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FRENCH TRADITIONS

Oysters to firemen’s balls: France’s real cultural calendar

Some countries have just four seasons, but those lucky enough to live in France have a dizzying array of different 'seasons' defined by food, drink, dress and festivals. Here is our guide to the real seasons of France.

Mushrooms, protests and oysters all have a season in France.
Mushrooms, protests and oysters all have a season in France. All photos: AFP

New Year

The first day of a new year is a public holiday in France, but the event itself isn’t as much of a big party as you get in other countries, so don’t expect a wild night. Save that for July (see below).

Galette des rois 

As the new year begins, boulangeries fill up with special cakes wearing gold crowns. These are the galettes des rois, traditionally eaten on January 6th to mark epiphany, along with a complicated ceremony to decide who will be lucky in the year ahead.

Galette des rois: Everything you need to know about France’s royal tart

Truffle season 

If you’re in south west France the ‘black diamond’ season runs from December to March as the black truffles particular to the region are harvested and sold off at specialist markets.

Pancakes

February sees La Chandeleur, the day when the French eat crêpes and indulge in more complicated rituals to bring luck for the year ahead (hey, everybody needs a bit of luck, right?)

La Chandeleur: The day the French go crazy over crêpes

Easter 

Easter marks a two-week holiday for French schools and a single day off for French workers – Easter Monday is a holiday in France but only workers in the Alsace-Lorraine region get Good Friday off, for reasons to do with war with Germany.

The day itself is marked with family dinners, extravagant cakes from the patisserie, lots of chocolate and a cute story about flying bells

Riots and lucky flowers

May 1st, the international workers’ day, is a public holiday in France, usually marked big marches from trade unions and much smaller riots from the usual suspects.

If you’re not a fan of rioting you could always join in the other May Day tradition of buying a muguet (Lily-of-the-Valley) flower. These are sold across France in aid of various good causes and are said to bring (what else?) good luck to the buyer.

What May Day really means to the French

Double public holiday month #1

May sees two public holidays, May 1st and the commemoration of VE Day on May 8th, although whether you get extra time off work depends on the year.

Rosé season

As the temperatures begin to rise big coats are cast aside and suddenly the wine shops are full of rosé. A lightly chilled rosé wine is of course a classic summer drink for any occasion and is especially popular in Provence where many rosés are made.

Picnic season

Good weather also means picnics, which the French tend to take more seriously than other nations. If you’re invited to a picnic don’t think you can get away with bringing a ham sandwich and a couple of bags of crisps – think salads, a selection of good cheeses or charcuterie, fresh baguette, something from the patisserie to finish with and of course, wine.

Soft fruit as far as the eye can see 

Seasonality of fruit and vegetables is more strictly observed in France and as many soft fruits come into season in the summer months expect to see peaches, apricots, strawberries piled high at your local market once the harvests begin.

Firemen’s balls

July 14th marks France’s Fête nationale (known as Bastille Day in the anglophone world) which is a public holiday and also sees lots of military parades. But the best bit is the Bals de pompiers (firemen’s balls) which France’s famously well-toned firefighters host at their stations for the general public.

What you need to know about Bastille Day

Everyone on the beach

July and August are the summer holiday months when French cities empty out and French people decamp to the beaches or the mountains. You can pretty much forget about getting much work done over the summer as most people will be away but you might enjoy the feeling of a strangely deserted Paris (apart from in the tourist spots).

The 8 signs that August has arrived in France

La rentrée

Everyone holidaying at the same time means a grand return to work in September as schools and universities begin a new academic year, parliament begins sitting again and most people head back to their workplaces. Avoid driving on the final weekend before la rentrée unless you particularly enjoy sitting in traffic jams.

Foire aux vins

The wine harvest begins in September and October, depending on the weather and the region, and shops clear their shelves with foires aux vins – wine sales.

Mushroom foraging season

As mushrooms come into season you will see heaped stalls at the market, but many French people also enjoy foraging for their own mushrooms. Fortunately, pharmacies offer a mushroom-checking service to ensure that your haul is safe to be eaten.

What you need to know for safe an enjoyable mushroom foraging in France

La chasse

If you live in the country now is the time to be ready to duck as the hunting season begins. Hunting in France largely involves shooting and hunters are not always the most scrupulous about health and safety, so it pays to be wary if you’re walking in the country when la chasse is out.

Huge coats and scarves season

As soon as the temperatures begin to drop even a couple of degrees in September, the French dig out their big coats and scarves, even though the weather may still seem pretty mild to anyone who grew up in northern Europe or the northern states of the USA.

Toussaint

Halloween is not as a big a deal in France as in the USA, although it is gradually becoming more popular but November 1st is All Saints Day (Toussaint) and that is a public holiday. Schools also have a two-week holiday around this period.

Calendar season

With the end of the year in sight, calendars go on sale and many groups sell their own door-to-door to aid good causes.

Racelette/fondue season

Cold weather brings with it a variety of France’s heartier winter classics, in particular the delicious melted cheese dishes of raclette and fondue, which are traditionally only eaten as the temperatures fall.

6 of France’s best winter dishes made with melted cheese

Double holiday month #2

November is another month that always has two holidays – November 1st (Toussaint) and Armistice Day on November 11th. 

Vin chaud

Cold weather also means hot wine and the hot, spiced vin chaud is widely sold throughout the cold months in France, sometimes at special stalls or at Christmas markets but also in ordinary bars and cafés if you need a winter warmer.

Oyster season

Tradition (coming from a time before fridges were invented) dictates that oysters should only be eaten in months that have an ‘r’ in the name, which basically means winter.

Popular throughout the season they’re a really big deal at Christmas where they play a starring role in the traditional seafood banquet.

Christmas

If you really love Christmas head to north-east France where the influence of neighbouring Germany ensures the best Christmas markets and traditions. Christmas festivals, markets and events exist across France, however, with lots of presents and special treats. Children get another two weeks off school.

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FOOD & DRINK

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”

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