Food for Thought

The mouth-watering selection on offer at Ladurée. Image: Catherine Bradfield.

People have funny relationships with food. Some eat to live and some live to eat; unfortunately for my waistline, I am in the latter group, and living in Paris really does not help. Tantalising aromas emanate from every street corner; perfect pastries are just as much a feast for the eyes as anything else, from the impeccably formed macaroons of Ladurée to the sublime French pain au chocolat, with its lavish amounts of butter. The streets are lined with happy diners throughout the day, enjoying the buzzing atmosphere that only French cafés can emulate to perfection. Even in winter under warm red heat lamps, they sit outside with cigarette and wine in hand, pondering the day’s happenings or chattering at a hundred miles an hour about anything and everything.

Food is undoubtedly a passion in France: that it is engrained in this country’s culture is made evident by the wave of French words that has found its way into our culinary language, from gourmet and foie gras to café, restaurant and chef. Believe it or not, the French have almost a dozen different words, all with slight differentiations, for the simple thing that we call a “restaurant”. A bouchon is typical to Lyon, and you will be frowned upon if you confuse bistrot and brasserie. There are specialist shops for everything; pâtisserie for cakes and pastries, boulangerie for bread, charcuterie for prepared meats, boucherie for meat cuts, fromagerie for cheeses… the list goes on and on. It is something that has been all but lost in Britain thanks to the big supermarkets who promote the easy options which we are only too willing to choose – ready prepared meals, speedy rice and instant sauces that all take away from the enjoyment of cooking.

How many of us sit down with family or friends every night and eat dinner together, without the television burbling in the background or gobbling our meals down as quickly as possible to make sure we can get enough pre-lash in before the ridiculously long queues at Studio? I would say not many. Of course I am not saying this does not happen in France at all – I am sure it does – but their attitude to food is very different indeed. We enjoy a Sunday roast, but regularly the French sit down with their families for a marathon meal, stretching it out over the whole day so that they do not even need to think about eating supper. Accompanied, of course, by copious amounts of wine, a Sunday lunch can last anything up to six hours, yes six hours, mostly continued by adult members of the family. I heard this first-hand from a French friend who recounted the boredom but emphasised that this really is the norm and, indeed, with good food and good wine why not make it last all day?

Which brings me onto an intriguing question: how, after so much good food and good wine, are the French, as a nation, not fat? Indeed, it is not a myth that French women are tiny. In general they really are shorter and with the tiniest waists you have ever seen. I am neither fat nor slim, but at a healthy and slightly-on-the-tighter side of a size ten I actually feel huge as I walk down the street. Being a shopaholic (as well as a chocaholic and general foodaholic) I have noticed that the likes of Zara, H&M and New Look over here do not even stock above a size 14, whereas seeing a size 18 is very much the norm in Britain – so why are the French so petite? My general theory is that enjoyment is key. Relax and taste your food, don’t just chew it a few times and swallow it to fill yourself up. The French seem to advocate small flavoursome plats that make you feel satisfied, accompanied by a glass of wine, and you do not need to stuff yourself with beige food just to feel full. It will only bring on the well-known food baby, also known as bloat. So embrace the “live to eat” philosophy, and it might actually make you feel and look slimmer, since you eat in moderation whilst still enjoying your eating experience.

I was once watching a holiday programme of some sort on Channel Four, for a little bit of guilty pleasure and general escapism, on the south of France. It portrayed a laid-back lifestyle and long days spent lounging in glorious sunshine; one particular interview with a typically French and elderly local gentleman really hit the nail on the head with regards to why the French have just the right attitude to food and are generally quite healthy people. After noting that food should be eaten in the right way, chewed properly, made with fresh ingredients and should not be overcooked, with just a tinge of French arrogance he said: “ultimately, enjoy your food, take as long as you want to eat it, drink as much good wine as you like – but most of all surround yourself with fantastic company; eating with ugly, boring people only affects your digestion through negative feelings.” So there you have the moral of this article: enjoy your food, do not surround yourself with unattractive company, and naturally you will never become fat. If only.

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