The Secrets of French Food
“In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport."
– Julia Child
It’s about sitting down and really eating.
Freshly-baked bread slicked with butter, then velvety soup. A deep dish of creamy risotto topped with garlic prawns and greens. Finally, fruit and cheese and coffee – that is an average four-course meal in France. Still, only one in ten French adults is obese; even with all that camembert taken into account, America’s figure is three times that. The phenomenon has been documented in books like, French Women Don’t Get Fat, and (speaking of mouthfuls), Chic and Slim: How Those Chic French Women Eat All That Rich Food and Still Stay Slim.
Before you go on a butter binge and call it your, “French diet,” consider that this peculiarity (which seems a little like crippling injustice) probably has as much to do with how you’re eating as it does with what you put in your mouth. A breakfast of croissant slathered with fruity jam and a cup of coffee feel more satisfying when enjoyed leisurely at home or in a café as opposed to crumbling into your lap as you chew and simultaneously apply mascara while waiting at a red light.
According to the Committee for Health Education in France, 76% of French people prepare or eat meals at home. Dinners especially are a regular family affair: a time to chat and enjoy the company as well as the food. Meals are often divided into leisurely courses, allowing for digestion-aiding breaks in between. How many times (too many) have you eaten an appetizer, entrée and dessert one after another in a restaurant? Your body doesn’t have time to register what you’ve taken in, so it’s only after you’ve finished dessert that you get that oh-god-I’ve-made-a-terrible-mistake feeling and have to unbutton your pants. Because meals in France are long, the time between courses allows for the full feeling to set in so that people often eat less. Because meals are large, it is not a French habit to snack heavily in between, besides perhaps nibbling on some crackers and cheese. Big, fine meals eaten together add to the spirit of convivialité, an irreplaceable part of the French tradition.
It’s about variety.
Beyond the indulgent dishes French cuisine is known for, there is an emphasis on maintaining variety in the diet. Vegetables and fish play a huge role, eclipsing red meats and carbohydrates. Though desserts and cheeses are packed with (delicious) saturated fats, they’re enjoyed in moderation and balanced by salads and a lot of walking.
There’s also the variety of regional influences. Alsatian cuisine, shaped by the proximity to (and contentious history with) Germany, features sausages, cabbage and potatoes. It’s a far cry from the popular image of French food, which tends to include escargot – snails cooked with butter and garlic – a staple of the Burgundy region also known for its wine. Coastal areas like Picardy in the north and Provence in the south specialize in fish dishes like bouillabaisse, and Brittany is known for its seasonal fruits and salted butter caramels.
It’s about the best ingredients.
French cooking is revered as not only some of the most delicious in the world, but also some of the (deceptively) healthiest. This may be due, in part, to a preference for fresh produce. Supermarkets are not the norm in France. Most families divide their shopping among smaller local specialty stores. They go to the market for fresh greens, avoiding preservatives and other mixed blessings of mass-produced comestibles. The French visit their regular butcher, their regular baker, and so on. If the smaller quantity of high-quality foods alone doesn’t keep them healthy, the dashing and carrying from one store to another probably helps.
It isn’t just the health benefits that matter. Fresh ingredients make the food taste better. Everything that goes into a dish has a reason for being there, a role to play in the final outcome, the goals of which are to nourish and delight you. When the ingredients are fine, there’s a tendency to pay more attention to the flavors and savor the food, so again, you eat more slowly and end up eating less. If you sprinkle a little fleur de sel on a salad or simply-grilled fish, you’ll pay more attention to the taste of the salt than if you were eating a boxed meal packed with sodium. Since you’re consciously seeking out the taste, you won’t need to use nearly as much salt to notice that it’s there.
It’s more time-consuming to shop – and to cook – this way, but it’s a question of priorities. If you’re working two jobs to put yourself through school, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to buy your chicken on one end of town and your freshly-baked bread on the other, let alone make anything out of them. But if you’re lucky enough to have leisure time and a few extra dollars to spend, you’ll hardly regret having putting off a few episodes of a Netflix Original Series when you’re nibbling on homemade coq au vin and drinking a glass (or three) of wine.
Do you have the time for a French dining lifestyle? What are your favorite rich-tasting, deceptively healthy meals? Let us know!