Caravan holidays in France: how to take care of your foodie needs
Now you’re on the road with the freedom of France and its vast road network ahead of you. Over half a million square kilometres to explore, with over a million kilometres of public roads. How much of France you’ll be able to explore on a single trip is limited, of course, by both time and budget, but you certainly shouldn’t be disappointed by the wealth of food and drink to explore. It’s not uncommon, when entering a particular town or region to be confronted by a large display board at the side of the motorway or main road, bearing a pictorial representation of some local produce, such as truffles, beef cattle or a variety of cheese.
You’re probably already aware that wines of France are fiercely protected. A wine bearing the Beaujolais label, for example, can only be produced within a strictly defined area around Beaujolais. But many foodstuffs are equally protected. Unlike the famous cheddar cheese so beloved of the British, but produced as far away as Canada or New Zealand, you won’t find (for example) Camembert de Normandie cheese produced outside of Normandy (though you may find a similar but inferior generic product on supermarket shelves) and this extends to other foods like Puy lentils, Poitou-Charentes butter and Bresse chicken, all of which have been awarded the status AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) meaning that they have satisfied a supervisory body that the products are made in a traditional and rigorously defined way.
Do lentils taste better when they are from Puy? Is Poitou-Charente butter more creamily delicious than butter from neighbouring Limousin (where Limousin beef is protected) and is Bresse chicken really so different from any other? The fun is in finding out for yourself!
Mainland France is divided into 22 regions, then sub-divided into 96 departments. Many foods and many dishes are specific to an individual region, department or even more local area, and there are far too many to list without writing a whole set of books – but to whet your appetite, here are some of the regional ingredients you can taste and cook with on your travels:
Alsace and Lorraine
There can’t be many people who haven’t heard of the famous Quiche Lorraine – but there’s a whole lot more to eating in this North-Eastern corner of France than you may imagine. Naturally, food here is influenced by neighbouring Germany and Luxembourg. Part French, part Germanic it’s food is unique.
Munster cheese (AOC) is a creamy cheese made with cows’ milk, half of which is taken from the morning milking and half from the evening milking (that’s how particular the AOC can be!) and makes a delicious creamy quiche – NOT to be confused with authentic Quiche Lorraine which, you may be surprised to know, contains no cheese.
Another favourite meal is choucroute, approximating to the German sauerkraut, but cooked in a rather different way and generally served with pieces of belly pork, Strasbourg sausage and smoked pork shoulder.
Brittany lies on the West coast. Unusually within the country producing the most wine in Europe, native Breton wine is a rarity. The climate and soil are not conducive to producing quality wines, but that is more than made up for by the variety of local ciders to taste. Naturally enough, seafood is high on the list of favourites for this largely maritime region, particularly with regard to Coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops) from Cote d’Armor (AOC) – absolutely delicious in a risotto or salad.
The Centre region of France embraces six departments, including the wine growing Touraine region around the city of Tours. Apart from some delicious wines, the region is lush with forests, producing a good variety of mushrooms. Cereal crops and cattle rearing are the main agricultural activities and local produce includes asparagus, green beans and various salad vegetables. The rivers are noted for their eels and local poultry has a good reputation, particularly guinea fowl (pintade). A regional speciality is andouillette de Jargeau – a sausage like confection made from offal. You’ll either love it or hate it – but it’s worth trying unless you’re strictly watching your cholesterol. The principal city of the Centre region is Orléans, famous for cotignac (quince jelly) and vinegar.
Auvergne and Limousin
The Auvergne region and the neighbouring Limousin, occupy the geographic centre of France. In bygone days life was tough, and famine regular. The local diet tended to consist of chestnuts, which grow in abundance, and root vegetables. Today, the region is still the most sparsely populated in France, though the range of foods is far wider and there is much beef cattle and pig breeding. Both beef and pork from the region are of very high quality. A legacy of the “bad old days” is that regional dishes tend to be simple. You’ll find chestnut soup, potato pie (not nearly as bland as you may imagine), tripe and salad with Puy lentils. The Auvergne boasts many delicious cheeses, such as bleu d’Auvergne (creamy blue cheese), Cantal (a firm, full-bodied cheese) and Fourme d’Ambert, a rustic blue cheese with subtle aromas of heather and campanula.
The region of Aquitaine covers a swathe of western France from the Bordeaux area to the border with Spain. Unsurprisingly therefore, produce and cuisine vary widely. Bordeaux itself needs little introduction, being the most famous wine growing region in the world. It’s also renowned for the quality of its Ceps (penny bun mushrooms). Another delicacy to try if you visit Bordeaux is a sweet confection called Cannelé de Bordeaux (difficult to describe but joyous to taste)
Further down the coast from Bordeaux you’ll find the bay of Arcachon. Not only a beautiful location to visit, but a haven for lovers of sea food. Famed for its oysters, the bay also produces pétoncles (small scallops) and a wide variety of fish, including notably the lamprey (fr = lamproie). A rather ugly, predatory fish, the lamprey has not been popular as food in Britain for centuries. It is, in fact, very sensitive to pollution and will only breed in the cleanest waters!
Following the coast towards Spain, you will find the influence of Spanish foods becoming more apparent with Basque cuisine noted for its use of the hot red pepper ( piment d’Espelette) grown in the department of Pyrénées Atlantique, and known in the Basque language as Ezpeletako biperra. If you’re a lover of spicy food, try to visit the village of Espelette during the last week of October when you can experience the annual festival of the piment d’Espelette.
If your appetite is now suitably whetted, don’t forget to explore local food markets wherever you are to find the best produce. You’ll find the French are far less inhibited about poking, prodding and sniffing produce before buying – and if you watch others you may find some tips about how to find the best. Here’s just one: Charentais melons are delicious, and as the name suggests, best when they are grown in the Charente region. Select one which is firm and not too discoloured, but make sure that it gives out a strong aroma of melon when you sniff it. If it doesn’t, put it back on the shelf. It won’t be ready to eat for another few days yet.
Happy eating – and don’t forget to put a little more air in those tyres – with the extra weight you’ll be carrying by the end of your holiday, you’ll probably need it!