The French have been creating and cooking for millennia but their culinary skill only came to the forefront in the middle of the 17th century under the aegis of the Sun King, Louis Quatorze. French chefs began using a wider variety of cooking styles and ingredients and laid the foundations of modern day haute cuisine. Their desire for unique tasting dishes drove them to prepare almost anything that moved and many things that didn’t. Here are some of their more unusual French foods that are now considered delicacies and treasured by gourmands throughout France and around the world.
Foie Gras (Goose Liver)
Literally, “fat liver,” this delicacy is unparalleled in taste and texture when matched with a suitable sauterne. The liver itself is produced by “gavage” which is the force feeding of corn to a carefully tended goose. The goose lives a happy, albeit short, life and, in the end, is sacrificed for the pleasure of the diners. The liver thus produced is almost entirely fat and has the consistency of jellied meat. Foie gras should not be confused with pate de foie gras, an entirely different product.
Foie gras pairs exceedingly well with sweet wines. Some even claim that a Gewürztraminer is an excellent choice. In fact, nothing can equal foie gras and Chateau d’Yquem. The richness of the fat as it melts in your mouth is only highlighted by the sweet smoothness of the Premier Cru Supérieur. Expect to pay a little more as there are only 60,000 bottles produced per year and, in some cases, they throw the entire vintage away.
Cuisses des Grenouilles (Frog’s Legs)
As anyone in with a Creole or Cajun accent will tell you, these little delicacies are wonderfully fragrant, flavorful and fun to eat. Typically credited as a French creation, they were probably first seen in the Chinese province of Canton. Perhaps their extraordinary flavor did not travel with Marco Polo himself but the recipe did, indeed, make the trip in rapid order. Cuisses des Grenouilles or “frog’s legs” has been served in France and most other European and Slavic countries for several centuries.
Depending on the preparation, the taste of frog legs can be quite strong. Most traditional French preparations remove the inherent gaminess and the dish paira well with a solid sauvignon blanc. Still, only try these if you’re in a robust mood.
Mention snails as food and most people turn up their noses and avert their eyes. Yet, this surprisingly delicious mollusk is a popular appetizer throughout the French speaking world. Escargots are usually prepared by removing the animals from the shell, cleaning them and then poaching or frying the meat in a mixture of butter, white wine, garlic and other herbs.
The flavor of the snails is quite pronounced but can be paired with any number of red or white wines. Escargot poached in a light and simple butter sauce goes well with a Chenin Blanc or even a Beaujolais while escargot fried with an abundance of garlic is better suited to a strong Burgundy.
Boudin Noir (Blood Sausage)
Blood sausage is known around the world by a variety of names such as biraldo, morcilla, blutworst and red tofu. It is prized in almost every culture as a rich source of protein, vitamins and incredible taste. Due to its distinctive flavor, blood sausage is often an acquired taste, but, if properly prepared, blood sausage should never have a metallic or iron taste.
In France, they call it boudin noir which translates as black pudding. The most common variety, made near Paris, is composed primarily of pig’s blood, suet and onions. These ingredients are mixed with some additional spices and ladled, in liquid form, into casings made from the intestines of the pig and then allowed to congeal. Once hardened the individual links are fried or poached and served with a sweet accompaniment such as fried apples.
Burgundies are often served with boudin noir but many connoisseurs take a tip from the Germans and substitute a solid ale or stout. In either case, the unique taste of boudin noir will not disappoint.
While the term fungi may be off-putting to some, truffles are merely a form of subterranean mushroom. Technically, this incredibly delicious and expensive ingredient is not a mushroom but only a particular part, the fruiting body, of the organism.
Wild truffles are usually found by specifically trained pigs or dogs, and are extremely prized for their flavor. Large specimens of the white variety can garner as much as €100,000 ($200,000) per kilogram at auction. Black truffles cost substantially less; around €1,000 per kilogram. Other varieties of truffles are cultivated and are far more widely available and somewhat less expensive.
Truffles are used in every type of dish from soups to pasta to meat dishes. There is even a truffle vodka on the market. Purists, however, recommend shaving a small amount of white truffle over some fried eggs to best enjoy the taste.
Ris de Veau (Veal Sweetbreads)
Veal itself is made from the meat of a young cow. The word “sweetbreads” is a euphemism for many of the internal organs of the calf including its heart, thymus, pancreas and testicles. In particular, ris de veau confines itself to the thymus and other associated organs in the neck of the animal. It is usually soaked first in a brine and then in milk. The outer membrane is then removed. Finally, the meats can be sautéed in Cognac or grilled as is while other other recipes require breading and frying.
Some sweetbreads can be overpowering in taste and, like foie gras, demand a sweet to semi-wine to cut the richness. Ris de veau is made primarily from the already “sweet” meat of the thymus and is more usually paired with a Chardonnay or even sometimes with Champagne. No matter what the pairing, ris de veau is one of the most delicious varieties of unusual French foods. As with all these dishes, the advice is quite simple, “Try them, you’ll like them.”