Weird foods I've tasted (and loved, except for one or two)
Weird foods I haven't tried (you couldn't pay me enough)
There are many stereotypes about the French, and quite a few center around the question, "What do the French eat?"
Weird French foods, that's what.
This fascination with our culinary customs isn't unusual; we do eat things that may seem strange to you but to us, they are no more unusual than are haggis in Scotland, Vegemite in Australia or root beer in the USA. We all enjoy dietary oddities to which we cling.
Now a word of warning: if you're vegetarian or vegan, this article is NOT for you!
Back to the food, and I should say there are some French "delicacies" that make even me cringe. You'll find those further down this list.
But mostly, that supposedly disgusting French food we are accused of eating is, actually, sublime. Go on, make the effort! (I've tried haggis, vegemite and root beer... and I'm still here...)
I've started this list of French food with my favourite delicacies and worked my way down the ladder of bizarre food ickiness — so this is a personal and subjective list.
I have every faith you will disagree with my choices (and possibly run screaming before you finish reading this entire page).
This little critter is much maligned but, I admit, one of the delicacies of France, at least in my humble opinion.
To those who think they are dirty or dangerous, the answer is No, at least not if you eat them from a reputable source. A properly prepared escargot is washed several times, purged, salted and boiled before it ever reaches your plate.
According to legend, the first escargots de Bourgogne, or Burgundy snails, as the best ones are known, appeared in 1814 during a visit to France by the Russian czar, Alexander I. He was to dine with Talleyrand, Napoleon's chief diplomat, but they were running late and the restaurant — yes, it was in Burgundy — was out of food. The innkeeper had to think on his feet so he rushed out to the garden, where some snails caught his eye. He quickly transformed them into a meat dish and voilà, a French delicacy was born. (Please don't follow his example: there is much preparation that goes into making an escargot ready for consumption.)
Yes, they do seem a bit icky, even to me, if I sit and think about them. So I don't. Instead I focus on the essentials: creamy butter, fresh parsley, and mounds (no, hills!) of fresh garlic. In the end, these French snails are merely supports for the sauce. It wouldn't do to simply slurp butter so escargots help us pretend we're being civilized about all that butter.
I should add that our 'snail-eater' label is a little misplaced. We do eat them, and love them, but it's not an everyday dish and if you walk into a French restaurant for the first time, don't worry, no one is going to force a half dozen little snails upon you.
Along with escargots, this is the other ubiquitous French dish the world thinks the French eat every day.
I know this falls under the banner of "weird French food" but wait... why is it any weirder than eating chicken or quail? The taste is certainly similar.
Frogs' legs aren't even French...
Originally they were eaten in China, around the first century BC, and traces have been found in food stores belonging to the Aztecs, which would take us to the 13th century or so. They only appeared in France during the Middle Ages, in monasteries, and fame followed when they were included in a cuisine dictionary written by Alexandre Dumas, of Three Musketeers fame.
Now this is a dish you must sample in a top restaurant, not because they make them better, but because of the frogs they use. In cheaper venues or at the supermarket, frogs' legs (usually frozen) come from Indonesia, where our appetite for them is threatening their survival. In France, frogs are a protected species but there are farmed frogs, delicious and super expensive and usually only found in the best eateries. Alternatives are farmed frogs' legs from Turkey or Vietnam. Just stay away from the wild ones or you'll be harming the environment.
As for preparation, my favourite is — as with snails — butter, parsley and garlic (the more garlic the better). Some restaurants serve them breaded, or in a tomato sauce, but I'm a purist. Butter and garlic.
I'm not sure why these would be considered unusual foods: they're just normal seafood, albeit expensive and delicious.
But yes, they do look a little odd, what with all those little spikes, and they are extremely hard to open without physical injury. If you don't wear thick gloves, you will inevitably end up with a needle lodged in your skin — hence the need to eat these in a professional establishment that takes all those physical risks for you.
You can eat these like oysters, on the half shell, or experience the tender coral interior separately, mixed into a delicate sauce or scrambled with eggs, as you would do with caviar.
If you haven't tried these, you MUST. Trust me on this one. We don't eat these often because of their cost, but when we do, we lick our fingers and wish for more.
This staple of France food culture is the one that is probably most controversial, banned in some parts of the world: geese are force-fed to fatten their livers (foie gras actually means fatty liver), a practice that involves cruelty to animals. Here we're only coming around to that kind of thinking but foie gras is such a popular food in France that eliminating it from our diet is almost unthinkable.
Foie gras is incredibly popular, one of our most special French foods, and 93% of us eat it several times a year. It has been around as long as geese and ducks have been domesticated, their fat providing human consumption all year round.
