Ah, my favourite part of France. And I would say that, because this is where I grew up. Indeed, my parents – aged 89 – still live here, in the house that my father built in Saône, a village close to the region’s capital, Besançon.
My childhood was one of gastronomic discovery: days and nights spent in the forests, by rivers and on mountains, fishing for trout, foraging for mushrooms and hunting frogs and snails.
When I returned to make The Very Hungry Frenchman I cooked for my wonderful mother some of the dishes she used to make for me and my siblings. These were traditional dishes of the region: Comté cheese soufflé, and rabbit braised in mustard and vin jaune, which is a wine of the region and a little bit like sherry.
Believe me, if you want to be in heaven, have a slice of Comté with a glass of vin jaune.
What a shame that so many tourists head straight for the south of France and forget about Franche-Comté, with its wide, gently rolling countryside and rustic simplicity, and the rugged Jura mountains, with dense forests, sheer cliffs, deep gorges and torrents of water.
Then there is morteau, the finest sausage in the world. It is smoked in special chimneys called tuyés, and when it is sliced and added to carrots and potatoes, you have a dish fit for a king.
Known as “the belly of France”, Lyon is not only in the centre of the country but is also the centre of gastronomy. In terms of food and drink, it is truly blessed by God.
Over centuries, its two big rivers, the Rhône and Saône, have provided fish for the inhabitants, and waterways for food and produce to be transported across the country and beyond.
If ever you become a vegetarian, don’t move here. The Lyonnais people are seriously carnivorous. They devour the pig from nose to tail (the ears are an ingredient in lovely salads), and they savour hearty dishes of offal, from a plate of calf’s head to a bowl of lamb’s foot. Meanwhile, the favourite poultry of Lyon comes from Bourg-en-Bresse, and is that super-duper chicken, poulet de Bresse (below). Its taste is so spectacular that it is worshipped by food lovers all over the world.
Lyon has attracted numerous Michelin-starred chefs, including Paul Bocuse, one of the world’s greatest-ever cooks, and a good friend of mine.
If you visit the city, please eat in one of its traditional restaurants, which are called bouchons. They were established a few hundred years ago to cater for silk workers passing through the city, and serve cheap, gutsy, rustic dishes of paté and saucissons. For one episode of The Very Hungry Frenchman I took over a bouchon where I made another Lyon speciality, quenelle of pike with a sauce of crayfish. Luckily, it was well received.
With its narrow, cobbled streets and ancient timber-framed houses, Alsace is like a little fairy-tale country. Its culture has been enriched by France and Germany, which is noticeable in the cuisine – but the food is neither French nor German. It is distinctly Alsatian – and that means German portions with French quality. Though it is said that it was monks who came from Ireland in the seventh century who introduced what is now the world-renowned cheese, Munster, meaning monastery.
Alsatians love their cabbage, which when shredded and fermented with spices becomes choucroute (or sauerkraut, which translates as sour cabbage) and is served with potatoes and cured meat, be it ham, bacon or sausage. They also love their onions, which have been classified as a regional treasure. The Mulhouse is a particularly powerful variety and, my God, it will make you cry from a hundred paces.
The cafés serve flammekeuch (or tarte flambée), which dates back to the 16th century and is a sort of pizza with an onion paste topping. And Alsace’s fruit orchards provide the region’s many fruit liqueurs and eaux-de-vie. These include Kirsch (distilled from cherries and their stones) and Mirabelle (made from yellow plums).
Near the town of Colmar I visited the patissière Madame Ferber, who is known as the Queen of Jam, and she showed me how to make kugelhopf (above). This crown-shaped cake is extremely light, a bit like brioche, but not so light when you eat it with jam and cream, as you must.
Marc Haeberlin, the Michelin-starred chef, cooked me a dish of chunks of lamb, pork, and beef with potatoes, onions, white wine, juniper berries, garlic and thyme. This hearty dish is called baeckeoffe, which means “baker’s oven”. Originally, wives would give the pot to the baker on Saturday to place in his cooling ovens during Sunday church service. How do you know if it’s authentic? It includes succulent pig’s tail.
It is as if wine courses through the veins of this region. Its culture is immersed in wine, the enchanting landscape is defined by the wine and, of course, the food is steeped in wine. What began as peasants’ food was so good the aristocrats took it for their own tables.
We think of Burgundy as the birthplace of boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, dishes famous all over the world. But the Burgundians don’t stop there. They like snails in red wine, pears poached in red wine and – for breakfast – an egg poached in red wine.
Then there is the beef, which is from the acclaimed Charolais breed – they are utterly spoilt on a diet of spring water and lush varieties of grass that help fatten the cattle. To join the beef on the plate the Burgundians created Dijon mustard, made from local mustard seeds.
Throughout Burgundy, blackcurrants grow abundantly and do not go to waste. They are used to make that divine liqueur, cassis. It is used in desserts and, when mixed with a white wine, becomes the Burgundian aperitif, kir. And with a glass of kir the locals nibble on gougères (which are small balls of choux pastry, often mixed with cheese and mustard) or goujons friture – called gudgeons in English, tiny fish deep-fried and ￼served with tartare sauce. Burgundy’s scores of cheeses include Epoisses, which is thought to have been invented by 15th-century monks. The most traditional version is dipped in Marc de Bourgogne every day for two months. Not for the faint-hearted.
“Provençal dishes are usually simple,” says my friend, the chef Gérald Passédat, who has a three-starred Michelin restaurant beside the Mediterranean in Marseille. “Often our dishes include fish, olive oil, tomatoes, garlic… no cream and no butter… but lots of wine and lots of sun.”
Provence is all about food that makes you feel healthy and happy. Look around: there is the sea, with its magnificent fish that are desperate to make their way onto your plate, and in the interior of Provence there is a landscape of hills, with olive trees and vineyards.
This is where you will find bouillabaisse, that classic soup of fish – perhaps John Dory, scorpion and sea bream – cooked with tomatoes, onions, garlic, saffron, star anise and fennel, and a splash of Pastis or cognac, of course.
I went to pick artichokes and then made barigoule, a typical Provençal dish in which artichokes are gently cooked with onions, garlic and white wine, to which I added smoked bacon, thyme, bay leaf and preserved lemon.
I bought gariguette strawberries, which are small and aromatic, from the wonderful markets of Provence. And I went to Aix-en-Provence for the Blessing of the Calissons: a unique religious festival at which a priest blesses small almond biscuits called calissons, which were offered to the people of Aix at the end of a plague outbreak in the 17th century.
Provence cheeses are mainly made with milk that comes from goats and sheep, and both are used for Banon, a small cake covered in chestnut leaves and bound with raffia. And in the rocky region the Rove goats munch away on the wild herbs, which give their milk a taste that makes Brousse du Rove cheese a local delicacy. Under the hot sun of Provence, the locals eat it with sugar and a sprinkling of orange flower water. Delicious.
Raymond Blanc: the Very Hungry Frenchman is on tonight at 8.00pm on BBC2
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 24 January 2012