With butter taking pride of place in so much French cooking, choosing a French variety helps give an authentic flavour. The waxy Echiré brand from Deux-Sèvres is widely considered the best, made from the milk of cows of Poitiers and La Rochelle. Fine food retailers and some of the better supermarkets stock Normandy's Beurre d'Isigny, which like Echiré is protected by AOC status. President is a good value mass-market brand available in supermarkets. Always check whether your recipe specifies the need for salted or unsalted butter.
It's possible to cook with many different cheeses, but for gratins, soufflés and cheese sauces in classic French style, you'll want hard, full-flavoured and fruity mountain varieties such as Comté and Beaufort, which melt well, sometimes combined with a grainy variety such as Parmesan or Sbrinz.
Like truffles, foie gras (the fattened livers of geese and Muscovy ducks) is an item added to things to make them seem more exclusive, and to bump up the price disproportionately. Do not buy tins labelled pâte de foie gras - they will contain pork, perhaps veal or poultry, and other standard pâté ingredients, flavoured with foie gras. As natural foie gras is a fresh meat product, a little preservation does come in handy however. Look for packs labelled mi-cuit, semi-cooked or semi-preserved. An interesting by-product of foie gras manufacture is magret or maigret, the comparatively lean breast of the duck.
Some people are more sensitive to garlic than others, whether eating it themselves or smelling it on the breath of other people. The cloves can be exceptionally pungent, particularly when they are older and have begun to sprout. Buy young bulbs, and the very young wet garlic, when you can. A popular trick for sprouting cloves is to cut them open and discard the shoot, which is believed to cause digestive trouble, before using the rest of the clove in cooking. Poaching whole cloves will render them soft in texture and flavour - so will roasting, but poaching is quicker. Lazy people might enjoy this other option: throwing the whole, unpeeled clove into the saucepan so it can simmer to mellowness while flavouring the other ingredients. France has several regional varieties that can be identified by skin colour: white or grey for Provence and South-west France; violet or rose-coloured skin for garlic from the Auvergne; red-brown skin from the Douai. Smoked garlic was a speciality of Boulogne, but is now produced in the UK too. It is good in mashed potatoes, stews, bean and lentil dishes, and can be added to salad dressings.
Fresh herbs are generally preferable but dried herbs have their place in French cuisine too. A bunch of dried thyme is useful to have on hand for tapping over the tops of dishes as they are cooking. Fines herbes is a chopped mixture of aromatic but delicate and tender herbs including chervil, chives, parsley and tarragon. Beware dried manufactured blends as the may contain sage too, which is overpowering. Herbes de Provence is a combination of basil, bay, rosemary, savoury and thyme. The widely used bouquet garni is a bundle of robust flavourings added to simmering dishes - a classic combination is bay leaf, thyme, parsley stalks, a piece of celery and possibly a strip of leek to tie it all together.
Jambon and Saucisson
Most delicatessen counters sell one or two French cured meats, though they do seem to have fallen out of fashion in the last ten years as Italian and Spanish cuisines have become more popular. Jambon de Bayonne is the best known French ham and (unlike air-dried hams such as Parma) is lightly smoked. Jesus de Lyon is a large French salami with a fairly sweet flavour thanks to its high ratio of meat to fat.
www.sallyclarke.com, Tel: 020 7229 2190. At 124 Kensington Church St, London W8. Mail order.
Clive Ramsay Delicatessen
Tel: 01786 833 903. At 28 Henderson St, Bridge of Allan, Stirling, Scotland.
Tel: 020 7608 0851. At 63 Charterhouse St, London EC1.
The Fine Cheese Company
www.finecheese.co.uk, Tel: 01225 448748. At 29 & 31 Walcot St, Bath. Mail order.
Fortnum & Mason
www.fortnumandmason.com, Tel: 020 7734 8040. At 181 Piccadilly, London W1. Mail order.
www.jeroboams.co.uk, Tel: 020 7727 9359. At 96 Holland Park Avenue, London W11. Also London SW1 and Cirencester. Mail order.
www.lafromagerie.co.uk, Tel: 020 7935 0341.
At 2-4 Moxon St, London W1. Also London N5. Mail order.
www.harveynichols.com, Tel: 0870 873 3833. At 109-125 Knightsbridge, London SW1, and Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester.
Tel: 020 7229 0501. At 11 Elgin Crescent, London W11.
Nesbit's of Dollar
Tel: 01259 742 544. At 62 Bridge St, Dollar, Clackmannanshire, Scotland.
Paxton & Whitfield
www.cheesemongers.co.uk. Tel: 020 7930 0259. At 93 Jermyn St, London SW1. Also Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon.Reuse content