Burning question: Do the French really hate all spices?

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?

Burning question: Do the French really hate all spices?
Getting your chilli fix in France is not always easy. Photo: AFP

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.

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.

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

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. 

Member comments

  1. 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 ” 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).”

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

  3. 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).

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. I think that often spices are used to disguise poor quality of the food, and sugar serves the same purpose. French cuisine has little need for that, because the basic ingredients are very good.

  9. I think it is lack of exposure mostly, if you look at where most former French colonies were distributed and the relatively small backflow of people from those colonies. Tastes are changing, as they did in the UK with the advent of greater affluence and cheaper travel…though that said, French cuisine has a clear identity and is of excellent quality for the most part, so I do not see it being usurped by foreign flavours anytime soon.

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Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit:

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”.