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?
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.
We never heard this before either – do French people hate cinnamon?!
(I mean you can buy it in most French supermarkets, so that would suggest not . . .) https://t.co/ouQcZdhY60
— The Local France (@TheLocalFrance) November 24, 2020
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.
Since I cook a lot and like cinnamon, I can confirm that yes, for some reason which makes no sense to me many people here hate it.
— ChrisInParis (@ChrisInParis) November 24, 2020
I made apple cake with cinnamon and my French friend asked me why the English put cinnamon in everything!
— Clare Deavall (@CDeavall) November 24, 2020
Cinnamon, no. Other spices? lol yes. If it’s spicier than diet yogurt…
— Cass Frances (@Cass_Frances_) November 24, 2020
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 2022 and France is home to a large population of immigrants, some of whom have set up restaurants to bring foreign flavours to French shores.
In the bigger cities you will find Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants that offer spicy food – 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.
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 – maybe 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.