(Note: This article was written in 2015 when I lived in the United States. I live in France once again. It’s been updated.)
The French kitchen (especially its Provençal version) is popular in the United States and many countries around the world. I have often visited beautiful homes where imported le Jacquard Français tablecloths and dish towels or Laguiole knife sets to name just a few are proudly displayed, cherished souvenirs of trips to la Belle France. As I was working in my American apartment-sized kitchen the other day, I started making a list of the French items I have always had around. I suspect they would be found in many French natives’ kitchens as well. You have probably spotted them in that rental apartment you booked through AirbnB or vrbo.com during your last trip to France. Do you recognize them?
First, voilà three classics in French cookware:
1. La cocotte le Creuset.
This is the French brand that will outlive them all. Since 1925, the cast iron le Creuset dutch oven has been lovingly manufactured in France. Drawbacks? Only two: The sheer weight of the larger size cookware (lifting a cocotte is the only upper body workout most French women likely indulged in for years) and the hefty price tag. Benefits? There are many, from the gorgeous colors, to the ease of cleaning, and of course the ability to turn almost any recipe into a smashing hit.
Julia Child would not have been caught dead without her trusted le Creuset cookware. If something was good enough for Julia, then it is good enough for most of us amateur cooks. In the US le Creuset can be found at a few retailers. I enjoy looking at new collections (and new colors) at Sur la Table.
2. La cocotte-minute (l’auto-cuiseur)
When I lived in Paris, most friends of mine owned a pressure cooker. Americans have a love-hate relationship with them. They got a bad rap in the US in the 1950s when the process was not as reliable as it is today and many accidents were reported.
Things went downhill after artisanal pressure cookers were used during terror attacks in recent years. I suspect that if French police were to investigate every kitchen equipped with an old (or new) pressure cooker as a potential threat to national security, they would be too busy to do anything else. My grand-mother had one. My mother still owns the pressure-cooker she received in the 1960s as a wedding gift.
I own a pressure-cooker too. I did not like the shape or price tag of the models advertised in the U.S. in fancy stores. Years ago, 7 months pregnant, I flew back to Seattle after a vacation in Paris. In those pre-September 11 days, my carefully wrapped carry-on was a SEB pressure cooker purchased at the reliable Darty storechain. I have used it often and love how easy it is to cook when pinched for time with reliable and delicious results.
A story I am proud of: I once served my famous coq-au-vin at a French expats’ dinner party in Seattle, as requested by the French host. When I presented the dish in a traditional cocotte le Creuset that evening, guests raved about it. After sampling it and smacking his lips, a French native shared with us the secret of French cooking: “food lovingly prepared, left to simmer for hours on the stove.” He never knew the dish had been cooked in less than an hour in the pressure cooker the night before, and reheated for the party.
3. La Raclette TEFAL
The previous two are classic French cookware. This one does not necessarily qualify as cookware, yet you will see it pop up on many French tables in the winter months. Again, more sophisticated versions, like this Swissmar, are sold at gourmet kitchen stores in the U.S. My favorite Raclette machine is made by TEFAL. If you have never tried throwing an impromptu Raclette party for friends in the winter, I highly recommend it! Melted Raclette cheese, cold cuts, condiments, a few sliced vegetables, boiled potatoes, a good dry wine, and a green salad. How bad can it be?
Let’s continue with our small kitchen accessory collection.
Manufactured in the Savoie region since the late 19th century, the Opinel folding knife is still a classic, sturdy, basic and efficient. It is also versatile, and can be used at home, or during a picnic. It traditionally comes in the traditional natural-colored wood handle version, but in recent years, marketing has kicked in, and bright colors have popped up.
I purchased mine in Chamonix many picnics ago. I still bring it on trips, securely packed at the bottom of my checked bag. I have never met a French cheese I did not want to sample while visiting French food markets. If Homeland Security have spotted it when scanning my bags, they have never seemed to bother.
(2021 update: While visiting Annecy and the Savoie region with tour members in recent years, I made sure to point out the local Opinel boutique in town. These knives are a popular and affordable French gift to bring home, and my traveling companions loved comparing their finds on the coach as we moved on to our next destination!)
5. L’Econome (the frugal one)
The humble vegetable peeler invented in Thiers in the 1930s is ubiquitous in many French kitchens, for good reason. Even if newer gadgets do a faster job, few can rival the sharp point of l’Econome to remove potato eyes. I have had mine for years. Many brands offer them, including… Opinel!
6. Le tire-bouchon Charles de Gaulle (the cork opener)
Meet the bottle opener named after the famous French politician and military hero. No additional comment is necessary. This is France. We love wine, and many still love De Gaulle. David Lebovitz once paid a tribute to this French classic.
7. La Boîte à Camembert (The camembert storage box)
We love it. Traditionally made out of poplar trees, (like the crates displaying oysters or strawberries at the local outdoor market) the Camembert box is a French icon. Authentic, rustic, it contains and preserves the runny, smelly cheese, and is said to improve its taste. One problem: Poplars are an endangered tree in France. Alternatives have appeared on the market, though we can all agree eating fresh cheese out of plastic does not quite do the trick (from an aesthetic or a culinary viewpoint.)
8. Le Savon de Marseille
French hand-milled soap makes a popular gift. The oldest brand may very well be le savon de Marseille, handmade in France for over 500 hundred years. The name became a protected trademark under Louis XIV. It appears the Sun King (unlike what longstanding rumors claim about the French court’s unsanitary ways) was aware bad smells could not be hidden by an excessive use of perfume, even in Versailles.
Marseille soap can be found in many colors, shapes, and in liquid form. I have a bottle on my kitchen sink and enjoy its light fragrance when I wash my hands. My favorite version remains the iconic bloc de savon. I have not yet found a better way of removing stubborn stains from shirt collars or a soiled tablecloth.
9. Le Verre Duralex
Born in the 1940s and manufactured in France, the Duralex glass collection (still a favorite in French school cafeterias) has conquered the world. It boasts a classic yet streamlined design, and is almost unbreakable. I drink juice every morning in the Picardie model. I love that James Bond enjoys an occasional drink in the same glass!
10. Le caddie (aka “the granny shopping cart” to unlightened ones)
This one is rather bulky and it does not fit in the French kitchen pantry. You will typically find it in the hallway closet or stored outside on the balcony. Le caddie (la poussette) rules city streets in walking-centric France. Chances are it helped carry most items you find in the French kitchen. Everyone uses it, not just old ladies.
After all, manufacturers have made sure to make it look more appealing to different age groups. Le caddie as street fashion accessory? Absolument. Word of caution to foreign visitors: Many tourists have been injured when bumping inadvertently in a caddie while taking selfies along French market streets.
I hope you enjoyed this colorful and good-spirited tour of the French kitchen. To paraphrase a favorite French comic book series, Asterix and Obelix, “The year is 2015. The world has been taken over by globalization. Well, not entirely… One small country filled by indomitable Gallic brands still holds out against the invaders and fights to preserve the traditions of the French kitchen.”
Vive la France!
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