In the beginning, our ancestors in the Middle East acquired a taste for natural foie gras, the kind the animals produced themselves and which they ate along with the rest of the goose or duck (both are popular). We can thank the Egyptians for discovering that geese naturally gorged themselves before migration: they self-invented foie gras to store fat for their long trip. Eventually, these animals were domesticated and the Egyptians developed the art of fattening — built upon by the Greeks, Hebrews and, eventually, the inhabitants of Eastern Europe.
By the 17th century, population in rural France was expanding quickly and in the southwest, geese and ducks increasingly became part of a household's wealth, hence the growth of the foie gras industry in this region (and in the East, too). By the 19th century, villages were vying for the 'best foie gras' labels and markets began to specialize in this delicacy; some hugely reputable ones exist today: Brive, Périgueux, Sarlat and others.
As thinking evolves and people become more conscious of animal welfare, farmers are looking for solutions because let's face it, asking the French to give up foie gras would probably be as successful as asking Germans to give up beer. Several new methods have been developed that deliver foie gras without force feeding, but they remain experimental and expensive: a goose that is not force fed will need to be raised for twice as long. Also, this alternative process means they cannot use the 'foie gras' label, which requires force feeding.
The challenge lies in finding these products, which remain rare. As for the price, until the new methods become mainstream, they will stay high. No matter. We'll just have to seriously cut back our foie gras consumption. Or eliminate it altogether. I'll be hunting for that alternative...
There are so many jokes about tourists sending back their Steak Tartare because it was raw! But it's supposed to be raw: that's what Steak Tartare is, ground beef, flavoured with a variety of additional seasonings (a selection of chopped onions, capers, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, a raw egg, salt, pepper...)
Clearly the most important factor here is freshness (and meat quality, but that goes without saying). I would never buy a tartare from a supermarket or one that's packaged. I go to the butcher, pick my cut of meat, and have them grind it in front of me. Then I rush home, prepare it right away, and consume it within an hour or two.
Eating it out is also fun, usually in a brasserie. In the better establishment, the seasonings will be added in your presence.
It would seem that this delicacy originated among my own paternal ancestors, the Tatars of Central Asia. The wild hordes of the region rode on horseback, as you know, and to feed themselves during their travels, they often placed a cut of salted meat, usually horse or camel, under their saddle for tenderizing and to rid it of excess blood. At mealtime, they would clean off the salt, grind the meat and eat it raw.
The "dish" slowly made its way westward through Russia into northern Germany — often through the city of Hamburg, eventually reaching the shores of New York via immigration, to be known as as Hamburg-style American fillet, or Hamburger Beefsteak. Sound familiar?
Yet its appearance in France is relatively recent, documented vaguely during the 19th century and firmly in the early years of the 20th. At first it was known as American Steak, but the Steak Tartare appellation finally won over, used in France and also in the United States.
This is a relatively common food, eaten in France once the cooler weather comes around, often sautéed in butter and garnished with apples (at least that's how I eat it).
It is a delicious dish but granted, a round pile of black sausage isn't necessarily the most appetizing dish in the world. Not to sugar-coat it, but it is basically blood, with the addition of other ingredients, ranging from spices to fruits to rice.
But oh, it has such history! The boudin noir is probably the oldest charcuterie, or delicatessen meat, in the world, and you'll find it mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. Hunting societies have always battled with the issue of blood and what to do with it.
If you're British, this dish should seem perfectly normal to you, since it is a traditional British breakfast food, isn't it? Black pudding?
In fact, there's hardly a country in Europe that doesn't have some sort of blood sausage among its specialties. Blutwurst in Germany, anyone?
By the way, this shouldn't be confused with the boudin blanc, which is pale in colour and contains no blood, just meat and condiments.
Some 80% of French eat rabbit, according to one survey, but that number is decreasing, mostly because rabbit meat is becoming hard to find, without anyone quite understanding how or why. There are suspicions... rabbits are too large for today's smaller families, or the fact that they are increasingly seen as pets.
That doesn't stop it from appearing on many restaurant menus, especially in western France, as a versatile dish — a terrine, or prepared with mustard or onions or prunes. I've only eaten it a few times in my life but each time, it has proven tender and delicious, a bit like a very good chicken.
But like many people, I have to forget what it looks like or I'll be pushing my dish away...
Now this is a much-disliked "weird food" dish among foreigners, and I can understand why.
First, the body part: it is made of pork intestines. And second, it smells quite strongly. But once these two obstacles overcome, a good andouillette, is quite a treat.
It looks like a sausage, and is gently cooked in a frying pan. You then add a mustard-based cream sauce and I'll travel quite far for a good andouillette. A poor quality one, on the other hand, can be a horrible experience so I'd suggest eating it in the kind of restaurant that specializes in it.
