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La salade composée is a French café classic: a pile of lettuce topped with carefully arranged piles of cheese, cured meat, nuts, vegetables, and other delicious and hearty morsels. In fact, these main-course salads are called “composed” for a reason—their elements are usually selected according to a geographic theme, and their names are like a code, revealing the culinary specialties from various regions of France. Take, for example, the “salade Périgourdine.” When French people see it on a menu, they automatically know it will include foie gras, pâté, and other rich, preserved duck products—because that’s what the Périgord region in Southwest France is famous for. Indeed, studying the names of French salades composées is like an edible geography lesson!
Whether you’re traveling to France and want the lowdown on decoding the menu, or simply hoping to jazz up your daily lunch routine, we’ve pulled together some of our favorite main-course salads. From classics like salade Lyonnaise, to the refreshing bright flavors inspired by the French Caribbean and France’s North African and Southeast Asian immigrant communities—which, though not stereotypically French, are still very much a part of the country’s culinary heritage—here are 10 ways to eat salad “à la française” while indulging your favorite flavors or current desires.
Contains: Lardons, croutons, coddled egg, dandelion greens
Hailing from the great gastronomic capital of Lyon, legend has it that this hearty salad was traditionally made by washerwomen who brought picnics of bacon, eggs, and bread to the river’s edge, tossing these ingredients with the wild dandelion leaves they gathered along the way. Though the story is a bit fanciful, it is true that the salade Lyonnaise is a staple of bouchons—Lyon’s classic, convivial eateries—and it was traditionally eaten for the mâchon, a high-calorie, mid-morning snack enjoyed by brawny, 19th-century silk-weavers. Curly endive (frisée) can be substituted for dandelion greens, and the egg—whether coddled or poached—should have a soft yolk that dribbles into the crags of the croutons.
Contains: Jambon de pays, blue cheese, walnuts, lettuce
The Auvergne is an unsung region of south-central France, famous for its rugged mountains and unspoiled landscape. Here, the cuisine is rustic and hearty, featuring dry-cured country ham, called jambon de pays, walnuts (and walnut oil), as well as blue cheese, specifically that king of blue cheeses—Roquefort—which is produced from local sheep’s milk, and aged in the region’s famous caves of Roquefort-sur-Solzon.
From: Périgord, or Southwest France
Contains: An assortment of rich, preserved duck or goose products such as confit de canard, foie gras, pâté, or dry-cured duck breast, boiled potatoes, lettuce.
Périgord (like Auvergne, above) is the historic name for a region that now spans several départements of modern France. But the word still indicates southwestern France—and the southwest is synonymous with rich duck products. Confit de canard. Foie gras. Dry-cured duck breast. The region’s salad gathers a selection of these delicacies, arranging them on a bed of mild lettuce such as mâche. Slices of boiled potato could be included, or a few croutons, or perhaps a handful of raisins—as long as the balance of flavors and textures remains harmonious.
From: Paris and environs
Contains: Boiled ham, Emmenthal cheese, hard-boiled egg, button mushrooms, boiled potatoes, lettuce
Why is this simple salad named after Paris? It’s probably because of the boiled ham, which the French call jambon de Paris. Mild Emmenthal cheese, slices of boiled potato, and hard-boiled egg give the salad heft, while the sliced button mushrooms add another Parisian touch. Called champignons de Paris, they were the first fungi ever cultivated, produced in the City of Light sometime in the 17th century.
Contains: Grilled vegetables such as bell peppers and tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice
Tunisia and France have a long and complicated relationship, but some of their brightest exchanges have been culinary. North African flavors are beloved in France—in fact, “un couscous,” a meal of grilled meat, vegetable stew, and couscous—regularly tops lists of France’s favorite dish. This salad of chopped, grilled summer vegetables—bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and no lettuce—would more commonly be found in a Parisian North African restaurant than a traditional French café. It’s often served as a light and refreshing first course.
Contains: Dry-cured ham, melted cheese atop boiled potatoes, lettuce
Located in the French Alps, the departments of Savoie and Haute-Savoie are famous for, of course, alpine skiing. The stick-to-your-ribs cuisine includes a lot of gooey cheese—fondue, anyone?—and this salad is like a lighter version of the local fare. Mountain cheeses such as Réblochon, Comté, or Beaufort are melted onto sliced boiled potatoes, and served with slivers of dry-cured ham over a bed of lettuce. The result is a delicious, hearty salad suitable for a winter meal.
From: French Caribbean
Contains: Prawns, crab, pineapple, mango, avocado, grapefruit, lettuce
This “salad of the islands” contains products typically found in the tropics. Its name honors France’s overseas departments, Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Contains: Saucisse Morteau, Comté cheese, fried potatoes, lettuce
Another variation of meat and potatoes, this salad from far eastern France features local charcuterie: smoked sausage, smoked ham, and bacon, all rather Germanic, as befits a region that s Switzerland and Germany. Comté cheese also makes an appearance, and the hot fried potatoes contrast beautifully with cool, crisp lettuce leaves.
From: Vietnam (inspired)
Contains: Rice noodles, lettuce, fresh herbs, peanuts, grilled lemongrass beef, crispy pork spring roll
Though it’s not quite a café classic—yet—the bo bun (pronounced “bo boon”) has found its way onto Parisian menus in hotspots like Canal Saint-Martin and the Marais. Inspired by the flavors of Southeast Asia, this light and refreshing rice noodle salad is drizzled with a dressing of fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice, and sometimes topped with house-pickled carrots and daikon.
Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg, an artist and illustrator based in Brooklyn; she's also a sourdough baker and mise en place advocate.
For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.