On July 14, 1789, hordes of French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, a state prison in Paris that had come to symbolize the oppression of the ruling monarchy.
The event marked the beginning of the French Revolution, which would ultimately end the reign of royalty and give birth to France's First Republic.
In years to follow, Bastille Day, July 14, came to be France's most important national holiday, an equivalent to our Fourth of July. Patriots donning red, white and blue fill the streets of Paris and villages across the nation. They dance, take part in parades and watch spectacular fireworks displays.
In true French fashion, much of the celebration includes food and wine. In 2000, the country made news around the world with a Bastille Day event called "The Incredible Picnic." Millions of revelers carted their own bread, wine and cheese to a series of big, red-checkered tablecloths that stretched cross-country 625 miles from Belgium to Spain.
So, if the Fourth of July isn't quite enough for you and you're planning your own Bastille Day meal that highlights the best of France, where do you start? Some connoisseurs would say begin with an understanding of the basics—cheese and wine—before tackling an epic French meal that even Jacques Pépin would savor.
According to experts, the number of unique cheese varieties produced in France hovers around 200, with another 100 or so offered as minor variations.
Soft, ripened cheeses, including Brie and Camembert, are versatile foods appropriate for all sorts of summer gatherings. Their rich, creamy textures and mild, earthy flavors are hard to resist with crackers and fruit.
Saint-André, popular among the French, is a triple-cream soft cheese that matches up ideally with dessert fruits and robust breads.
Semi-soft cheeses, slightly firmer to the touch, can also fit well on the summer menu. Tomme de Savoie, from the mountainous Savoie region of southeast France, is a delightful, medium-bodied cheese that is perfect for picnic lunches.
Semi-firm cheeses, which range from mild to sharp, are excellent for cooking or for use in an appetizer cheese plate. Comté is a French Gruyère from Savoie that provides a more robust alternative to Gruyère from Switzerland, where it originated.
Goat cheese, or chèvre to the French, is typically rich, creamy and tangy. It comes in a wide variety of flavors and shapes; some are mixtures of goat's milk and cow's milk. Goat cheese is a perfect dessert companion for fruits, berries and Porto wine, but is not to be overlooked as an addition to summer salads.
Blue cheeses, which gain their unique, pungent flavors from edible molds, are more versatile than many people think. Roquefort, a French blue made from sheep's milk, pairs well with green salads, but truly shines with walnuts, oysters and endive.
For wines, think about tucking away those tannic Bordeaux blends and bringing out lighter offerings.
Some French think the ultimate summer wines are the dry, sparkling white wines from the region of Champagne. Others might tout dry rosé wines, which are often mistakenly overlooked by Americans as something akin to sweet white zinfandels.
Rosé wines, which are made from pressed red grapes but left to interact with the skins for less time than red wines, can pair up magically with grilled fish, cold poultry and smoked meats. Notable French rosés come from Provence—particularly the village of Tavel—and other regions of the South.
Light white wines, which should generally be served chilled but not icy cold, can be poured as an afternoon apéritif or as a complement to a variety of summer meals.
Crisp, fruit-endowed chenin blancs—like those from Vouvray—pair well with fish dishes and picnic foods. Gewürztraminer—when finished dry as is done in the French region of Alsace—is often served with spicy foods, but also marries well with oysters and exotic mixed greens. Pinot gris, also popular in Alsace, can be the perfect choice to accompany appetizers, cheeses and summer salads.
Classic citrus- and mineral-scented sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley make an ideal match for herbed chicken and many shellfish dishes. Chardonnays, perfected by the French in the region of Burgundy, pair exquisitely with rich seafood dishes, such as salmon steaks or lobster.
Light-bodied reds, including gamay-based Beaujolais wines and many pinot noir-based Burgundies, match well with pork and poultry. And, if you're dying to celebrate with a burly cabernet sauvignon- or merlot-based wine from Bordeaux, pair it with a French-style rack of lamb or filet mignon.