Burning question: Do the French really hate all spices?

Burning question: Do the French really hate all spices?
Getting your chilli fix in France is not always easy. Photo: AFP
French cuisine is - rightly - renowned, but there is one aspect that newcomers often find disappointing - the lack of spice. So what lies behind this apparent aversion?

The French words piquant or épicé (spicy) might mean something different to you than they do to a French person.

It's one of the most common questions from new arrivals – where can I find a proper curry or some really good spicy snacks?

READ ALSO 18 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you move to France

And the answer is that it's quite difficult as spices are in general used a lot less in French cooking. This doesn't mean that their food is bland – excellent produce combined with lashings of salt, butter and garlic take care of that – but if you like to finish a meal with your tastebuds tingling and your skin glowing you are likely to be disappointed.

But it's not just hot spices that are less common, even cinnamon – surely the gentlest of all spices – divides opinion. 

 

When, inspired by an article on Thanksgiving cookery in the New Yorker by former Lyon resident Bill Buford, we asked our readers whether it's true that the French hate cinnamon, plenty of people replied to say they had been advised to tone down the cinnamon in their cookery to suit the French palate.

 

 

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If you try and name classic French dishes that contain spice, you won't come up with much.

The Christmas favourite of pain d'épice (spice bread, more commonly translated as gingerbread) sounds promising but although it is a delicious festive treat, the spicing is usually pretty gentle.

Likewise vin chaud (hot wine or mulled wine) is popular and might contain a cinnamon stick or a piece of star anise but won't be heavily spiced while the popular Spéculoos biscuits have a fairly subtle cinnamon flavour.

The French pain d'épice – delicious, yes. Spicy? Not really. Photo: AFP

The only classically French thing with real heat that we could think of was Dijon mustard – the most powerful of which will certainly clear out your sinuses. 

Of course, it's now 2020 and France is home to a large population of immigrants, some of whom have set up restaurants to bring foreign flavours to French shores.

For reasons related to colonialism, France doesn't have a large Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi community in the same way as the UK does, and therefore doesn't have the same 'curry culture'.

Indian restaurants exist in the larger cities, but you may find that they have toned down their spicing to suit delicate French palates.

The French equivalent of the high street curry house is couscousieres – inexpensive eateries that serve food from the Mahgreb – French-speaking north Africa.

While we highly recommend getting a tagine – it will almost invariably be delicious, generously-portioned and good value for money – the spicing from that part of the world is aromatic rather than fiery, so you won't find much that will blow your socks off.

The larger cities, especially Paris, do have thriving Asian restaurant scenes if you want a hit of Sichuahan pepper or kimchi – but again, you may need to specify that you want your food spicy.

READ ALSO From sushi to satay – where to find the best Asian food in Paris

So what lies behind the French delicacy when it comes to spices?

The most commonly-given reason is a simple lack of exposure – France isn't home to a large population from countries where food is eaten sizzling hot, so there's not much spicy food on offer in the average town.

The other reason may be to do with France's pride in its own cuisine, which has made it slower to embrace cooking from other cultures. Or to put it in a slightly snarkier way – the Brits eagerly embraced curry because their own food was bland and terrible!

Whatever the reason, if you want to eat something so hot that it makes your eyes water, you may have to cook it yourself. Most common cooking spices are available in French supermarkets, although if you want fresh chillis that are nudging the top of the Scoville scale you will be better off at street markets.

Or you could grown your own. The sunny climate of the south is ideal for raising a good crop of potent chillis, while plenty of foreigners in Paris lucky enough to own a balcony grow chilli plants in the summer, and some even operate an underground barter system for other spice-deprived newcomers. 

 

 


Member comments

  1. The most appreciated spice in France is vanilla. It is even said to be the most loved taste for French people.
    There is another explanation on why French people have been less exposed to fiery spices. Indeed, for many people, spices have been used to hide the bad taste of rotten ingredients, especially the meat. So providing a good dish without spices was a way of showing that you took good care of people by providing them with fresh food.

  2. It’s likely Cinco de Mayo accounts for the lack of Mexican cuisine, spicy or otherwise, in France. Cinco de Mayo, of course, is an annual, National Celebration held on May 5. The date is observed to commemorate the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The victory of the smaller Mexican force against a larger French force was a boost to morale for all Mexicans.

  3. It’s likely Cinco de Mayo accounts for the lack of Mexican cuisine, spicy or otherwise, in France. Cinco de Mayo, of course, is an annual, National Celebration held on May 5. The date is observed to commemorate the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The victory of the smaller Mexican force against a larger French force was a boost to morale for all Mexicans.

  4. I work a lot with people from French Antilles – Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane. Their cuisine is pretty fiery on the whole, I find

  5. They say that as you get older, your taste buds diminish in number and sensitivity – particularly for men. A bit like a junkie needing more and more heroin to obtain the same effect. As I do most of the cooking, I often find myself preparing separate dishes for the rest of the family then something special for myself, containing at least four cloves of garlic and one whole chilli pepper (including seeds).

  6. I’ve seen a restaurant in Sete which advertises that “none of our curries contain chilli”! That’s not a curry.

  7. In your article on French spices, I don’t see any reference to the great piment d’Espelette from the Basque region. The following quote is from pepperscale.com: ” French cuisine is a lot of things – rich, subtle, and rustic come fast to mind – but meals with any sort of heat is not high on the list. That is except for dishes starring the French native Espelette pepper. Also known as piment d’Espelette, this chili is a common spice of the Basque region of France, and while not a scorcher, it has a delicious subtle heat, slightly smoky and slightly citrusy. It’s so essential to the Basque region and its cuisine that it’s been given – like some wines and cheeses – protective AOC certification. How hot are Espellete peppers? Espelette peppers range from 400 to 4,000 Scoville heat units on the pepper scale, which is mainly mild, but it bridges the gap into a low-medium heat range. They can reach low-level jalapeño heat, but they can range down to 20 times milder. Typically their spiciness is more in the range between the mild pimento (100 to 500 SHU) and poblano chilies (1,000 o 1,500 SHU).”

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