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If there is one aspect of French culture that resonates around the world, it is French cuisine. French gastronomy holds such an undeniable influence on world cuisine and traditions, it was inscribed on UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Much more than enjoying a quality meal, UNESCO describes French gastronomy as a “a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups … The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature … Individuals called gastronomes, who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory, watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations. The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.”
Fine French food may seem like an intricate work of art, but, in reality, it is more about the journey than the destination; all of the ingredients complement each other to create a perfectly layered dish. French cuisine is about uplifting the central flavors of the dish using fresh herbs and spices, and traditional cooking methods. These cooking methods have been honed and perfected through the centuries, allowing renowned chefs to easily create tasteful masterpieces. But it wasn’t always this way…
It was not until the late-17th century that French chefs began to remove foreign influences and give French cooking an identity of its own. And you guessed it: wine and cheese were key ingredients in this revitalization. Bread and pastries became an essential part of the French diet following the French Revolution, becoming so important that the French government regulated grain harvest and production. Growing up after the French Revolution with simple ingredients to cook with, Chef Marie-Antoine Carême’s career rose from pastry chef to chef for the Parisian aristocracy and royalty across Europe. Carême is considered by some to be the founder of modern French cuisine for his work classifying sauces into four groups and writing cookbooks including hundreds of recipes, menu plans and dining room and kitchen organization.
High cuisine — Haute cuisine — would not be as we know it today if it wasn’t for the key role of Georges Auguste Escoffier at the turn of the 20th century. Working to refine the improvements made by chefs before him, Escoffier developed the system used to organize modern kitchens and simplified the course of a meal into the “courses” we are accustomed to today. In 1903, Escoffier collaborated with a number of respected chefs to publish Le Guide Culinaire. This guide advocated for light sauces that built upon the main flavors of a dish instead of masking these flavors through sauces and garnishes.
With so many esteemed chefs working for royal families and the aristocracy, who would have guessed that a tire company would play a key role in elevating French cuisine to the esteemed reputation that it holds today? In 1900, the Michelin brothers — founders of the Michelin Tyre Company — published the first Michelin Guide to help persuade the French public to purchase cars. When Michelin expanded their guide books to include restaurants in 1926, they introduced regional dishes to a national audience. The publication of a ranking system — the world-renowned Michelin Star — in 1936 further elevated the best of French cooking to a near legendary status of “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”
Enjoying a French meal is about enjoying a story of harmony. Main ingredients, spices and sauces all complement each other through simple, yet effective cooking techniques. Local products are the cream of the crop and shape the flavors produced through the seasons. Lyon, France’s gastronomic capital, is the living embodiment of local terroir and has been shaping French cuisine for the past 80 years. The confluence of rivers Rhône and Saône, fertile fields of Provence and the French Riviera and the vibrant vineyards of the Rhône valley and Beaujolais each contribute to Lyon’s unrivaled culinary scene. Local chefs are unafraid to challenge the palate and use unusual ingredients including beef snout and pig’s ears.
Regarded by many as the best in the world, conquering the world of French wine can seem like a daunting task. France is the world’s second-largest wine-producing country with more than 1.4 million acres of vineyards spread across the country’s seven largest regions.
With more than 500,000 acres of vineyards, Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest wine-producing region in all of France. The warmer climate in southwestern France is known for rosés and red blends that are fruit-driven and full-bodied.
Look for: Côtes du Roussillon, St. Chinian and Languedoc
One of the best-known wine-making regions in the world, Bordeaux’s red wines have a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. Dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, these wines tend to be high in tannins, medium-bodied and fruity.
Look for: Médoc, Pauillac, Saint Émilion
Typically labeled as Côtes-du-Rhône, the valley is home to steep, picturesque vineyards lining the Rhône River. Ranging from Lyon to the Mediterranean, these wines are known for their robust, spicy flavor profiles. Syrah’s dominate the Northern Rhône while the Southern Rhône is known for its GSM blends (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre).
Look for: Côtes du Rhône, Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Home to 87 appellations, the Loire Valley spans 600 miles and is the country’s most diverse wine producers. While almost every type of wine is produced here, it’s fresh and airy white wines — Melon de Bourgogne, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc — reign supreme.
Look for: Muscadet, Sancerre, Chinon
Arguably France’s second-most reputable wine-producing region behind Bordeaux, Burgundy wines are often complex, earthy and medium-bodied. Wines from this region are likely 100% Pinot Noir or 100% Chardonnay and age well. Gamay grapes are grown in the Beaujolais region and are enjoyed while young. Burgundy wines are ranked from lowest to highest: regional wines, village wines, premier cru, grand cru.
Look for: Cote d’Or, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, Beaujolais
Due to this regions northerly climate, grapes — mostly Chardonnay — harvested as early as the 12th century endured a double fermentation on either end of the cold winter. Today, only wines produced using the traditional methode champenoise can be labeled as champagne. Champagne is classified by what village the vineyard is located in on a scale of 1-100. Villages ranked Premier Cru are rated between 90 and 99 points, with Grand Cru villages receiving a rating of 100 points. Less than 9% of villages are rated Grand Cru.
Blending French and German wine culture, this small region is known for its drier, earthier white wines that are more intense than expected. The noble grapes — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat — are the regions best known. Wines that are 50% noble grapes are labeled “Gentil” and present an extraordinary value.
Look for: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat
“This was the best week of my life. Our leaders were amazing and the schedule was perfect. The wine, lectures, wine, food, wine and field trips were wonderful…did I mention the wine? It was so much fun and educational.”
— Judith, Road Scholar Class of 2009, from Pitman, N.J. —