Time to Let Go of These French Food Myths

Is Aligoté necessary for a great Kir? Do the French ever serve butter with their bread?  When do the French serve salads, anyway? And are we over Absinthe?

Is Aligoté necessary for a great Kir? Do the French ever serve butter with their bread? When do the French serve salads, anyway? And are we over Absinthe yet?

A few years ago, I was on a press trip (ask me about these sometime…I have stories!) to Bordeaux. It was unseasonably hot, and I mentioned how nicely a Pernod—classically served with ice and water—might go down at the end of this long, hot day of touring vineyards.

Pernod?” a fellow traveler said. “We should find some true absinthe.”

I looked at my watch. Any minute now, I thought, this person is going to start going on about how Armagnac is so much better than Cognac….

Actually, it took a couple days, but at the end of the trip, there we were on our last night. Someone ordered Cognac. “You should have an Armagnac! They’re much better,” my smarty-pants traveler said.


Certainly, one should like what they like…but sometimes such moments feel more like knee-jerk one-up-manships rather than meaningful impulses of one foodie sharing something great with another.

Let’s take a look at some of these oft-spouted clichés:

Historic bottles of Cognac on display in Cognac, France

Historic bottles of Cognac on display in Cognac, France

1. “Armagnac is so much better than Cognac!”

Look, you might well think that. But are you sure you’re not just saying it because Armagnac happens to be the more obscure of these two French brandies and hence, has more cachet?

Having traveled and sampled my way through both the Cognac and Armangac regions, here’s my take: It’s true that Armanac and Cognac are made differently. It’s true that a lot of mediocre, industrially produced Cognacs make their way into the U.S.

But if you put a fabulous bottle of Cognac up against a fabulous bottle of Armagnac, choosing the better of the two would be somewhat akin to choosing between a great Bordeaux and a great Burgundy. Each would be great in different ways.

So next time someone offers you a beautiful Cognac from the Borderies region—rife with piercing brightness and fascinating florals—you might want to give the Armagnac-Cognac hegemony a rest.

Remember--One Part Pernod to Five Parts Water

Pernod is just fine with me.

2. “If you like Pernod, you really should try a true Absinthe!”

When my husband and I first started travelling to France, we would order Pernod, Ricard, Pastis 51, or other pastis drinks for the simple reason that they were often the least-expensive thirst-quenching drink you could get in a café.

One trip, we noticed that a chic young waitress at one of our favorite cafés could hardly suppress a smirk whenever we ordered one. We finally asked her (in so many polite French words) what was so smirk-worthy about ordering Pernod.

“That’s what old men drink,” she said.

And yet, about 10 years later, trendy cocktail enthusiasts started cooing over of pastis’s kissing cousin, absinthe. Was the taste really that different? Or were some new fans simply lured in by absinthe’s well-marketed back-story (you know—artists and hallucinogens and all that)?

Of course, there are probably plenty of drinkers who truly prefer absinthe over pastis. But the genuine absinthe enthusiast (versus the knee-jerk myth-lover) likely won’t bat an eye at a Pastis-drinker’s choice of spirit.

3. “The French never serve butter with their bread.”

Tell it to those who live in Normandy and Brittany. Indeed, that basket of bread is often served without butter, but never say never. Here’s a post about exactly when the French do serve butter with their bread.

4. “The French always serve salads after the main course.”

By now, you should know that “always” and “never” should never (oops!) be part of the vocabulary when talking about what the French do and don’t do. In France, I’ve enjoyed salads before the main course, with the main course (especially at lunch alongside the classic steak-frites), as well as after the main course. It truly depends on the salad. For example, the French generally wouldn’t serve complicated salads—those with poached eggs, beets, or a variety of ingredients beyond greens—after the main course; such a complex salad would likely be a starter.

Salads for serving before, with, and after the main course.

Salads for serving before, with, and after the main course.

Salads served after the main course are usually quite simple—greens tossed with a vinaigrette—served as a palate refresher as you move to the cheese course or dessert. And of course, sometimes the cheese course is served avec sa petite salade verte (with its little green salad).

What? Chase all over town to find a real Aligoté for my Kir? You can, but I'm not.

What? Chase all over town to find a real Aligoté for my Kir? You can, but I’m not.

5. “The best Kirs are made with a true Aligoté from Burgundy.”

Well, if you said the original (or perhaps even the most authentic) Kirs were made with Aligoté (as the first ones indeed were), you might have a point. Yet really, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever (unless it’s just for the fun of it) to seek out an Aligoté to make your Kirs.

In fact, I’ve heard tell that the original Kir (the white wine/crème de cassis apéritif) was devised, in part, to do something interesting with this undistinguished wine, which is much less hallowed than that other Burgundian white, Chardonnay.

All over France, mighty fine Kirs are made with whatever dry local white is around, with the exception of Riesling–a combo I’ve not seen but that may exist somewhere (never say never!). Sauvignon Blanc makes particularly good Kirs, as do low-oak Chardonnays and blends from Ugni Blanc. Really.

Here’s a post that explains more about the Kir—along with comments on whether or not you “must” use an Aligoté for a kir.

More posts you might enjoy:
How to serve a cheese course—the French way.
The Art of the Apéritif
All About the Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day.


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5 comments to Time to Let Go of These French Food Myths

  • Fred

    I was surprised to see you find Pernod served with ice; I’ve always had to request it in addition to the cold water. The only brandy I really like better than usual brandies is Courvoisier. It seems a little smoother and richer which prefer. But I totally agree on the personal preference being most important.

  • I much prefer cassis the way my father learned to drink it while on assignment in France during the dark and daring years right after WWII: with vermouth.

  • Patricia Flournoy

    We spend our summers in Beaune and enjoy Kirs with whatever wine we have on hand. But Aligot is usually so inexpensive that it is our choice…and we save the wonderful whites for dinner…I also found that there is a big difference in Cassis…16% or 20% 20% being the most favorful!

    • Wini

      Wow–great tip about the 20%. I just looked at my brand (Heritier-Guyot) and it’s 20%, and indeed, it’s great. Thanks for pointing this tidbit out!

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