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French regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in northern France

When you're travelling through France trying local dishes and drinks is always a good idea, so we've taken a virtual roadtrip through France to highlight some of the best regional cuisine.

French regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in northern France
A cook prepares crepes in a creperie in France (Photo by FRED TANNEAU / AFP)

This part of our roadtrip takes in the northern part of France, from the German-influenced culture of Alsace-Lorraine, via Paris to the beautiful seaside resorts of northern France and out east to Brittany and Normandy.

The following is our personal pick of the regional dishes in the area that we travel through, feel free to leave your own food and drink tips in the comment box below.

Strasbourg – If you’re bored with French food (and it’s probably unlikely) you can ring the changes by head to the Alsace-Lorraine region where the historic German influences (the region has passed back and forth between France and Germany several times) can really be seen in the cuisine.

What to order: The classic dish of the region is the sausage-and-cabbage choucroute garnie, but we’re going to recommend gingerbread.

Patisseries in Strasbourg are full of beautifully decorated gingerbread especially on St Nicolas Day (December 6th) and around Christmas. If you’re visiting Strasbourg’s famous Christmas market a gingerbread snack is a must. This is also different to the pain d’épices on offer in most of France, which is really more of a bread that’s often served with savoury things like foie gras.

To drink: Hot spiced wine is ubiquitous in France in the winter (it’s not just a Christmas thing, you’ll find it on offer all winter as a tasty warmer) but a good vin chaud is the perfect accompaniment to gingerbread, especially at a Christmas market. 

Deauville – France’s northern coast is peppered with beautiful seaside resorts including Le Touquet, Etretat and Honfleur. We’re heading to Deauville to sample its long sandy beach and air of slightly faded elegance – and of course the seafood.

What to order: Moules-frites are, by rights, a Belgian speciality (in fact Belgium even lays claim to the invention of the ‘French’ fry) but let’s gloss over that because they’re available pretty much everywhere along the northern French coast and they’re also very delicious.

There are lots of different sauce options available but we think a classic moules marinières is the best – a simple white wine, garlic and herb cause lets you really taste the mussels. When you’ve finished your bucket of mussels, dip your bread and remaining frites into the sauce and let the juice dribble down your chin in a sophisticated and attractive manner.

And to drink: In the spirit of ‘nicking things from the Belgians’ we’re going to recommend beer (although maybe not with your mussels). The French craft beer scene has really boomed the recent years and there are now hundreds of microbreweries and small businesses making delicious beers – especially in northern France. We particularly like the beers from Brasserie Melusine (near Nantes) and La Moutte (near Caen).

Rennes – We’re heading to the capital of the Brittany region to really soak up the best of the Breton culture, from language to history to architecture to food. 

What to order: It can only be one thing – crêpes. The quintessential Breton speciality is one of the highlights of our trip, delicious thin buckwheat pancakes served with a variety of savoury or sweet toppings (and yes, it’s absolutely OK to have savoury crêpes followed by sweet crêpes for dessert). There are dozens of topping options, but we’re going to recommend the classic – ham, cheese and an egg. 

And to drink: Cider is the other speciality of the region. Brittany is famous for its ciders – fresh, apple-tasting and refreshing. They pair beautifully with crêpes or with the region’s other famous food product, the Kouign-ammann cake – sweet delicate laminated dough.

Mont Saint Michel –  Brittany and Normandy have argued about many things down the years, including who lays claim to the area’s best-known tourist resort, Mont-Saint Michel. For now, it’s in Normandy and it’s well worth a visit, especially in winter when there are fewer visitors and you can really appreciate the brooding drama of the ancient structure rising out of the sea.

What to order: Mont-Saint Michel is lovely but it’s also a tourist hotspot with prices to match, so we suggest you content yourself with a snack and then come back over to the mainland for dinner. Once you get to the cheese course there is one you simply have to sample – camembert. You might think you’ve had a camembert but forget the chalky, flavourless supermarket version – in Normandy the ubiquitous cows convert the lush green grass of the region into moist, creamy, ripe camembert. Look out for an AOC camembert to be sure you’re getting local produce.

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To drink: Both Brittany and Normandy grow apples and both make cider (and have a complicated regional rivalry about the correct drinking vessel) but Normandy has something even better – the powerful apply brandy Calvados. 

