An Insider’s Guide to Eating Cheap in Foodie France

Since I moved to rural Burgundy, France more than two years ago, I have discovered that a Frenchman and his money are not soon parted. This is a culture where attention to centimes is ardent…every resident can tell you the exact price of a baguette, a coffee, or a liter of gas.

My wife and I have done our best to adopt the techniques of the locals, always searching for bargains, especially when it comes to food and wine. And we’ve discovered there are easy, affordable (even free), and fun ways to do this while living or traveling in Burgundy or any area of France, for that matter. And in each case, a glass of wine is a guarantee.

Here are my top four tips for finding authentic food and wine experiences in France…for cheap.

Check the French national holiday calendar. On almost every national holiday, particularly those commemorating the end of armed conflicts, the local town hall, or mairie, will offer a vin d’honneur, a free glass of wine, to anyone who shows up. Use whatever French you have…and if you have none, just smile. You will be welcomed.

Ask at the tourist office, or the mairie, if there are any art exhibits, events, or community meals happening. In my town of Arnay-le-Duc, I have downed vin chaud (mulled wine), at numerous free-and-open-to-the-public winter events. I’ve enjoyed free wine and snacks at the opening of exhibits in the spring at small country museums…devoured a green salad with smoked duck breast followed by spit-roasted ham and potatoes, cheese, and a cherry clafoutis for a handful of euros at a summer barbecue…and sampled the current year’s harvest of wine from the barrel with the winemaker for cheap.

Go to a food festival. When you think of France, you think of food. And while the country boasts more high-end tables than you could ever explore, it also has hundreds of food fairs that feature local specialties, offering tastes from small producers and many of the country’s famous chefs for a small entrance fee. It’s typically $2 to $7 and you get lots of free samples, plus meal-sized portions for sale.

In Burgundy, the Journees Gourmandes in Saulieu offers several days of culinary delights from the most rural parts of Burgundy. The town of Epoisses, famous for its chateau and its cheese, offers a weekend festival dedicated to cheese, bread, and wine. Dijon, the largest city in Burgundy, has a gigantic gastronomy festival over 10 days in the fall. Where I live in Arnay-le-Duc, the entire town eats jambon persillé, a parsley-ham terrine, on Easter Monday.

And where there is food, there is also plenty of wine.

My last tip is to find some good pinot noir and chardonnay experiences. Over a weekend in May, you can taste hundreds of affordable, delicious wines in the town of Savigny-les-Beaune for only a few euros (keepsake glass included). Go to the world’s most famous wine auction in Beaune in November. And, if you do nothing else, contact a family-run winery and schedule yourself a tasting. Plan on buying two or three bottles as the tasting will be free, but the cost will be worth it. Your hosts will explain an ancient tradition and you will leave happy.

I consider myself lucky to know about all these different ways to infiltrate the local culture, especially because every French person I know does all of these things. Every one of the experiences is open to you, too, if you just have a little courage to ask where to find them. Bon appétit!

©iStock.com/Peter Burnett

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