(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!
Thank you for visiting the French Girl in Seattle… Takes France blog.
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I have rented a number of airbnb apts in either Lyon or Paris and have yet to find one with a kitchen like the one you describe! Ikea dishes and a few pots seem to be the standard equipment, unfortunately. However, if I were an owner, I might not want to let careless renters destoy my beloved set of Le Creuset.
Re your comment about wooden cheese boxes and the scarcity of poplar trees, it’s not just an issue of pretty packaging. The wood actually contributes to the taste of many cheeses – interesting article about the relation of spruce wood to the taste of le vacherin Mont d’Or at http://www.produits-laitiers.com/article/question-pas-bete-pourquoi-certains-fromages-sont-ils-entoures-de-bois
Merci for sharing the article about the Vacherin Mont d’Or. Très intéressant. I certainly hope France continues to use poplars to store some of the best cheese. I have an adverse physical reaction to seeing cheese constantly wrapped in plastic in my corner of American suburbia. You can never smell it. Dommage.
Ah, ah…we have several camembert cheese boites tacked to our wall as decoration–including a giant one about 18″ across that Miss Chef brought home from work years ago.
My year in Paris, that caddy made me jealous of grey-haired grannies, as I wouldn’t spend the money on one. They were surprisingly expensive, as I recall.
Camembert boxes as wall decor? Pourquoi pas? (as long as you can get rid of the smell, of course!) I owned a caddie in Paris for a while. It was a fun one, and I remember getting one at the local “Dollar store,” so it was not too pricey. It came in handy on my Saturday morning trips to the local outdoor market in the 11th arrondissement. A bientôt!
J’ai tout dans ma cuisine, sauf l’opinel. 😉
You are absolutely right; nearly all of the items mentioned can be found in my kitchen. Love my caddie when I go to the market ; so convenient! And it’s not only the old ladies who use it; lots of younger people do too.
I inherited my flame Creuset from my Mum and it’ll most likely be handed down to my daughter after me.
Duralex glasses, especially the narrow bottom one, scream school or company cantine! They are everywhere!
One word of caution concerning le savon de Marseille. There has been a scandal last year when it came to light that most savon de Marseille sold on Marché de Provence are actually produced in China and not in Provence.
Astérix was probably away fighting for another brand. 🙂
Merci de votre visite, Miss Bougie. I had not heard about the MarseilleSoap-Gate! I will be extra cautious next time I order, though, to be fair, the old-fashioned bar of soap lasts for ever. Bonne semaine!
Comment faire de la bonne cuisine française ?il suffit de suivre le guide de votre blog pour les outils ….mais comment s’y prendre ? C’est tout l’art de nos grands-mères passé de main en main !
Il suffit d’avoir un bon livre de Julia Child (en Amérique) ou celui de Ginette Mathiot (que vous m’avez offert il y a longtemps,) en France, Mutti. Merci de votre visite.
Delightful post – I must look for an Opinel knife. Fond memories from this post. Merci beaucoup!
Je vous en prie, Cherie. You mean after all those trips to France you have never invested in an Opinel? 🙂
Love my Le Creuset dutch oven! Also have a small skillet from them that is probably 35 (?) years old now, still cooking like a champ.
We inherited my in-laws’ raclette maker (also with a few decades under its, er…belt), and it’s become our New Year’s Eve family tradition.
Duralex glasses, check! Wine opener, check! Four for ten…pas mal?
Pas mal du tout, and your French kitchen accessories come with many happy memories: The best Way!
Avec tous ces ustensiles,il devient plus facile de cuisiner à la française,non,?mom
I want that Opinel knife! I’ve been dreaming of the Le Creuset dutch oven for a long time!
I wish the sturdy French caddies were available here in the U.S. The local ones are cheap and sadly flimsy.
The “only upper body workout” statement was hilarious! Thank you so much for an entertaining read. I don’t have a Le Creuset yet but I am seriously thinking about getting one as I am seeing a lot of recipes that calls for its use. Thank you again!
I brought my caddie in Paris last year for about 12 euros and I love it! Took it back on the train to st Malo and it has been an absolute god send getting my shopping home up the steep hill in Guernsey! I do get some strange looks though……
Vero, Will you go shopping for me . I want them all!
Ha. Well, some of the items may be available online at the French Girl in Seattle boutique. Give it a try Joyce! 🙂 A bientôt.
Never knew the wine opener shape was related to de Gaulle, but I have one, along with the Picardie Duralex glassware. And le Creuset. And now that I’m in my mid-70’s, I want Le Caddie!!
Great article, thank you!
Bonjour Diane. Le caddie is always a good idea, except if you have to climb stairs to get home – and have lost your elevator, as I have in my building, right now! 😉