Eating in France is a most delightful experience, whether it is in the great centres of culinary excellence or at a simple, unpretentious bar in a small and remote village. Everyone has to eat, to survive, but the French have made an art of it, and French cuisine is both varied and delicious. It can take many visits before you realise how central a role food plays in the French psyche.
But there are a few moderate words of advice when eating in France:
Firstly, don't come to France expecting to eat the same food that you eat at home – you just won't find it. Nor should you expect to. The culinary dimension is just one element of the French experience.
Secondly, French cuisine is often rich. So, if you're more accustomed to less refined dishes, take it easy for the first few days in order to allow your body to adjust before diving into the foie gras and confit de canard!
Thirdly, if you've travelled some distance to get to France, especially by car, the possibility exists that the toll on your body may take a few days to ease. So, the second point above also applies here. Keep it simple for a few days.
But when you're raring to go, a culinary theatre awaits, and what a performance!
Even in the most remote auberge you will be treated to gastronomic delights. Almost every village has a bar or bistro serving simple but delicious food. If you want something that isn't going to offend your wallet, just go for the 'Plat du Jour', the dish of the day, whatever it is...be adventurous. Just bear in mind that the Plat du Jour is for everyone, villagers and visitors alike. Visitors come and go, but villagers are around all the time, and the last thing that any bar-restaurant needs is for a village full of dissatisfied locals, especially in the low season. As a result, they put thought and care into that simple dish of the day. What makes it even more agreeable is that this (often) three-course meal can cost as little as 10€, and only rarely double that.
At the other extreme, France has thousands of excellent restaurants, from the dizzy ranks of the Michelin-starred to popular and outstanding brasseries in the most unexpected places. And, if you're staying at a hotel, be sure to check out its restaurant at some stage. Like all restaurants they want customers to return, and they are not going to serve unappetising food to a ready audience of hotel guests.
In spite of my predilection for enjoying meals in French restaurants, auberges, bistrots and the like, it can become quite costly if you do it all the time. If the weather's good, head off to the supermarket, or the local market where you're staying, sample some of the cheeses, meats and fruits, buy what takes your fancy, get a lovely fresh baguette and then head off for a picnic. That will keep the cost down...but don't overdo the wine, if you're the one that's driving, even though wine can be cheaper than water.
A picnic in the countryside below the Puy de Dôme mountains © Atout France/Joël Damase
In France, people dine three times per day.
Breakfast, between 7am and 9am, usually consists of a hot drink (coffee, tea, or chocolate) and a croissant and/or bread with butter and jam.
Lunch, between 12 noon and 2pm, is a real meal, usually lasting one hour, that includes first course, main course and dessert, often capped by a cup of espresso coffee.
Dinner, sometime around 8pm, also lasts an hour and includes an hors d’oeuvre, a hot dish, and dessert.
Smoking is not permitted in restaurants, but it is still allowed on the outside terraces and patios. What this means for the non-smoker is that on a lovely summer's day, when you might want to enjoy your meal outdoors, you are likely to be wreathed in cigarette smoke from nearby tables. If you really can't abide cigarette smoke, you have to ask for a table indoors.