Snails are up there with frogs’ legs as one of the most stereotypical French foods, a rubbery treat that many visitors to France feel compelled to try. The best snails in the country come from Burgundy and the preparation is actually far more complex than you might imagine. You certainly can’t pinch one of these critters off the garden wall and pop it in your mouth. Instead, they are fed cleansing herbs and thoroughly washed prior to boiling. They are then cooked with a whole lot of butter, garlic, and parsley. In all, the process takes three days, which explains their relatively weighty price tag.
It’s said that the French eat every part of the pig aside from the ‘oink’. (Well, as you’ll soon learn, they don’t leave much except the ‘moo’, ‘bah’, and ‘quack’ either.) Trotters, as the British call them, are popular the world over but they are especially adored in France. They are cooked slowly and the final dish is tender and delightfully gelatinous (if there is such a thing). Be warned, there’s no delicate way of eating them and you’ll most likely have to take those feet in your hands and gnaw the meat straight off the bone.
This is the one French delicacy that everybody loves to hate. Foie gras is made by force feeding ducks and geese large amounts of grain in the weeks prior to their slaughter, a process known as gavage, in order to engorge their livers to roughly 10 times their usual size. Producers claim that it is an exaggeration of a natural migratory survival technique whereas activists see it as a shameful abuse of animal rights. Undeterred, the French enjoy the rich, buttery pâté on toast and especially during the holiday period.
It could be the unfortunate similarity of the words ‘offal’ and ‘awful’ that puts Anglophone diners off tripe or it might just be the billowing white mess of it all that causes the distaste. The French, on the other hand, have a great appetite for stomach, preferring to cook it on a low heat for a long time and with lots of herbs and white wine. Tripe’s high protein collagen content also makes it a brilliant health food. Somehow, though, it seems unlikely to catch on as the latest fad anytime soon.
Tongue, you ask, who in their right mind would eat tongue? The French, that’s who. Like a lot of the foods on this list, chefs have devised techniques over the centuries to disguise the true nature (read: horror) of what they are serving their diners. For langue de boeuf, this usually means slicing the great, hulking mass of taste-budded flesh into fine, unrecognizable strips. If you can get over the psychological hurdle of knowing that what you are tasting is the same thing as what you are tasting with then, apparently, it’s a melt-in-the-mouth kind of meat.
Now that you’ve whipped out, carved up, flash fried, and swallowed down the cow’s tongue, you might as well finish off the rest of its head. The brain, either of a full grown cow or a veal calf, is really what most people are after. A popular recipe serves it with a Gribiche sauce, which is made by blending hard-boiled egg yolks with mustard and rapeseed oil. Like tripe, tête de veau is said to have numerous health benefits such as promoting healthy skin and bones, making it a particularly good dish for sufferers of arthritis. And models, presumably.
If ingenuous methods of preparation don’t seem like they’re quite going to do the job, French chefs have been known to invent euphemisms for their more unusual dishes. Case in point: sweetbread, otherwise known as calf pancreas. The best way to prepare it is to first sear it in flour and butter and then mix it with plenty of mushrooms. A nice glass of Burgundy red will also help it slide right down.
When someone orders Andouillette, everyone in the restaurant knows about it. If they’re at your table, you’ll have the smell of that pig intestine sausage in your nose for days. Visually, it’s not exactly stunning either. But, if the locals are to be believed, once you get past the look and smell of the thing the taste is actually surprisingly sweet. The best Andouillette in France can be found in Lyon, where you’ll most likely find it served with a little dab of onion confit.
For those readers whose French doesn’t extend to all aspects of the mammalian anatomy, enjoy these final seconds of ignorance. The couilles de mouton are, alas, the sheep’s testicles. The French region of Périgord (best known for its foie gras) has its own special recipe, called frivolites beneventines. A big bag of, well, balls, are peeled, soaked in cold water for three hours, sliced, and then grilled with lemon, parsley, and locally grown white wine. They are sweet, tender and, prepared this way, extremely pricey. They are someone’s family jewels, after all.
Just as the French are happy to eat every part of every animal that walks the land, pretty much everything that comes out of the sea is fair game. A marine delicacy that you don’t very often see on English menus are urchins. These spiny crustaceans have a reputation for being slimy but the locals will tell you they really have more of a creamy texture. Much like oysters, they bring the taste of the sea to your mouth, which is great if you’re into that.
Just so any vegetarians and vegans reading this don’t feel left out, the final item on our list of weird French foods can be made with or without bacon and eggs. Farci Poitevin, a rustic dish from the Poitou-Charentes region, most unfortunately, will still look as if it came out of the rear end of a farmyard animal. This fat-free terrine is a mixture of cabbage, mixed greens, beats, and spices, all wrapped up in a generous layer of gelatin. You can eat it on its own or spread on a baguette.