Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How Living in France for Three Years Changed My Food Habits

Happiness is portion control and eating slowly.

Yes, it’s cliché.  We are always hearing about how French people eat small portions and stay thin.  Let me debunk the myth.  The French also struggle with their weight and like all humans, they do not have the metabolic ability to eat without abandon.  Having said that, French diners understand the importance of portion control, and by practicing restraint at mealtime, they are able to enjoy more flavors over many hours of eating.  France is a country that honors the multi-course meal.  Their apéritif often happens on the way home from work, when everyday citizens stop at a café for a beer, spritz, or champagne cocktail.  This practice is said to ready their stomach for a meal, although they are usually not in the mood to eat dinner until many hours later.  A typical dinner starts late and always includes an entrée (what Americans call the appetizer) and the plat principal (or main dish).   Sometimes, in fancier restaurants, the entire meal is preceded by an amuse-bouche (just one or two bites to delight your mouth before the main event).  Dessert is never frowned upon and is often preceded by le fromage (cheese, of course).  All of this can be followed by un café (espresso!), or if the night is still young, a digestif (or after-dinner drink).

That sounds like a lot of food, and many times, it is.  But each dish is famously petite.  In fact, a good French chef will serve his meals in exactly the correct portions, which means that if you leave something on your plate, you do risk offending him.  This concept is difficult for Americans because we are accustomed to very large portions, and we often bring home leftovers in to-go boxes.  While to-go boxes are now an option in Paris, they are generally frowned upon.  To be honest, I wouldn’t dare ask for one.  Rather, I show up for dinner hungry and eat every delicious bite, just like my French counterparts.

While the above generally refers to restaurant meals, these concepts also carry over into the family meal prepared at home.  True, there might be three courses compared to seven, but the food is made with love, portion sizes are small, and conversation takes center stage.  I’d like to report that I was able to bring this habit back to the United States with me after I spent three years living in France.  Unfortunately, our shopping habits and our fast paced culture make it difficult.  Food in America has less flavor.  Yep, I said that.  We love spicy things (Yum!) unlike the French; however, we filter, pasteurize, skim fat, add sugar and preservatives, and substitute wherever we can.  Maybe it’s our lack of satisfaction that makes us want to eat more.

Digestion matters.

Within a week of moving to Paris, one of the first things I noticed in French grocery stores was the plethora of yogurt choices.  I am not just talking about a section dedicated to a variety of yogurts.  No, I am talking about aisles and aisles of good bacteria.  There’s yogurt from cows, goats, and sheep.  There’s yogurt from every region of France.  There’s yogurt that’s beyond yogurt (creme fraîche) and there’s yogurt that’s almost yogurt (fromage blanc).  Everyone knows French dairy products are delicious, so it’s natural to assume French people eat so much yogurt simply because it tastes good (and it does!).  But the real reason French people eat so much yogurt is to aid in digestion.

Digestion is at the heart of every Frenchperson’s diet.  It’s the reason each meal is prepared in courses and the reason French people enjoy eating slowly.  It’s cause for reprimand when a foreigner presents a cheese plate before the entrée (Oh, the horror, you haven’t even eaten yet!).  It’s the last question any good hostess will ask you at the end of an evening: “Digestif?”

Presumably, if a person eats in such a manner that it aids their digestion, they will have better gut health, feel full longer, and stay light on their toes throughout the day.  Here in the USA, we don’t have the same respect for this process, and to be honest, I hear a lot more people muttering, “I’m so bloated.”  The first thing I noticed when I returned to my homeland, again, was the difference in the yogurt aisle.  Here in America, we have lots of fat-free, light, and skim yogurts.  We also have a respectable variety of Greek yogurts.  You can buy flavors like mixed berry, vanilla, banana strawberry, peach, and pineapple.  I just made myself yawn.

More importantly, I have found that Americans are fond of eating throughout the day.  Even those of us who stay within calorie guidelines still like to enjoy lots of little treats every few hours.  We seem to think about food constantly, and many of us consider it a reward.  The French eat at mealtime.  They prepare their bodies for eating at the same time every day.  They feed their bodies a satisfying and wholesome lot of food in one uninterrupted sitting.  They allow that food to be fully digested before eating again.  The next time they eat, they are hungry, and not coincidentally, it’s mealtime.

Chocolate is sacred.

