and you will queue longer. The Champs-Elysées branch is much larger and you can sit in the opulent rooms upstairs. Laduree International
Mariage Frères, multiple shops in Paris but the flagship store is 30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, 4e (Marais district). Widely available across France in Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores. Available in Australia from macaron specialists La Belle Miette (the largest range) and a small selection in Simon Johnson. Mariage Freres International
Sadaharu Aoki, multiple shops in Paris.
Sources: Interviews with Graham Robb and Bernard-Henri Lévy from Rick Steves Audio Europe free podcasts.