Paris – you could write a book (and many people have) about great restaurants to try out in Paris, so we won’t try and replicate that here. Instead we suggest doing what the locals do – have a picnic. 

The banning of traffic from the quais of the Seine has created a lovely space by the river which on summer evenings is full of young people who have taken down a blanket, some food and bottles of wine or beer. So enjoy a reasonably priced dinner, the lively atmosphere and what is easily one of the best views in Europe. 

. . . and to mention.

It’s not technically a French speciality, but according to the annual poll plat préférés des français France’s favourite dish is couscous.

Brought to France via its north-African immigrants, the couscouserie is now a fixture of the French high street. In most places, the custom is that you get a heaped plate of couscous and a tureen of vegetarian tagine and then order your meat – eg lamb kebabs, merguez sausage – separately. 

Not only is it delicious, it’s also usually very reasonably priced. 

To find guides to the regional specialities of southern and central France, head to our Food & Drink section.  

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What to know when visiting France’s lavender fields this summer

Known affectionately as 'blue gold,' France’s lavender fields are a popular tourist attraction every year. Here is what you need to know about visiting them:

What to know when visiting France's lavender fields this summer

Lavender is the “soul of Provence,” the French region where the fields can be found. Like wine, lavender was brought to France around 2,000 years ago by the Romans. The flower is the emblem of ‘Haute Provence’ regional identity, though the fields stretch from just outside of Nice almost all the way up to Valence, and they are not fully exclusive to France.

Even the washerwomen, those whose job it was to clean clothes and linen, were referred to as les lavandières in France. 

The flowers, which can be found mainly in two species in Provence, have several uses – as oils for cooking and bathing, as a perfume for soaps, and even as an antiseptic for healing wounds and scars.

The lavender essential oil that comes from Provence is even an AOP (L’Appellation d’origine protégée) in France. 

When is the best time to see the fields?

Typically, the lavender flowers from around mid-June to early-to-mid August. However, depending on the weather, especially if there is a drought or hotter temperatures, the lavender might flower sooner than normal, which is likely the case for this year.

This is unfortunately also a side effect of climate change, which might be pushing up the lavender flowering season.

Where should I go?

The Valensole plateau is perhaps the most famous place to go for lavender fields. Speckled with several small Provencal towns, the area is beautiful, with a mountainous backdrop in the distance. If you go here, you might also be able to see the sunflower fields too.

Sault is perhaps a bit less known, partially because due to its altitude, the lavender typically flowers a bit later.

It is still a great place to go see the fields, and every year the town hosts a Lavender Festival in August. Walking (or cycling) between the villages (Aurel, Saint-Trinit and Saint-Christol) is very manageable.

This is not too far from the Sénanque Abbey, a medieval 12th century abbey which is surrounded by lavender fields. You might notice some small stone houses called bories in the fields, which were historically used for field workers.

Luberon Valley is another location that comes highly recommended. In the area, there is a regional national park, home to rosé wines, castles (chateaux) and charming villages, like Gordes, a stunning hilltop village.

Here you can also find the Musée de la Lavande, if you are looking to learn more about harvesting, producing and distilling lavender, its industry, and some interesting regional history.

How to get there?

You can take a TGV train to Aix-en-Provence or Avignon, or rent a car. With a car, you can also enjoy the several scenic routes that allow you to see the fields from the roads.

What else is there to do while in the region?

The area is also known for its rosé wine, so you could take the opportunity to go visit some vineyards or spend some time wine-tasting. 

In the summer months, the south of France can get quite warm. If you are looking to go swimming or enjoy the water, the Gorges du Verdon are not too far away. Though a bit of a tourist hotspot, the canyon is a beautiful and a wonderful place for paddling along in a canoe.

If you’re a fan of hiking, you can always go for a (light) hike along the Ochre Trail near Roussillon. Here, there are two marked paths that will take you through sunset-colored red and yellow cliffs in an old quarry.

Words of Wisdom

Unless you have been given express permission, do not pick the lavender, as this is the farmer’s livelihood. You can always buy a bouquet from nearby souvenir shops for your photo shoots! 

Also, stick to the paths that exist to avoid trampling any crops, and of course do not litter in the fields.