The fruits of the land
Every region has its own local specialities which are celebrated and enjoyed throughout the year, but even more so in the autumn. However, before sitting down to eat, food enthusiasts might like to learn more about the basic ingredients used, so that they can appreciate the quality and tradition of each region's culinary expertise which they can then enjoy to the full.
Nord and Picardy
This cheese made from cow's milk has become famous because of its distinctive aroma and its appearance in the film "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis", which broke all box office records in France. Its tradition dates back over 1,300 years, and although the recipe was invented in a local abbey, nowadays it is the typical aspect of the maturing cellars in the village of the same name and the surrounding Thiérache area (Parc Régional de l'Avesnois) which gives this product its powerful flavour.
Shops worth savouring!
Whether you're in the smallest village or strolling along the streets of Lille, you'll come across wonderful delicatessens, patisseries and charcuteries with an abundance of tempting local produce in their shop windows.
In this region dominated by large fields of potatoes and beetroot you'll also pass through wetter areas which are dedicated primarily to market gardening (chicory is one of the emblematic vegetables of the Nord département). The kitchen gardens and "hortillonnages" in Amiens and the marshland around Saint-Omer are well worth visiting... but you'll need a boat!
Camembert and Livarot: emblematic cheeses
The renown of Camembert from the Pays d'Auge around Caen is part of France's national heritage. Find out more as you explore deep into Normandy's hedged farmland.
A tradition of scallops in every port
From Fécamp to Port-en-Bessin and as far west as Granville in an area stretching from the Seine estuary to the Cotentin peninsula, the "deposits" of a certain variety of this mollusc have resulted in the development of a fishing tradition which enlivens fish auctions along this coast in winter, the only season in which scallops (Coquilles Saint-Jacques) can be harvested in order to preserve the sea's ecosystem.
Salt marsh lamb from Mont-Saint-Michel bay
As is the case in the Somme bay (Picardie), flocks of sheep graze in meadows by the sea which are infiltrated by daily tides.
Mussel beds in Mont Saint-Michel bay
Mussels are cultivated here on stakes (bouchots) placed in beds out to sea. Cultivated mussels from here and elsewhere (in Aiguillon bay in the Vendée, for example) are renowned for their quality. Why not visit a mussel farm and visitor centre before striding out on a stroll by the sea!
Watercress from the Gâtinais
The valleys of the Essonne and its tributary, the Juine, to the south of Paris, are characterised by a unique landscape of semi-flooded fields used to grow watercress ("cresson" in French, hence the name "cressionnière" for a farm). This vegetable requires the use of manual labour and a good supply of fresh running water.
Brie from the Seine-et-Marne
Along with Coulommiers cheese, Brie (a soft cheese with a crusty white rind) is an important product from this flat agricultural area to the east of Paris.
Between the Champagne and the Lorraine regions, in an area known for its superb wines, a treasure trove of fruit is grown here to make delicious desserts that have long been popular with food enthusiasts!
Redcurrants from Bar-le-Duc
This small red berry produces a succulent and delicate jam, thanks to the tradition of "deseeding with a goose quill", which dates all the way back to the 14th century. This patient method of preparation, which requires huge attention to detail, transforms a simple jam into "Bar-le-Duc's very own red caviar"!
The mirabelle plum from the Lorraine
Despite its hardy climate, the orchards around Metz produce an abundance of fruit, in particular this small delicious plum which is also used to make a fruit liqueur, jam, a filling for pies and tarts etc. To learn more, why not visit a plum grower (the Grallet family) and the local Chamber of Agriculture.
Munster cheese and meals with "marcaire" farmers
The "hautes chaumes" pastures on the slopes of the Ballons Vosgiens regional park are dotted with farm-inns serving rustic meals based around dairy products (cream etc) and cured meats. This double tradition of animal raising and hospitality characterises the work of a "marcaire" farmer. The famous Munster cheese is also made in the region, both in the valley of the same name and its surrounding area.
This region, which has a dual maritime and land-based tradition, is renowned for its colourful array of fresh produce.
Vegetables - the kings of Léon!
The area around Roscoff and Saint-Pol-de-Léon on the north Brittany coast is the domain of the cauliflower and artichoke. Wrack and other algae are also harvested here.
