French Food for Thought

Posted on January 17, 2011 at 12:11 am
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This series of virtual postcards from France wouldn’t be complete without talking about food. I indulged. I indulged a lot. When US Airways mentioned a weight surcharge on my way back I didn’t really suspect my suitcase first. Hundreds, thousands of books have been written about French Cuisine, I’m certainly not an expert, far from it, and I don’t cook much. With that out of the way, here are a few food products I had a chance to try during my trip. This small sample is dessert heavy; I enjoyed a lot of great entrées too but the photos didn’t make the cut. Some of the items below may have hit your palate already, some may be completely unknown, and a couple will remain a mystery until you visit my country. What are you waiting for?

This is the last post in a five-parts series relating my winter trip to France in December 2010. In separate installments I posted photos of Chamonix by Night and by day, wondered where the princess was, and ambled down the roads of Uzès and Arles.

More photos below. Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed. Photos from the whole trip can also be found online.

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In the header, a plate of controversial Foie gras. As foodies are well aware, foie gras is made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. This fattening is typically achieved through gavage (force-feeding) corn, a technique that dates as far back as 2500 BC. It is a popular delicacy in French cuisine, a luxury dish mainly consumed during Christmas or New Year’s Eve dinners. Foie gras is sold whole (pictured above), or is prepared into mousse, parfait, or pâté, and may also be served as an accompaniment to another food item, such as steak or even hamburger (as I can be experimented at the dp Brasserie in Albany).

France is by far the largest producer and consumer of foie gras; we produced about 18,450 tonnes of foie gras in 2005 (78.5% of the world’s estimated total production) and consumed… 19,000 tonnes in the same year (source: Wikipedia). Ouch. What can I say, I don’t think anyone can defend this food product, but its rich, delicate flavor is apparently delicious to French people. Honestly, it is very possible that we like it so much for no other reason that it is such a traditional product.

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Pictured above, the infamous and scrumptious Tarte tatin, as prepared by my mother. This dessert is an upside-down tart in which the fruit (usually Golden Delicious apples) are caramelized in butter and sugar before the tart is baked. Tradition says that the Tarte Tatin was first created by accident. The predominant story is that Stéphanie Tatin, who did most of the cooking at the Hotel Tatin, was overworked one day. She started to make a traditional apple pie but left the apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long.

Smelling the burning, 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. After turning out the upside down tart, she was surprised to find how much the hotel guests appreciated the dessert (source: Wikipedia). This is one of my favorite tart, though it might have something to do with my father and mother competing for the best recipe since I was a divorced kid.

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In the photo above, a traditional Gallette des rois, or French king cake. Very high on my list of dessert, I haven’t been able to find it in the Capital District. This cake is celebrating the Epiphany in France and sold in most bakeries in January. It is significantly different from the well-known King cake and consists of flaky puff pastry layers with a dense center of frangipane. Tradition holds that the cake is “to draw the kings” to the Epiphany.

A trinket, la fève, which can represent anything from a car to a cartoon character, is hidden in the cake and the person who finds it in their slice becomes king for the day (hence the paper crown in the photo). To ensure a random distribution of the cake shares, it is traditional for the youngest person to place themselves under the table and name the recipient of the share which is indicated by the person in charge of the service (source: Wikipedia). The king can also pick his queen in the assistance, which is always fun when you are a kid. Not so fun: chip a tooth on the trinket, or just plain choke.

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Above, a fine block of Tête de Moine cheese. Its name, which means “Monk’s Head”, is derived from its invention and production by the monks of the abbey of Bellelay, located in the mountainous zone of the French-speaking Bernese Jura. The monks started to manufacture this cheese more than eight centuries ago. It is eaten in an unusual way: it must be carefully scraped with a knife in order to develop its scented flavors.

In 1982 the Girolle was invented, an apparatus (seen above) which makes it possible to make “rivet washers of Tête de Moine” by turning a scraper on an axle planted in the center of the cheese (source: Wikipedia). You end up with chunks of cheese in the form of rosettes that resemble Chanterelle mushrooms (also known as girolle in French, hence the name). Once again, kids love doing that, and by kids I mean me.

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Pictured above, a stack of Calissons (or Amandins), as seen in a bakery in Arles. Calissons are a traditional candy consisting of a smooth, pale yellow, homogeneous paste of candied fruit (especially melons and oranges) and ground almonds topped with a thin layer of white icing. I could eat these for hours (hey, it’s just fruit). They have a texture not unlike that of marzipan, but with a fruitier, distinctly melon-like flavor (source: Wikipedia). They are traditionally associated with the town of Aix-en-Provence, and most of the world supply still comes from the Provence region, where I was staying. Most of the world supply went almost straight to my mouth this winter.

