Gastronomy: Eating on the Road in France

France and food go to together like, er, like France and cycling – Emma Philpott's here to whet your appetite

Sausages of all shapes, sizes and flavours at the market in Cahors. Photo: John Purvis

Sausages of all shapes, sizes and flavours at the market in Cahors. Photo: John Purvis

When you're cycling in France, it's impossible not to obsess about eating. There are warm croissants to be eaten, baguettes filled with goat's cheese, fine cuts of meat cooked in a multitude of ways, fresh fish, organic vegetables and good value wines. No matter the length of your cycling tour, it's essential to get off the bike and explore the food on offer.

I can still smell the ripening apples along the Route des Fruits tourist trail in Normandy, where I cycled in autumn a few years ago. Cooking at a campsite outside the village of Jumièges after cycling past orchards all afternoon, we couldn't resist adding stewed apple sauce to sausages for dinner. On the same trip we dined at a nouvelle cuisine restaurant in the seaside town of Etretat, washed down crepes with cider and ate homemade apple tart.

As well as the fruit trail, you can explore signposted food tourism trails in Normandy for cider and Camembert – pick any other region of France and you'll find just as many food-centred towns, great dining experiences and local specialties on offer.

Regional food in France is influenced by the produce available locally and by eating what is in season – you don't have to spend a lot of money to eat well. If you're cooking, you could spend less than €5 a day on ingredients, but that would mean missing out on fresh pastries, occasional restaurant meals and good quality cheese on your daily baguette. With a few treats, an occasional coffee and a couple of meals out, €10–€15 per day is more reasonable. If you're staying in hotels or are planning to eat at least one restaurant meal each day, your food spend could range between €40 and €60.

Fresh produce at the market in La Rochelle. Photo: mksfca

Fresh produce at the market in La Rochelle. Photo: mksfca

Food shopping essentials

Whether you're planning to cook or just looking for snack food, head to French supermarkets for the basics. They stock a wide range of dried goods including rice, pasta, cous cous, interesting ranges of sauces, and meat, cheese and fish at reasonable prices. Most will also have a decent section of fresh fruit and vegetables. Smaller central city branches should be sufficient for your needs, but if you're looking for organic or allergy-specific foodstuffs, these can be found at the hypermarkets on the outskirts of larger town. The major supermarket chains include Carrefour, Auchan, Simply, Géant Casino, Intermarché, E.Leclerc and Super U. If you're on a tight budget, it's worth stopping at discount supermarkets such as Leader Price, Aldi, Lidl and Netto – the selection here is more limited, but you'll get all the basics at rock-bottom prices.

Produce markets are ideal sources of seasonal fruit and vegetables and they're often an important social event for many towns and villages as well. Larger markets also have bakery goods, dried fruit and nut vendors, fishmongers, and delicatessen stalls where you can buy cured meats and cheeses. Most towns have at least one market day per week, sometimes more. Campsites, hotels or tourist information centres should be able to tell you the market schedule for their local area.

The joys of the daily baguette shop. Photo: Jenny Downing

The joys of the daily baguette shop. Photo: Jenny Downing

Your daily bread

Bread is very important to the French and it's best bought directly from a boulangerie which bakes baguettes, flutes and pain each day. Also try pain céréales (multi-grain), pain aux figues (with figs) and other specialty breads. Quick breakfasts and mid-morning snacks can include warm pastries like croissants, pain aux raisins or a pain au chocolat.

Some boulangeries or epicures (small grocers) will make up sandwiches to order, which can be an easy lunch solution – it's worth asking even if you can't see evidence of sandwich making.

To try regional specialties, browse in specialty shops such as charcuteries selling pork products, including salamis and sausages, pâtisseries for quiches and cakes, and fromageries stocking a huge variety of cheese. These shops can provide the fillings for baguettes, inspiration for picnic spreads and interesting ingredients for dinner.

Before you set off, be aware of French trading hours. Shops are usually open from 9am–7pm with a break for up to three hours after 12pm or 12.30 (which is typically when you'll be thinking about lunch as well). Shops in bigger towns have shorter lunch breaks and most supermarkets are open all day. Additionally shops are usually shut on Sundays, and may also be shut on Saturday afternoons. There are some exceptions – larger supermarkets will be open on Sunday until about 12:30, while boulangeries in larger towns might be open all day (but don't bet on it).

A bicycle-friendly café in Montmartre, Paris. Photo: Rous

A bicycle-friendly café in Montmartre, Paris. Photo: Rous

Eating out options

No matter what your budget is, it's worth splurging on a few restaurant meals while in France. Prices vary across the country, but generally it's possible to eat at a nice French restaurant for less than €30 a head.

Particularly good value are 'menu du jour' or 'prix fixe' menus, commonly two or three courses for less than €20. The menu du jour offers a choice of dishes for each course and may include water or wine; meals are usually of suitable proportions for hungry cyclists. Fixed menus are typically available at lunch time, though sometimes the same menu is available in the evening. 

Bistros and cafés are usually more informal and cheaper than restaurant,s and these can be a good option if you don't want a huge or lengthy meal. Another informal option is eating at a creperie, which serves crepes with sweet and savoury fillings. Look out also for takeaway crepe options – perfect if there's a nearby river or park to eat near.

If Paris is on your itinerary, see Paris by Mouth for restaurant recommendations; in smaller towns, head to places that look popular with the locals.

Campsite cooking

If you're camping, carry basic cooking gear to make use of the produce on offer. A camp kitchen for two people should include a camp stove, pot and non-stick frying pan, plus a good knife and chopping surface. In my kitchen kit I also carry cooking oil or butter, stock cubes, flour, a stirring implement and salt and pepper. Small amounts of vinegar and spices can also be useful but the exact setup will depend on your personal tastes and preferences.

French campsites may have a small shop attached but be aware that these usually only carry basics and will most likely be closed outside of high season. An on-site shop may supply fresh bread, eggs and often wine. Many have a morning bread delivery service from a local bakery and those attached to farms may have meat and vegetables for sale direct from the farmer.

Books and recipes

For even more campsite cooking tips, see the Cool Camping Cookbook, The Camping Cookbook by Annie Bell, The One Pan Gourmet: Fresh Foodon the Trail by Don Jacobson, The Complete Trail Food Cookbook: Over 300 Recipes for Campers, Canoeists and Backpackers and The Backpacker's Cookbook by David Coustick.

See our separate article for more on campsite cooking and Emma's simple campsite recipe ideas, as well as our guide to choosing a camp stove. We also have an overview of cycle camping and a guide to choosing a tent.

Emma Philpott is a world-curious New Zealander who packed up London life to cycle back to New Zealand in March 2010, boyfriend in tow. After spending winter in Istanbul, they are travelling east during 2011 towards Russia, Mongolia, China and South-East Asia. You can follow her adventures on her Rolling Tales blog.

See Emma's other articles for Freewheeling France


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