The Coco haricot bean from Paimpol
Famous for its port and offshore islands (such as Bréhat, the garden island), Paimpol is also the home of a high-quality (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) haricot bean with a particularly attractive name: the Coco!
Algae: the food of the future
Plouguerneau ecomuseum: Among the 600 species of algae identified along the Breton coast (excluding parasitic and toxic varieties), some are being increasingly used in recipes by leading chefs.
The Maison des Paludiers: In addition to its catch of fish and seafood in busy ports such as Le Croisic, La Turballe etc, and thanks to the special micro-climate that exists here, Southern Brittany also produces the hugely valuable natural sea salt (fleur de sel) in the marshes of the Guérande peninsula, according to a unique process. Natural sea salt is also produced on several French islands off the Atlantic coast (Noirmoutier, Ile de Ré etc).
In the land of Rabelais (the larger-than-life writer who was a great advocate of extravagant feasting!), stretching from the Sologne to the Touraine and into the Anjou, game hunted in the region's wonderful forests features heavily in local gastronomy, as do a number of other specialities.
The mushroom museum (Musée du Champignon) in Saumur relates the history of this traditional feature of local agriculture which is cultivated in troglodyte caves and galleries cut out of soft tufa rock. The museum also highlights many other varieties of mushroom, including those that grow naturally in France's forests, providing ingredients that add delicious flavour to recipes across the country, such as ceps in the Auvergne-Ardèche, morels in the Jura etc.
Crottin de Chavignol
Produced on local farms and matured by specialists, this small, unusually named ("crottin" translates as "dung" in English) AOC-quality goat's cheese hails from the Pays du Sancerre (to the north of Bourges), and deserves its rightful reputation as one of the country's finest cheeses.
Burgundy and Franche-Comté
For a long time the symbol of France's regional gastronomy, the "Helix Pomania" variety has become increasingly hard to find in its natural state and is no longer collected in the countryside. The tradition is still maintained by a few local snail breeders (around the town of Auxerre) and the welcoming "Confrérie de l'Escargot" (Snail Brotherhood) in Blaisy-Bas (Côte d'Or).
Comté cheese is produced in the Jura mountains alongside a thriving cattle industry and a number of maturing cellars located in old military forts.
Dedicated to a single breed and a specific rearing method, the Bresse plain, located between the Saône and the Ain, is justifiably proud of its AOC chickens.
The Massif Central and its foothills (the Causses) are home to a fine array of distinctive cheeses such as Roquefort from the Larzac area, Salers, Fourme d'Ambert and Saint-Nectaire. The region also produces top-quality meats and vegetables.
Cantal, a "showcase" cheese
Cantal was formerly produced during the summer months in "burons" - rustic stone chalets on the grassy slopes of the region's "puys" (Puy-Marie, Plomb du Cantal etc). Along with potatoes, Cantal is the main ingredient in the traditional Auvergne dish known as "aligot".
Recognised for their taste and nutritional qualities, this lentil with a distinctive colour was the first "vegetable" to be awarded AOC status.
"Fin Gras du Mézenc": a "stylish" meat
The mountains and volcanic formations (sucs) between the Haute-Ardèche and Velay are home to a very select type of cattle, whose meat (awarded AOC status) illustrates the excellent breeding and feeding methods in place here.
Butter from the Charentes-Poitou
As is the case with Isigny butter, butter from the Charentes-Poitou enjoys AOC-AOP status. The butter is produced according to "old-style" non-industrial methods, which gives it its distinctive character.
Oysters from Marennes-Oléron
The Ile d'Oléron (in coastal beds) and the banks of the Charente (in basins known as "claires") produce various types of renowned oyster.
* INAO (Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité)
In addition to hundreds of wines, this specialist regulatory body controls 80 Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée products (which have particular links to an individual place or area): 7 fruits, 7 vegetables, 8 olive oils, 10 meats, 2 types of honey and over 40 cheeses; this does not take into account products with an IGP label (Indication Géographique Protégée). It should be remembered that for purposes of harmonisation, AOC status, which was invented by France, simply becomes known as AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) when applied to the whole of Europe.