France is a country of lentils eaters, and these tiny legumes have a special place in French cooking.
They can be found tossed in salads with a mustard vinaigrette and plenty of crunchy shallots; cooked in a clove, bay leaf and onion flavored broth and served alongside oven-roasted salmon; pureed into hearty vegetable soups topped with a scoop of crème fraiche; or as the star in that quintessential bistro favorite, Petite salé aux Lentilles, fork tender cured pork shoulder with buttery, velvety green lentils.
Following are five stand-out varieties of lentils in France, each offering a slightly different taste and texture.
Green Lentils – Most of the lentils grown in France are green. By far, the most popular are Puy lentils — small, dappled green-blue lentils with a slightly nutty flavor from France’s famed volcanic plateau around the town of Le Puy in central France. This variety of lentils, grown in this region since the 17th century, carry the prestigious AOC or Appellation d’Origine Controllée mark — a French government stamp indicating not only the quality of the product, but also guaranteeing it was grown in a certain area and according to certain conditions.
Besides their delicious peppery and flinty flavor, these lentils are prized for holding their shape extremely well when cooked, making them ideal for dishes where you want the whole bean and not a pile of mush.
Lentils labelled Green French Lentils are the same variety, just grown outside of this famous region, likely in North America or Italy. Regardless, both deliver the firm texture and nutty flavor this variety is known for.
Other French varieties include:
Lentille Verte du Berry – The same variety as the Puy lentil, but cultivated in Berry in the Loire Valley. These lentils carry the Label Rouge, another of France’s designations of quality.
Lentille Blonde de Saint-Flour – Hard to find outside of the region, lentils from Saint-Flour in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region have a buff brown color, a soft, sweet taste, and a smooth texture that absorbs flavors well. Locally, the lentils are eaten as an accompaniment to pork or sausages, or served cold with vinaigrette. There are also a few local recipes for puddings made with lentil flour.
Lentillon Rosé de Champagne – Tiny and pinkish brown, these lentils are grown in the heart of the Champagne region in the calcareous soil that produces the celebrated sparkling wine.
Lentilles de Cilaos – Six varieties of this lentil are grown on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Light brown and small, they are known for a delicate flavor and a hefty price tag. Although Réunion is 9,200 km away from the capital, it is just as much a part of France as Paris. You can get a café crème and croissant at the local café for breakfast and pay for it in Euros.
Lentils take from 25 to 45 minutes to cook, depending on their freshness, the type, and your preferred texture. Proper seasoning is key to delicious lentils. Aromatics – thyme, bay leaves, cloves, onions and garlic – can be added at the beginning of the cooking process. There are different opinions on when to salt the lentils as it can toughen the skins. I like to add a pinch at the outset and then more when they are almost cooked. Lentils do not need to be soaked, but I always give them a rinse before cooking to remove any dust.
Puy French Lentil Soup with Parmesan Toast
A comforting soup to serve during the chillier months. Lentils are cooked with plenty of vegetables and a little chili to give it some extra heat. Simmered gently for 25 to 35 minutes, the dish perfectly bridges the gap between a soup and a stew.
50 g (1 ½ oz) butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, white part only, chopped
200 g (7 oz) smoked bacon, diced (or uncooked pork sausage, casing removed)
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 small red chili (bird’s eye), finely chopped
400 g (13 oz) tin chopped Italian tomatoes (or even better, canned Italian cherry tomatoes)
1 litre (4 cups) water (or vegetable stock)
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried oregano
¾ cup green French lentils (Puy Lentils)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
Melt butter and oil in a large saucepan. Add the carrots, onions, leeks, and bacon (or sausage) and sauté for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until vegetables have started to turn tender and bacon is cooked. Add the garlic and chili and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, water (or stock), bay leaves, oregano, lentils, and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Taste, season with more salt and black pepper to taste, and continue cooking until lentils are tender and delicately pop when you bite into them.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
4 to 8 slices of thick country style bread
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F).
Brush each of the pieces of bread with oil and then rub with garlic. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper and top with Parmesan cheese. Bake the toast for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are brown and crisp. Serve alongside soup.
Charlotte Puckette is a Grand Diplôme graduate of Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu, co-author of The Ethnic Paris Cookbook, as well as a private chef, caterer, cooking instructor, food consultant, and hostess.