After following our amazing foodie experiences in Northern France, we head south. Covering some of the most beloved dining experiences you can find between Bordeaux and Marseille, and even a step further east to Nice, this article covers some delicious must-try dining experiences across the South of France.
France is a country where people work for a living and visitors love the lifestyle joy of life, and the French everyday approach to life. Much of the special joy you find in France has to do with the food. Food is not rushed here, rarely eaten on the street, unless you are sitting on a restaurant terrace, and it is always appreciated and enjoyed slowly with a glass of wine and with a lot of knowledge about ingredients and preparation. The French really know how to celebrate their food.
The south of France is a vast area with many different types of cooking, from heartier, warming dishes down in the Occitan region near the Pyrenees to lighter dishes in Provence. Good wine can be found all over the country, with so many wine regions that I won’t even try to name them all here.
Instead, I’ve listed a combination of foods, some personal favorites, some that everyone needs to try, plus some famous dishes that have become restaurants around the world.
1. Bordeaux wine
Considering the vast wine region around Bordeaux, this is going to be a pitifully short entry, but there are many more detailed articles on TravelAwaits about this region and subject. The important things to know are that when you are in Bordeaux, visit the Cite du Vin, the wonderful wine museum, go to the wine festival, and go out to eat and drink in the city, while scanning the labels of the wines you particularly enjoy. Then book a customized wine tasting tour with a driver, and remember that most wineries ship their wine worldwide, so bring a credit card.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the beautiful little Saint-Emilion, a perfect lunch stop during the tour.
2. The cassoulet
This hearty bean casserole, always associated with Toulouse, takes its name from the clay pot in which it is cooked, casserole, a special cookware and serving dish made from the local ceramics. Strictly speaking, the birthplace of cassoulet is Castelnaudary, and the story goes that in 1355 the townspeople gathered the food they had left during a siege and made a large stew cooked in a pot. Every family and every restaurant has a slightly different recipe for the old favourite, and while they all have white beans in common, it’s the additions that vary from duck to pork, from Toulouse sausage to charcuterie, that make it so much fun to try different recipes.
Pro tip: Sit outside the market halls of Toulouse at Le J’ Go for a taste of the cassoulet favored by the locals.
3. La Pomponette
There are many more dishes to try in this region, from the Toulouse sausage to Windows cake, but this one is one of my absolute favourites. To eat one pomponette (don’t you just love that name?) is like biting into a fluffy cloud. It looks substantial, but this simple sugary brioche bun with a hint of orange is practically hollow and so light I managed two in one sitting.
The pomponet seems to have evolved from the original Pomponette de Toulouseit couronne brioche, a brioche crown or circular cake like a giant bagel. This was usually eaten in January, in the same way as Galettes des Rois eaten at Epiphany all over France. Someone very clever made them into individual little bowls perfect for breakfast.
Pro tip: Go straight to Au Poussin Bleu, père et fils, in the old quarter, and despite what I said about not eating on the street, bite right into it as you go.
4. Pink Salt
The Camargue is famous for its wild horses, its flamingos and its beautiful otherworldly landscape. Part of what makes the landscape so unusual are the pink salt lakes, which are not only stunning to look at, but also produce a salt worth taking home with you. The fleur de sel, named after snowflake or flower-like crystals, is a type of salt harvested from the lagoons, which are filled with seawater that then evaporates, leaving behind the salty crust. The salt is famously produced in France, also on the Ile de Re, and adds that special flavor to your dishes, salads and chocolate desserts. The large crystals are pretty, and you can buy the salt in sacks and boxes which are perfect to take home, so you can sprinkle a little France on your food.
Pro tip: Exploring the salt marshes is more interesting than it first appears, and you can do it with a small tourist train, on foot or by mountain bike. Afterwards you can go and buy some salt.
5. Roquefort cheese
If you’re a blue cheese enthusiast, look no further than Roquefort. This sheep’s milk diet formed with the help of bacteria penicillium roquefortia cousin of our antibiotics, originates just north of Montpellier and is called le fromage des rois et des papes, the cheese of the king and the popes. Roquefort was allegedly the favorite cheese of Charlemagne, and the recipe is one of the world’s oldest for cheeses. Protected by French law, the sharp and salty cheese is usually crumbled over salads or used in pasta dishes and is best enjoyed with a dry red wine from the region.
Pro tip: To see where the cheese comes from, visit the impressive Roquefort Societe Caves. You will see hundreds of cheeses stored in the rather cool underground rooms, learn more about the process, and of course taste at the end.
6. Foie Gras
I debated whether to include foie gras in this selection; after all, the treatment of ducks and geese is not humane, in fact horrifically cruel, but I feel that foie gras is such a staple on French menus that it must be mentioned. Basically, foie gras is the fatty and enlarged liver – Goose liver literally means fatty liver – from ducks and geese force-fed grain, causing the liver to grow to around 10 times its normal size. If it doesn’t make you want to go vegetarian, it will probably end up on your list of favorite foods, and the delicacy is not only on the menu of every good French restaurant, but is also an essential food eaten at Christmas.
Pro tip: In fact, as gruesome as it may be, the French can’t actually be blamed for inventing foie gras. It was the ancient Egyptians who saw ducks and geese gobble themselves up during migration and came up with the idea of speeding up the process.
From a horrible fatty food to a very sweet food. The French nougat, the chewy confection made of sugar, honey, egg white and nuts, is a Provençal delicacy, is delicious, and the best nougat comes from Montelimar just north of Avignon. But then again, it wasn’t the French who invented the sweet dish, but the Arabs, who still have a penchant for honey and nuts in their desserts today.
Just as foie gras is a staple of Christmas across France, in Provence, sweet dishes predominate, and nougat is among 13 different sweet treats served during the feast.
Pro tip: I’m sure your mouth is watering, so why not head straight to a nougat factory to see how it’s made and taste the many varieties? If you can’t make it to Provence, and find yourself in Paris around Christmas time, you can buy every nougat imaginable from the stalls along Boulevard St. Germain.
This iconic dish, much praised by the chef and cookbook author Julia Child, who lived in Marseille for a year, is a dish the locals are very proud of, and the ingredients are specified in a charter. Basically, bouillabaisse is a fish stew, originally made with fish not sold at the daily fish market in Marseille by the fishermen and enhanced with herbs and ingredients found in the surrounding countryside. Bouillabaisse has grown up somewhat today to include high-end fish and many additional ingredients, but still sticks to the basic list of herbs etc. to be called a bouillabaisse.
Pro tip: The dish is hearty, fresh and so typical of the South of France, it would be almost a shame to recreate it away from home. But there’s a lot to learn about the local cuisine, so why not spend a gourmet day learning how to cook?
9. Salad Nicoise
ONE Salad Nicoise has pretty much become a summer staple around the world, but it has its humble origins in the city of Nice. Originally a food for “poor people” who tossed together some lettuce, tomatoes, anchovies, boiled eggs and tuna to make a light but filling dish, today the salad has gained almost cult status, even having The New Yorker rhapsodize about it.
The beauty of this dish is that it is within everyone’s reach. There’s not much to dislike about it, except maybe capers or anchovies, depending on your inclination, but it’s cheap, easy to make, and downright delicious. You don’t need a cooking class; you don’t even have to come to Nice – although it improves the taste enormously.
For more on France, explore these articles: