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The battle of the bulge

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 ….

Watching St Nectaires being made by our friend Christine in Cantal

Watching St Nectaires being made by our friend Christine in Cantal

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).


Homemade Custard Creams … thank you Nigella!

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.


His first tart … handmade by Two Brains

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.


A perfect lunch in Rocamadour, Lot

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.


A little frog high up in the Cezallier whose legs are perfectly safe because we don’t eat these

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.


Our first dinner on arrival – a box acts as a table as the furniture had not arrived … but French-style we still laid it properly 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 ….


The begging Bean

40 Comments Post a comment
  1. A great summary of the French attitude to food. The other big difference we notice is the focus on local produce and eating what is in season, rather than Kenyan beans all year round.

    January 29, 2015
    • You are so right … local produce and seasonal eating is very much de rigeur and I’m sure makes a difference in terms of overall health. In fact I have been banging the drum for eating food from as close to the ground that you walk as possible for decades and I know you both live that ethos from reading both yours and your husbands blogs. Mind you, the picture of the Turbot is a giveaway that I stray on occasion – we not being precisely coastal dwellers 😉

      January 29, 2015
  2. A lot of our French friends have their main meal at lunchtime and eat only a light meal in the evening, soup and salad or an omelette. We have never been able to change our habits and so we continue to do it the other way around. Alas, obesity is on the increase in France but that’s when people stop following the dietary habits you mention above. And all I can say is, it’s a good thing I don’t live in the UK any more, or I would be the size of a house. Interesting post, thank you.

    January 29, 2015
    • Glad you enjoyed it Vanessa, we too eat our main meal in the evening and The Brain is a terrible snacker but he is fortunate in being a natural string bean – I have to work at it 😉

      January 29, 2015
  3. It is true
    We always lose weight after a week or longer in France because our eating pattern changes I think, and because we walk and work on the house, some of the time.

    Yet I eat cheese and desserts more often in France and it is the only time I eat baguettes!
    I also think we drink more wine there. how and why does all this seem to impact less ?

    Maybe it is just magic
    That’s my theory

    And yes , isn’t it just pants that at a certain age the choice is either fat face or saggy one?
    Unless you are a man of course, and mine is weathering into silver fox whereas I am just morphing into old bag…………….

    January 29, 2015
    • Thank you for your thoughts which strike a chord and particularly thank you for the last paragraph … I said I was an old bag to my second daughter earlier and she said ‘less of the old bag more of the young vintage clutch bag mummy’ … you can join my club!

      January 29, 2015
      • That’s ok
        Much prefer vintage as a description – will now use that!
        My grandson (7) says being “kind and nice” is more important than what I see in mirror.
        Out of the mouth of babes……

        January 30, 2015
  4. Thank you for these delicious-looking photographs, Ms. Osyth. While my weight has stayed relatively consistent for three years, my People seem to always be carrying an extra 5 lbs. or so which, as you say, does wear at their minds a bit. If the eating habits in England are problematic, we think the U.S. is much, much worse.

    I do hope that The Bean got her cheese. I, too, belong to the category of those who need cheese (along with many other things, of course).

    January 30, 2015
  5. jane king #

    Fabulous blog as always and so true! My sister lives in France and always has a proper lunch and supper and still manages to be slim! Meanwhile I have to work at it!! Ditto ‘re cheese it is a must have food item!

    January 31, 2015
    • Thank you Jane! Cheese is THE must have on my table it has to be said … very interested in your comment – two sisters, two different countries, two different outcomes.

      January 31, 2015
  6. Great post! Thank you for sharing!

    February 4, 2015
  7. Very nice posts, very different from our life over here in the United States! Love your ideas, pictures and the way you talk!

    July 27, 2015
  8. Reblogged this on Half Baked In Paradise and commented:

    The extremely lovely Susan at has me thinking again about the very particular relationship of the French to food. So as I prepare to drive to England tomorrow I give you a reprise of a post I made about 18 months ago that had me battling the bulge. I could do with a re-read myself …..

    August 1, 2016
  9. It’s phenomenomena

    Thinking about it right now, as I sip Blanquette and nibble nuts

    August 1, 2016
  10. A delightful post about a very civilized way of living and eating.

    August 1, 2016
    • Thank you Bernadette …. You hit the nail on the head using the word civilised 🙂

      August 4, 2016
  11. We were recently on vacation and our eating habits were very “French”. We ate three meals a day, no snacking, moderate portions, minimal sugar and almost no baked goods. But, my husband is a devotee of “cheese o’clock” at which time (usually 4-ish) he has 1 beer or a glass of red wine and some delicious local cheese with crackers. We continued this while away and sipped rum and ginger beer before dinner with our fromage. By the time we got home 10 days later, I felt wonderful, healthy, relaxed and – unbelievably – lighter.

    August 1, 2016
  12. Thank you so much! I loved reading this, nodding to myself all the way through, it’s all so true. A little bit of everything here is the norm, it’s all in the quantities and the no snacking. I love cooking for the French, they are always so shocked that the British know their way around the kitchen!!! Xx

    August 1, 2016
    • It’s one of my great pleasures too …. And you are so right – they are generally startled that we actually understand cooking at all! Xx

      August 4, 2016
  13. The begging Bean – love her! And the eating habits across the pond are much better than over here in the good old USA. You know how we eat over here – horrible! Hope your trip is going well and you are having a time of your life! 🙂

    August 2, 2016
    • She knows how to turn up the cute, that’s for sure! We are all in one piece and I hope you three are journeying well and feeling light and relaxed 🙂

      August 4, 2016
      • Glad to hear you three are doing well – all is good here also! 🙂

        August 4, 2016
  14. Dear Bean…I feel the urgency of her need…
    Cheese in Costa Rica leaves a great deal to be desired.

    The people among whom I lived when in rural France – mostly elderly – came from families which had known the pre war hardships and their idea was to eat, drink and be merry….as the size of the corsets on sale on the market stalls would indicate.

    Cooking ability varied – my last neighbour, like so many of her friends, was a customer of the vans which deliver frozen meals – but those ladies who maintained their basse cour and the veg garden could be super cooks.
    Lunch was the main meal, and soup figured largely in the evening, made in bulk to provide enough to be eaten for breakfast poured over slices of the bread from the day before.

    Most people had their own vines and produced their household pink wine: If inveigled into a game of boules in the evening while walking the dogs at some point we would adjourn to the house where the mustard glasses were put on the table, together with a plate of plain biscuits, keeping up the notion that we were not alcoholics. I never knew the biscuits to be touched.

    Your Arvese must be similar to Suze….another item sorely lacking in Costa Rica….

    August 2, 2016
    • The Bean would very clearly add you to her list of friends on the strength of your empathetic remark! Your descriptions of rural French living are always point perfect – I’m sad our market doesn’t sell girdles …. I feel quite cheated!

      August 4, 2016
  15. Thanks for the re post. I know that’s how the French eat but somehow I can never be that restrained when visiting. I have an urgent need to consume as much of the delicious cheeses and wonderful bread as I can in my short allotment f time before I return to Tasmania where it is very expensive to get my tastebuds on such delights. We have some great cheeses of our own but I do love an Auvergne Blue!

    August 2, 2016
    • It’s very hard to be frugal as a visitor anywhere but particularly when the bounty is cheese and bread just for starters ….

      August 4, 2016
  16. Such a treat to read. I feel I should go our for lunch to a very good local French restaurant up the road and have all three courses, but especially the calves liver. Thanks for this Osyth, loved every morsel 🙂

    August 2, 2016
    • Foie de veau – nothing could be finer! Bon appetite!

      August 3, 2016
      • merci mon cher ami 🙂

        August 3, 2016
  17. Yes, it is a matter of a culture’s attitude toward food. It is nice to have these different perspectives when you travel. I love your adventure in the snow storm. I think that is the true purpose of storms. And The Bean is quite a handsome little one who deserves all the cheese you can muster up. (The last comment was added by Roxie who also is a cheese lover. Your mother would appreciate this, I think.))

    August 7, 2016
    • The Bean agrees wholeheartedly with Roxie Dammit 😉 …. I believe life is for the learning , and never more so than when you are experiencing different cultures. In fact that piece was written in early 2015. Since December I have mostly been in the US and I have a post to write on what I have absorbed in the first 9 months and it certainly hasn’t been empty calories – i think Europeans will be very slightly taken aback that their prejudices are largely unfounded!!

      August 7, 2016
  18. Bang on the nail! great witi,g – now I’m hungry, and I still have to make dinner 🙂 We were back in the UK recently and we were astonished to see people eating at all times of day. I suddenly realised how very French I have become in my eating habits – sit down meals, three times a day, and bottles of wine that are opened and last three days.

    August 8, 2016
    • Exactement …. La vie Français has a point ….

      August 8, 2016
  19. The Bean is so cute…give her all the cheese she wants please!!! The one thing I love about traveling abroad is enjoying the countries cuisine…some its difficult for me as I stray away from meat products, but I do love a good piece of cheese and bread….LOL

    August 11, 2016
    • I have had to train myself very rigidly on the cheese and bread front in France …. The Bean thanks you for your intelligent understanding and says she can’t understand why I don’t buy big hunks of cheese when I’m alone because she can easily eat it all to save my svelte (NOT) figure xx

      August 11, 2016
      • LOL My sister has 2 little Minnie pins…they are such characters….and way to smart for us humans…LOL yes the bread and cheese would put weight on me faster than I would like…LOL especially if you melt the cheese….lol

        August 11, 2016
      • I ricochet between believing cheese is manna from Heaven and The work of Satan 😈 🧀🍞

        August 11, 2016
      • that is me and bread….only its like my heroin verses life sustaining food….LOL

        August 11, 2016
  20. I totally agree with what you say about gaining weight in the UK, I put it down to all the chemicals in the food and everything wrapped in plastic – even a farm shop had plastic bags to put the organic produce in, where in the regular supermarket in France has brown paper bags to put your ‘chose your own’ fruit and veg (as opposed to the ‘you will have three peppers, one in each colour’ dictatorship in most UK supermarkets)
    I was home for five days, before seeing off to Italy (I dread to think what the carb fest here for the last 10 days has done to my waistline!) and after taking an apero, entree, plat, fromage and dessert every evening – washed down with a cheeky little glass or three of wine – I lost 3 lbs – not a vast amount of weight, but in theory I should have gained at least 7! But you know how ugh I have banged on about ready meals etc in my former blog posts.
    I’ll report on the collateral pizza / pasta / gelato damage when I get back
    Lindy x

    August 23, 2016
    • I lived in Italy for 18 months in the 80s and didn’t gain an ounce …. I did walk EVERYWHERE in Rome though. Your example is exactly as it is in France and in England convenience has rolled over from the US and obesity has followed like night follows day 😞 xx

      August 23, 2016

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