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Readers recommend: The best books, TV series and podcasts about France

We asked our readers for their recommendations for books, films, TV series and podcasts about France and the French - here are some of the best.

Readers recommend: The best books, TV series and podcasts about France
There are some excellent books available all about France. Photo: AFP

So if you’re looking forward to some down time over the holidays, here are some recommendations for entertainment, from heavyweight political biographies to funny TV shows and podcasts about the intricacies of the French language.

Books

Love or hate him, few can deny that French President Emmanuel Macron is an interesting character, and his achievement of creating a political party from nothing and ascending to the highest office in the land within two years was quite a feat.

There are plenty of books about him and modern French politics, but Sarah Jackson recommended Adam Plowright’s book The French Exception: “Macron’s rise is an extraordinary story and the author tells it well.

“You’ll also learn a lot about France – such as the moment when Macron becomes enraged with a protester because he insists on addressing him with the informal “tu” form. I couldn’t put it down.”

Here at The Local we also enjoyed Sophie Peddar’s book Revolution française, which focuses on his rise to power and early days in office.

As a foreigner in France, often feeling a little lost, it’s comforting to know that others have been through this before, and some of them have written very funny books about it.

Stephen Clarke’s classic A Year in the Merde got several recommendations and Jeremy Mercer’s Time was Soft There – a paean to the Paris landmark bookstore Shakespeare & Co – was also recommended.

Margaret O’Hare suggested: “‘Big Pig, Little Pig’ by Jacqueline Yallop. A beautiful read, adored by the Francophiles in my life that I have given it to. My husband isn’t a great reader but even he gobbled it up. It is both a debunking and a celebration of life in rural France. Meat-eating foodies will be enthral to the end.

“In fact it’s a sort of modern ‘A Year in Provence’ which I read for the first time only recently and was delighted to discover that it has aged very well. A slightly mischievous paean to the glorious French psyche.”

And of course anything relating to French cooking is also popular, with Margaret adding: “I forgot to mention Felicity Cloake’s ‘One More Croissant for the Road’ a delightful canter around France à velo in pursuit of culinary perfection in regional specialities (plus the odd croissant). Part road-trip, part recipe book, part love-letter to the French lunchtime, it is a witty and easy read.”

Another tip for food and history lovers was A Bite-Sized History of France by Stephane Hinaut, which “combines stories about French food and history. A great book for a Francophile,” says Julia Gray.

The Greater Journey by David McCullough was recommended for anyone interested in history, while here at The Local we loved Anne Sebba’s book Les Parisiennes – about how the women of Paris coped with war, occupation and its aftermath in the 1940s – and the astonishing Resistance story A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorhead.

For French-speakers we can also highly recommend journalist Valentin Gendrot’s book Flic, describing the year he spent working undercover as a police officer in France.

Box sets

Winter is the perfect time to snuggle up with a good TV series or box set and many of our readers recommended Bureau des Legends, with Sarah Jackson saying: “We got completely hooked on this in the last lockdown and binged on the first four series. It’s about the French secret service. The acting and scripting are both exceptional, with lead Mathieu Kassovitz being particularly good.” 

In a similar vein, at The Local we loved Engrenages (released in the UK as Spiral) about the work of a French police unit in the grittier areas of Paris.

READ ALSO ‘Vile snobs’: Why are the French so annoyed about Emily in Paris?

A classic historical series also recommended multiple times was Un Village Français, with Kim Sieminskie saying: “It shows all sides of World War II. The French are not all good, not just the obvious collaborators, but the every day people who have to made hard choices; the Germans aren’t all bad or evil. It is compelling and the characters are so interesting….. I loved it!”

On a lighter note – many people also recommended Dix Pour Cent (released in English as Call My Agent) which as well as being very funny also gives you a crash course in French celebs as many of the big names in French cinema and music make cameo appearances as themselves.

Another funny French offering on Netflix is Au Service de la France, set among France’s secret services in the 1960s as the country slowly lets go of its colonies.

READ ALSO The best Netflix series that will teach you French as the locals speak it

Podcasts

The French podcast market has flourished the past couple of years and for someone looking for something French-themed to listen to, our readers also had good suggestions.

Julia Gray recommended Paris-centred podcast the Earful Tower, hosted by former Local journalist Oliver Gee, saying: “He takes listeners on walks throughout Paris and interviews a wide range of Parisians. He also does some Facebook live events.”

While Rebecca Bright recommended The French Revolution section of Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast.

Anyone keen to discover new parts of France can sign up for Join Us In France Travel podcast, of which one listener said “I learn so much”.

 

She also recommended The Thing About France, which sees France through American eyes. The podcast compares French and American culture, history and relationship through interviews with Americans authors, journalists and others. In one episode, feminist icon Gloria Steinem discusses the difference between French and American feminism.

For those who want to get all the week’s main news stories about France compressed down to a half-hour, The Local recommends Spotlight on France, hosted by two RFI journalists, Sarah Elzas and Alison Hird. A new episode is out every Thursday.

READ ALSO: The 10 best things about Paris that the movies never show

Other recommendations were Dinner For One, which is hosted by a New Yorker living in Paris and according to the description explores what happens “when the Paris fairytale ends and real life begins”.

For French speakers, we also recommend Kiffe ta race, a great listen for anyone interested in race and racism in France. One of the hosts is Rokhaya Diallo, one of the most famous anti-racism activists in France.

One reader recommended France Culture’s radio programme Les Pieds Sur Terre, which is later released as a podcast, saying it was a French version of This American Life.

 

Not strictly about France, but The Europeans is an interesting podcast that covers quite a lot of French issues, since one of its co-hosts lives and works in Paris.

READ ALSO 12 popular French films that teach you something about France

Media subscriptions

And for a gift that keeps giving all year, don’t forget media subscriptions.

Many readers were kind enough to suggest The Local (and we do offer gift subscriptions, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page) but other popular recommendations were The Good Life France, France Today; Bonjour Paris and language site Frantastique.

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FOOD & DRINK

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: www.economie.gouv.fr

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”. 

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