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This poor quality picture above doesn’t really do justice to the phenomenon called Verrines (more photos via Google). A verrine is an appetizer or dessert that consists of a number of components layered artfully in a small glass, mixing textures, flavors, colors and temperatures (the word verrine refers to the glass itself). It can be filled with a layer of mushroom flan, sautéed wild mushrooms, a julienne of prosciutto, parsley gelée, wild mushroom emulsion and topped with a potato and prosciutto galette. Another will have clementine and mint syrup, fresh clementines and a gingerbread crumble (source: LA Times via Serious Eats).

I think the ones on the right had olives, crème fraiche, cucumbers and raisins but such assortments can be so subtle it is hard to tell. What is fascinating to me about this culinary trend is that it appeared out of thin air about two years ago while I was in the US, and is now sweeping the French nation. I came back one day and voilà, it was everywhere. However, nobody was actually able to pinpoint the origin of this new confection. Intriguing.

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Is there a need to introduce French macarons? A macaron (above, taken in Fontainebleau) is a sweet confectionery made with egg whites, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond powder or ground almond, and food coloring. Or, as Serious Eats would say, “a sandwich cookie which, in its best form, will fill your soul with warm, fuzzy happiness after one bite”. The macaron is commonly filled with buttercream or jam filling. In Paris, the French pâtisserie Laduree is reputed for making quality macarons in traditional and new flavors (source: Wikipedia and my taste buds).

Locally, I have found macarons very regularly at The Placid Baker in Troy, and from time to time at Crisan in Albany or Mrs. London’s in Saratoga Springs. All Over Albany recently asked where to find macarons too, but you can certainly try to make your own just like Albany Jane or E did. This is a very popular sweet in France, you can find them in every other bakery and even at McDonalds I’ve heard.

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Not really a dish here, but this above storefront in Chamonix made me smile. It says, “Tartes au mètre”, litterally, tart by the meter (1 meter = 3.3 feet). I didn’t take a close-up, unfortunately, though you can see that the tarts are not circular, but rectangular, and ordered by the meter. That was entirely new to me, but I can’t really say anything against a whole meter of pie.

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Last, but not least, the canelé, one of my sweet obsessions. A canelé (seen above, as made by my mother) is a small French pastry with a soft and tender custard center and a dark, thick caramelized crust. The dessert, which is in the shape of small, striated cylinder approximately two inches in height, is a specialty of the Bordeaux region of France (source: Wikipedia). While I have seen this pastry in Parisian patisseries as well, I was  surprised to find it right here, in the Capital District, either at The Placid Baker in Troy or Mrs. London’s in Saratoga Springs.

Made from egg, sugar, milk and flour flavored with rum and vanilla, the custard batter is baked in a mold (seen above), giving the canelé a caramelized crust and custard-like inside. I was really planning to bring back a mold to make my own, but ran out of time. I’ll have to ship one (UPDATE: friend Jared pointed out that JB Prince carries such  molds in the US, and I realize so does Amazon). Canelés are generally sold in bunches of 8 or 16, I can easily engulf that amount. I’ve seen much larger molds, hinting at the existence of wonderful, over-sized mountains of yumminess. I’m not talking about horses here, despite what Penny Arcade would say.

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This concludes this series of posts from France. Want to see more? In separate installments I posted photos of Chamonix by Night and by day, wondered where the princess was, and ambled down the roads of Uzès and Arles.

Thanks for reading. Hungry? I hope this gave you a few ideas. If you have a favorite French food to share, please be my guest, comment away.


  1. Sally Reckner says:

    As always, enjoyed your pictures and comments.

  2. Karamia says:

    i think Casillons are a sweet that i could definitely get into..

  3. B says:

    Probably the most fun post yet. Great writing on this one.

  4. Sebastien says:

    Thanks guys! Which photo do you think would have worked better for the header? The macarons are colorful, but I thought there was more variety in the foie gras shot, though it might be a bit disgusting to some…

  5. LisaF says:

    omg. I’m so hungry right about now. Also, inspires me to bake my pear frangipane tart. I missed baking it this year for Christmas but your blog is motivating me to put it on my list of things to do…ASAP. This post reminds me of the most wonderful meals I had in France… foie gras was served up regularly actually. But I’d love to get some recipes from your mom..lucky you to have such a great cook!

  6. Jennifer says:

    I admire your photography and of course find myself drawn to the photos of food. I actually like the photo of the Gallete des rois because cakes of that sort are hard to photograph attractively.

    My favorite French pastry is the Kouign-Amann although I’ve never had an authentic one. The version I have had is from Mrs. London’s. They call it a Brittany there but I’ve since learned that the traditional version is more cakey and less croissant like than the London’s.

    So apparently my favorite French pastry is a bastardization but it will have to do until I can try the real thing.

  7. Sebastien says:

    @LisaF: pear frangipane tart? sign me in.
    @Jennifer: thanks for the kind words. Kouign-Amann?, you didn’t pick your typical French cake, kudos to you. I’ll have to try one at Miss London’s. You know. As an excuse to go there.

  8. Tim says:

    Great. Now I will get no work done today as I dream about returning to France to eat everything!