If you ask them, most Parisiennes will admit to eating a square of dark chocolate every single day.  They believe dark chocolate is good for your health and for your psychology.  Who doesn’t feel fabulous as they forget their worries and savor rich cocoa goodness in their mouth for a few blissful moments?  It is said that one square of chocolate can stop all other cravings.  I never believed it until I moved to France, though.  Here in America, our chocolate products contain less than 60% cocoa.  In France, a product cannot be labeled chocolat unless it contains at least 70% cocoa.

You haven’t enjoyed hot chocolate until you’ve ordered it in Paris.  Your traveling friends will babble on and on about Angelina and Ladauree, two iconic establishments known for their sepia colored drinks, but I will gladly tell you to skip the long lines and save your euros, because any respectable café, boulangerie, or restaurant will serve you an unforgettable chocolat chaud.  Unlike the powdered version you’ll find at home, hot chocolate in Paris means just that:  chocolate which has been melted and served to you in a dainty porcelain cup.  Order with chantilly (whipped cream) and add sugar to taste.  You’re thinking that sounds thick and sweet and really too, too much.  You’re probably right.  Most people can’t finish.

Consuming one square of chocolate per day is perhaps the most easily transferable habit I’ve found between France and the USA.  I’ll admit, I need to go to a special section of my grocery store to find genuine chocolate.  I can’t stress this enough:  I am not referring to a Hershey’s chocolate bar or anything remotely like it.  If you can get your hands on European chocolate, do it and know that I am envious.  But practically speaking, look for anything with over 70% cocoa.  Swiss-made Lindt was my go-to grocery store brand in France, and I can find it rather easily here in America, although it’s manufactured in New Hampshire and might lose something in the process (tastes the same to me).  Maybe your community is lucky to have a local chocolatier, in which case, you should support him.  Godiva is overpriced, in my opinion, but San Francisco’s Ghirardelli is a good option. Remember: Go dark, one square, enjoy slowly.

Wine is reserved for meals.

While the French are known to drink copious amounts of wine, it is rare you’ll see a French person drunk in public, unless they are homeless (a problem in Paris) or have had an especially bad day.  French people are extraordinarily proud of their wine, as they should be.  It is a staple of their economy, and it is skillfully crafted with knowledge (and vines) handed down from one generation to the next.

Most French people reserve wine for meals.  And French women tend to drink far less than their male counterparts.  It’s true that you might see a carafe of wine at every meal, but it is shared by the table and will last until the food is finished.  The French savor the taste of their vin rouge or vin blanc served with just the right dish, and when their meal has ended, so has their drinking.  I have several French friends who are constantly surprised by how much wine Americans consume at a social gathering.  When they invite us to their parties, they often tell me they went to the store beforehand to stock up on extra wine, because Americans can deplete their supply.

This doesn’t mean that Americans are drunks, or that our French friends judge us when we guzzle (maybe a little).  But perhaps we could learn a thing from them.  At the very least, we can seriously cut our calorie consumption by requesting a glass of water between every glass of wine (a trick I learned from my lovely friend Véronique).

Keep it natural.

France is known for its beautiful outdoor markets.  On various days of the week, vendors will set up their stalls in designated areas so they can bring you fresh produce, meat, fish, cheese, and other specialty items.  The market is an icon of France.

By default, when you buy a food product in France, it is the original version of that product.  It is not skimmed, processed, or laden with fillers and preservatives.  However, we do live in a world where it is increasingly beneficial for farmers to use more pesticides, hormones, and GMOs, and France is not immune to this.  It is becoming a problem in Europe the same as in America.  But for now, anyway, it is still easier to find natural foods.

I’ll admit, when faced with fat-free, sugar-free options at my American grocery store, it is a dilemma.  The temptation to count calories, to lessen the grams of fat I consume, is so strong.  In America, there’s always a product with half the fat, half the calories, none of the sugar.  I think to myself, Girl, you could eat three of those single-packaged, fat free, sugar free, gluten free raisin oatmeal cookies instead of that one gooey, creamy, buttery, tantalizingly sexy chocolate chip cookie the baker just placed under a glass dome.  I know the latter choice would be more satisfying.  I know it would hold me over until dinner.  I know the ingredients are probably better for me.  But I still have to remind myself that in France, I don’t have these options.  At my local fromagerie, I buy real butter and full fat milk.  At my boulangerie, I buy a baguette every day.  At no point in time do I wonder about fat content or calories in any single food product.  I simply remember that I need to practice moderation.

The reward?  I can enjoy my food and feel satisfied.  This is French Food Culture, and it’s one of the greatest things I learned while living abroad.

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