It is a speciality of many regions: anywhere that produces pork products is a good bet for andouillette, although in some regions it is also made of veal. There's even a grading system: AAAAA is the top quality andouillette. (Pronunciation: on - doo - YET).
These may look a little like snails and in fact, they are snails, sort of sea snails and like snails, they have to be boiled before being eaten. Preparation for me takes away from the eating — I KNOW what they look like and I don't need to establish a close relationship with them before I eat them. I'd rather let a chef do that.
Some people like them with mayonnaise; I can't say I've ever tried them that way. Instead, they're usually part of a fresh seafood tray, tucked between a mound of oysters or clams. A squirt of lemon wouldn't be amiss...
They're not called pigs' feet for nothing — because that's what they look like, there's no getting around it. And until I saw their name in Korean, jokbal, I would have sworn I'd never tasted them before. Not true. I did sample pigs' trotters in Seoul, properly camouflaged and cooked, and they were delicious.
I'm not sure I could cope with a recipe that serves them a little more au naturel, but used as pork in a variety of recipes, they are quite good.
In France, history tells us that in 1459, Charles VII stopped off in the village of Sainte-Menehould in northeastern France and was served the local version and loved the dish. (Slightly) more recently, when Louis XVI fled Paris as the French Revolution was gearing up, he was recognized while eating these same pigs' trotters, in the same place, which is credited with elaborating a recipe so delicious they would melt in your mouth.
They're popular again, especially in the UK, as people search for less expensive cuts of meat that are nonetheless tasty.
Yes, you guessed it, tongue of beef... the idea is not appetizing at all and this is one of those dishes you should taste once prepared but not look at beforehand, because it looks like... a tongue.
But the taste is, at least in my book, acceptable. It's not a dish I'll travel for or even choose on a menu, but I won't run screaming and can eat it if I have to. I'd just rather not.
It was apparently a much favoured dish in Antiquity and gained in popularity during the Middle Ages.
Mostly it is served boiled, with one of several sauces, and is most popular in northern France, where offal is prized. Strangely (to my mind) beef tongue is more popular than calf's liver (which I love). But then, there's no accounting for taste...
We're starting to move into less appetizing territory now...
The name says it all, and it's the same word in French and in English.
Some of my friends swear by this dish, which is made of the lining of an animal stomach, usually a cow. I, on the other hand, equate it with stuffing a gelatinous towel into my mouth. But you might love it...
This dish is most famous as tripes à la mode de Caen, or in the manner of Caen, a city in Normandy.
Tripes is a dish with an ancient history, much beloved by William the Conqueror, apparently, and possibly invented by his chef, somewhere during the 11th century. Over the years it fell in and out of fashion, as recipes do. Its latest wave of popularity was after World War II and in some parts of France, you'll not only see it on every menu, but you'll hear howls of joy when it's spotted.
So please, don't let me influence you and make up your own mind. I've already made up mine.
You may know them as sweetbreads (also called the thymus or the pancreas, and if that doesn't stop you cold...)
This is a dish popular on several continents and it is particular loved in France, hard to prepare and rare enough on menus to be pounced upon the second it is spotted. It is often braised, served in a butter sauce or breaded and fried.
I'd like to tell you more about it but I've never tried it so I'll reserve judgment. Just know that I won't be moving heaven and earth to taste it.
Calf's head, and with that name it's no surprise I haven't tried this one either.
It can be served in several ways, most often in one of two ways, either deboned and rolled and tied with a string (this might be acceptable) or still boned, with the entire head presented at the table. No thank you.
Yet this is a dish that generates plenty of loyalty in France, and several culinary brotherhoods and calf's head clubs each claim to hold the "authentic" and highest quality product. This dish gained traction when the late French President, Jacques Chirac, called it an "honourable dish" and said he would be happy to eat it often.
Each year, on 21 July, a traditional calf's head meal celebrates Louis XVI's beheading, a tradition that dates back to the period of terror during the French Revolution, during which pigs' heads were used to symbolize the much-hated king. At some point, the pig morphed into a calf...
If you've ever walked down a Bangkok street, you've seen stalls with fried or roasted crickets, grasshoppers and any number of other insects. You may have been brave and tried them, or you may have rushed by quickly and averted your eyes (that was me). Either way, insects have become fashionable as a protein source: they're cheap and they're abundant, they easy to raise, they don't contribute to climate change and farming them doesn't pollute. The World Food Programme has even suggested they might help solve the world's hunger problems.
That doesn't mean we have to like them...
In Europe, until now, selling insects as food has been illegal, although a few countries do sell whole insects for consumption within their borders. But that isn't stopping the French. You can easily order such delicacies as onion-flavoured crickets or whole crunchy insects with chillies online, and some companies offer such delicacies as insect-based burgers. These restaurants give them pride of place on their menus...