The regional cuisines of France are the bedrock of Gallic gastronomy, since almost every part of the country has its own produce and cooking style and has contributed signature dishes to the French kitchen.
Regional cooking really took off after 1842, when the government agreed to fund rail projects – many of the original lines were paid for by private investors, so by 1870 almost every major town in France was served by a rail link.
Suddenly, the glittering capital was accessible from every corner of France, making it a beacon for everyone who craved the glamour and opportunities of the big, beautiful, sophisticated city, including many ambitious chefs from the provinces.
The annexation of Alsace by Germany after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) sent a wave of Alsatians to Paris, resulting in Alsatian cuisine becoming well-known in the capital. Alsace, the north-eastern region of France, on its border with Germany, is especially well represented in Paris today.
L’Alsace , a stylish brasserie on the Champs-Élysées, and Bofinger, a lively brasserie in the Marais that opened in 1864, both serve an excellent choucroute garni – a hearty Alsatian classic of sauerkraut, garnished with various types of sausage and cuts of pork, that’s become much loved by Parisians. Also in the Marais, L’Alsacien has the cosy décor of a typical Alsatian winstub, a sort of Alsatian take on the bistro, and specialises in flammekueche, a fine open tart topped with crème fraîche, onions, smoked bacon slivers, and various other garnishes, including munster cheese. They also serve a flammekueche for vegans, where the bacon is replaced by smoked tofu, and offer a number of vegetarian options as well.
The natives of other regions, like Brittany, moved to Paris in large numbers in search of work, with many Bretons settling near the Gare Montparnasse, where trains arrive from Brittany. Some of them opened crêperies, which became an immediate hit with Parisians. Today, there’s crêperies in almost every Paris neighbourhood, and the pancakes have been stylishly updated at places such as the Little Breizh in Saint-Germain-des-Prés by the use of high quality produce, including stoneground buckwheat flour and Bordier butter from Saint-Malo. Start with a galette – a buckwheat flour crepe offered with a variety of savoury garnishes, including eggs, ham, and mushrooms, and finish up with a sweet crepe with caramel sauce or just melted butter and sugar.
The succulent cooking of Lyon, the food-loving Rhone Valley city, is represented by the beautiful long-running belle epoque restaurant Aux Lyonnais , which is located in the heart of the city near the old French stock market and is today run by chef Alain Ducasse. For a truly Lyonnais feast, order an assortment of charcuterie from Charcuterie Sibilia and then tuck into the quenelles: fluffy pike dumplings, in satiny sauce Nantua, which is made with crayfish. Finish up with a cheese plate from La Mere Richard, the famous fromagerie in Les Halles de Lyon, the city’s main food market, or the tarte et île flottante aux pralines roses (crushed candied almonds).
The popularity of cheese-rich Savoyard cooking exploded when the French middle classes began skiing in the Alps and developed a taste for such classics as fondue and raclette. Three popular addresses for these convivial dishes are Le Chalet Savoyard , Le Refuge des Fondus and Les Fondus de la Raclette .
Recently, a new generation of chefs have begun opening regional restaurants that offer modern takes on the traditional cooking of their home turf to make these cuisines more appealing to increasingly health- and calorie-conscious Parisians. A delicious example is Baieta , where young chef Julia Sedefdjian serves up a personal take on the cuisine of Nice, her hometown. Cooking professionally since she was 17, she received her first Michelin star when she was 21.
“French cooking is a sort of synthesis of the country’s regional kitchens,” says Sedefdjian, whose signature dish is her ‘bouillabaieta’, a deconstructed bouillabaisse composed of various types of steamed fish, baby squid, and chunks of potato. Other great dishes to try here include the jaune d’oeuf croustillant, an egg yolk inside a hollow deep-fried sphere of breadcrumbs on a bed of raw and smoked haddock, and the aioli of yellow pollack with baby vegetables, quail’s eggs and garlic mayonnaise.
Chef Julien Duboué, a native of south-west France, also demonstrates how regional French cooking can inspire both fine dining and fast food. At his Rue du Quatre-Septembre restaurant A Noste – as well as having a fine-dining area upstairs – Duboué serves Basque tapas and taloa, or big, juicy Basque sandwiches stuffed with confit de canard (duck preserved in its own fat), hot chorizo or pork belly in a casual space on the ground floor. At every point of the compass, there’s great gastronomy in Gaul, and it’s easy to find without ever leaving Paris.