When you think about French food, what comes to mind? We can thank them for such delights as the croissant, the French stick slathered in oozy camembert and Champagne… of course.
Bread, garlic, cheese and plenty of red would be what most self-proclaimed foodies would think of, but many people would just think about snails and frogs legs instead, and it is safe to say that the French fall victim to a stereotype or two.
Sure, French people will enjoy a buttery bowl of Escargot from time to time, but it isn’t what they eat day in day out. Be that as it may, snails are indeed a bucket list kind of thing, but you can save yourself the plane ticket and try them right here in Manchester.
They are typically eaten as a starter and cooked by merely filling the shell with garlic butter and baking in a very hot oven for a few minutes. The melted butter acts as a sauce which can be sipped out of the shells and mopped up with a little bread after you are done excavating the flesh.
To be honest, snails are not my cup of tea, but I think they are something any foodie should try at least once. You can enjoy them at Manchester’s only dedicated independent French fine-dining restaurant, 63 Degrees which made it on to our Best Restaurants list too.
The other stereotypical French food would be Frogs Legs. I tucked into some for the first time a few weeks ago at the epic Cottonopolis Secret Supper dining event. They were breaded in panko and tasted, dare I say it, suspiciously like chicken – so, I can confirm what they say is true.
The texture is odd and sits somewhere between chicken and meaty fish- which actually makes complete sense as it in itself somewhere in between being an amphibian and all that. Bottom line, I like them, as long as I pushed childhood memories of Kermit the frog right to the back of my mind- so stereotypes be damned!
I was mindful that anything coated in breadcrumbs is probably going to be pleasantly palatable, so I decided to seek out the real stuff right here in Manchester. I found that Man Bites Frog down in Chorlton has them on their menu and with a name like that I would be disappointed if they didn’t. They cooked them traditionally in garlic, butter and parsley. C’est Magnifique!
Behind all the obvious stuff there lies a cuisine that is rich, diverse and smothered in butter. They (usually French people themselves) say that some of the best food in the world comes from France, and to be fair to them – I would have to agree.
A lot of the most famous French dishes have pretty humble, provincial beginnings such as Soup à L’ Oignon (French Onion Soup) which is obviously made with onions which have always been plentiful and easy to grow, and beef stock made from leftover roasting bones.
After a resurgence in the 1960s when the rest of the world became fascinated with French food, the lowly French onion has become an all-time time favourite for close to fifty years. Nowadays, it has had a sexy French makeover with the inclusion of a cheesy crouton with melted Gruyere cheese which is… well, I don’t need to tell you how good that tastes do I?
If you want to get your fix, I would look no further than Cote Brasserie– they even serve it in the traditional bowls which is a nice touch.
Another classic French dish is Fois Gras. Now, I understand this is subject of much ethical debate for some people, and I don’t want to start any fights – I’m just telling you about the delicacy and so, am going to remain completely impartial…ish.
Fois Gras means ‘Fat Liver’ and is a food product made from the livers of duck or goose which has been fattened artificially. The geese are force-fed with food that has a very high fat and calorie content using a process called ‘gavage’. I wouldn’t recommend looking that up. This makes the liver extremely fatty, which produces a pale, buttery consistency with a strong, meaty taste.
Nothing and I mean nothing, tastes quite like Fois Gras – it has such a unique flavour which is a love it or hate it kinda thing. It can be eaten as the liver itself which is typically pan-fried or made into a pate. Fois Gras is generally served with a sweet white wine, most commonly Sauternes which cuts through the intense salty flavour. If you choose to try Fois Gras, I suggest the Millionaires sandwich on the tasting menu at Manchester House. It is a little finger sandwich made with layers of Fois Gras and pistachio.
Boeuf Bourguignon is a classic French dish which is close to my heart. It is a beef stew which is braised in plenty of good-quality French wine with onions, mushrooms, carrots, lardons, beef stock and a selection of fresh herbs. Again, this is a simple, provincial dish which uses local ingredients to make something delicious and it is guaranteed to warm the cockles from the inside out.
It was brought to the attention of the rest of the world by American cook Julia Child when she published her 1961 book ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. It is served typically with mash potatoes or pasta (or, so Google tells me although I’ve never seen it like that) green veg and a great big glass of full-bodied red wine. You can enjoy Boeuf Bourguignon as the Plat du Jour on Thursdays at Brasserie Abode.
If the French know how to do one thing, it is how to cook fish. There is such a beautiful simplicity to great big bowls of Moules-frites or a delicate piece of sole smothered in Beurre-Blanc. When it comes to fish, the French know their stuff, and nothing is a testament to this more than Bouillabaisse.
This is a rich, fish stew which is made with fish stock, coastal fish, tomatoes and shellfish and originates from the Southern city of Marseille. Each dish will vary massively, and some will come with potatoes or other vegetables, orange zest, saffron or chillies. It is typically eaten in coastal towns at lunchtime with plenty of fresh bread and a crisp white wine.
I feel like I talk about the Bouillabaisse at Randall & Aubin a lot, but I’m going to do it again because it really is fantastic. It comes with spiced croutons and aioli and is just the taste of the French Riviera one spoonful at a time.
Coquilles St Jacques is the French world for King scallops and they are eaten in many various ways. I remember being in Paris when I was a kid and eating them in the shells cooked in a cheesy sauce flavoured with a hint of red wine, piped with silky mashed potatoes, topped with breadcrumbs and baked under the grill. I really haven’t forgotten about it.
I found a sort of similar dish in Hawksmoor recently, which you should go and try for a taste of French scallops. They cook their Coquilles St Jacques in the shells with white port, garlic and breadcrumbs for a little bit of a welcome crunch. I cannot recommend them enough.
A few months back, I wrote an entire guide to French Patisserie, but that was just the start of it. French desserts are out of this world, and if I had time and enough Manchester homages to play off, I would dedicate an entire guide to them in their own right.
The French are masters of eggs, cream and butter so it is only natural that they would make fantastic dessert chefs. Buttery puff pastry formed into delicate tarts remind me of France, and the one to look out for is always going to be a Tart Tartin.
These are apple tarts which are made by making caramel in a pan and cooking the apples in it until they are soft. A round of puff pastry is added on top, brushed with egg and thrown in a hot oven to bake. The pan is taken out when the tart is cooked and turned upside down on a plate to reveal the beautiful tart. Tuck into a little individual sized portion over at The Bay Horse Tavern.
A soufflé is another one of those magical desserts to hail from France. Creamy, fluffy and light as a feather, a soufflé is notoriously hard to make. They are held up by stiffly whisked egg whites which creates a scaffolding so delicate a stiff breeze, loud noise or blast of cold air can make it crumple into a puddle of disappointment.
You can get soufflés in all kinds of flavours- both sweet and savoury, but nothing beats a chocolate one. Australasia is famous for their chocolate soufflé on the dessert menu which comes with a deliciously tart raspberry sorbet and chocolate sauce. Make sure you hold on to it though, this one is so light there is a strong chance it might float away.