Here I am back in France this past fortnight and nine days of it have been on a ‘regime’. A diet. A detox actually. And it paid dividends – I’m now a bit more than half a stone lighter and I have lost the inches in the right places. By which I mean when it drops off your face after a certain age you just look older, more saggy and haggard and equally at my age one has a tendency to gaining round the middle. A spare tyre that would not help in the event of a blowout in the little yellow car. So I am a little more en ligne, a little trimmer and all the happier for it. It’s a curious fact that you wear the over-weight on your mind at some level and the niggling anxiety wears you out. So best to out it and get leaner and fitter again.
But the process got me to thinking – I cut out wheat and dairy and sugar and caffeine and had pills and gloop to swallow and on days 3 through 9 I had a light evening meal. And I didn’t miss the caffeine, didn’t crave the sugar and since I don’t drink when I’m on my own the abstinence from alcohol was a doddle. And the dairy was replaced with Almond milk which is surprisingly pleasant and the wheat well I just blotted out the landscape of boulangeries and pattiseries in my country of choice. But what it really got me to thinking about is the French diet and the WAY the French eat. Because its in the UK that I gain the weight. Not here in the land of pastry and bread and cream and cheese and all things wicked. I live in the goose fat region and though we use olive oil you won’t find an olive grove anywhere nearby and we eat meat and potatoes because it gets very very cold in winter. And we cook with cheese. And yet I have yet to see a single obese person. Let’s take a closer look ….
The French are wonderfully reverent about food. And about mealtimes and I believe that herein lies the difference. Here we break the fast every day. We wouldn’t dream of skipping le petit dejeuner. But we also don’t snack. Typically le dix heure is reserved for children to coincide with break time at school. And whilst you might have a nibble at le gouter that too is not a daily habit but rather something you would do if you happen to have a visitor at that hour (4-5pm).
Here we have le dejeuner and we sit and we eat together ensemble. If it is a weekend then we might join with friends and family but whatever the day we halt. And we sit and eat. When I’m on my own I shut down Mr Mac, clear the table, lay it and eat my lunch. If its a restaurant typically we will partake of a ‘formule’ – we will choose whether to have a starter and a main or to go the full monty and have cheese and dessert too. In the village here as is typical, l’Auberge caters for the workers be they bin men or the Maire himself with a set meal – soupe, entrée, plat, fromage, dessert, café. Water included, wine (un verre, un quart, un demi or a bouteille depending how many of you there are) extra. The basic cost is €13.50. That translates as £10 or $15.25 at todays rate of exchange. The soup will invariably be whatever vegetables are good that day though if a boiled fowl is on the menu it will be a chicken broth with whatever she has to hand added, the entree perhaps a plate of charcuterie, paté and cornichons with salad on the side, the plat probably a coq au vin or a boeuf Bourginon, the cheeses local, a choice of several different desserts – mousse au chocolat will always feature and there will be a clafoutis or a pie and iles flottant for sure.
If you want wine, it will be good – the French will not tolerate something awful. They simply would not drink it. And mostly they drink red. The coffee will be an expresso. And there will be bread but woe betide you grab it before the meal comes – very very non-you. The Bread is to eat WITH the meal. And the cheese is not to take great slabs off – just a little morcel of each (or just the ones you like). You see the WAY the French eat is different.
Later, you might take an apero. Mostly here in my region that would be a glass of rosé or perhaps une biere or maybe an avèze our local eau de vie which can be taken neat or diluted with whatever you like or fortified with white wine if you are feeling in need of a kick. Its bitter – made from the special yellow gentiane flowers unique to the Auvergne and reminds me of a neon yellow Campari. I like it. And the beer is unlikely to be a pint. Let me tell you about what happened last February.
Driving back from Lyon having dropped Two Brains I hit a blizzard and then a concrete post. I broke the steering arm on the driver side wheel and the car was rendered undriveable. The Bean and I walked into the nearest town (Riom ès Montagnes) to await rescue. We waited in a bar all alone with the delightful Patron and his cat which amused The Bean for hours. And we were there for hours. It was a bad blizzard and nothing was moving so my rescue party of Raymond and Ernest were 4 hours in getting to me. I drank coffee and spoke pigeon French to the delightful Monsieur also called Raymond. He has the patience of a Saint and I now count him amongst my friends in Cantal. After a while he suggested I might drink something stronger. I think he was getting desperate. Une petite pressione I ventured. And it was petite. He took his smallest wine glass and filled it with aplomb. I sipped it gracefully. This was not the place for a gutsy swig. We returned, The Brains and I a few weeks later when he was back, with a box of Hawaiin biscuits to say thank you (I had not been in on my own in the meantime because it is honestly not the done thing here for a woman to venture into a bar on her own – beautifully old fashioned and long may it last). The men at the bar were all drinking from similarly tiny glasses – beer or wine or Avèze all in what to my English eyes are positively tiny measures.
With the apero you will have some olives or nuts or maybe some crisps. But it is not a contest to see who can eat the most, the fastest. It is just that – a teeny little nibble. An amuse bouche. Later you will eat le diner. This is the main meal of the day and will be eaten en famille. It too will probably consist of several courses. A starter, a main, the veg or salade served afterwards, the cheese and possibly but certainly not always a dessert. During the week you are more likely to have fruit to finish. Wine – yes and coffee to aid digestion on occasions with an alcoholic digestif. I favour Armagnac. Now lets just talk about wine for a moment. In the UK and the USA my experience is that these days a normal glass of wine is 250cl with a small glass being 175cl. Sometimes they are even bigger. Guzzling is the way. Here a normal glass holds a 125cl max and will only be filled a third for red wine and a little over half for white or rosé. Emptying your glass means you have had enough. And there is always, always water on the table.
So that is how we do it here. In the UK I skip breakfast, eat lunch which is generally bread and cheese and paté and I take big chunks, I snack on biscuits in the morning and the afternoon, I eat cake at teatime and snack again til supper which is probably the most balanced meal of the day except that I will typically have wine and it is in a huge glass which is filled. My poor old blood sugar is a confused mess. The other difference is that I walk less. The culture here is very much geared to walking – I regularly meet very elderly people out walking. They may not be going far but they are using their legs, bearing their own weight and taking fresh air. In England, the England that I visit most which is Oxfordshire, I see this less. Which is not to say that people don’t because I know they do but just to say that it is perhaps something that should be encouraged from a very young age. My daughters all walk fast and its because they had to keep up with me walking to and from Goring to get the shopping. I take this opportunity to throw myself on their mercy and apologise … except I think grown as they are now they probably thank me for my lack of compassion at the time.
I think the difference for me is in old habits verses new. It is perfectly possible to be slim and trim in the UK and the USA and I have been. But there are aspects of lifestyle here that would translate very nicely and enhance the average life. Not eating on the hoof, only drinking alcohol with food and taking a little at a time (and we do have a couple of fantastic old soaks in the village incidentally who drink a little a lottle all day long), eating together and finally not your piling plate but taking a small helping and then if you really want it going back for more but stopping when you are full. It’s all about keeping the blood sugar even. That’s my own spin on The French Paradox for what its worth. For me it’s worth being able to eat and NOT gain pounds and hopefully keep myself at low risk of heart attack which seems like a good deal all round. Just as we are trying to educate our French friends that the British can cook too, so I think the British could learn a better way to eat.
PS: The Bean is less than keen on any form of diet – here she is expressing her need (not want you understand, need) for cheese ….