The first time I experienced Paris I was an impressionable 17 year old girl. I remember the museums, the churches, the shops but most of all the women, the elegant lithe women kitted out with effortless ease always with a foulard (scarf) tied intricately around the net or flung carelessly (but with thoughtfulness) across the shoulder. I fell in love with the city and the culture instantly. The smells; morning café au lait, fresh baked baguette, buttery croissants on Sundays, subtle perfumes, pot au feu. The tastes; fine champagne and foie gras (yes, that’s goose liver! Say something! I dare you!), rich dark chocolate, citron pressé, rich buttery entrecôte (amazing steaks) with a drizzle of Bérnaise and pomme frites (french fries Bien sûr!), Steak au Poivre, Sole Meunière, and let’s not forget dessert. Soufflé au Chocolat, Crème Brûlée and always plates of rich cheeses and a little fruit paraded across our tables.
Of course as a 17 year old girl we were eating in restaurants. As I made friends and were welcomed into their homes I became enamored with the delicate soups (blended with a myriad of vegetables and often doused with a touch of fresh cream), the hearty stews, rustic yet stunning chicken dishes (especially when being invited to my friend Sophie’s home in Alsace, which was always a treat). The chickens were often the size of small turkeys yet raised down the road at a family friend’s farm and allowed to forage on bugs, grass, and the scraps they were fed. (I do strongly suspect they were tossed wheat or something but as a supplement rather than a main meal.)
Though I cannot, in all fairness, attest to the quality of the ingredients used in restaurants (though in every single extraordinary experience I have had in restaurants the freshness was never in doubt) I can tell you, those visits in my formative years to the homes of my friends proved quality and freshness of ingredients were of the utmost importance to the grand dames of the household. There was no margarine, only buerre de sal for bread, many a time the confiture (jam) for the morning baguette was homemade, and vegetables, fruits, fish, and meats were shopped the same day the meal was cooked. Of course, many of my friends families lived outside Paris where life was slower and farms were plentiful but even in Paris, women, in the course of tending to their families, would haggle, argue, and jostle to get the best quality ingredients they could find.
Everything was cooked in butter, and/or goose or duck fat. (My friend Sophie’s mother swore her secret to her famous pomme frites was duck fat. To this day I still roast my potatoes in duck fat and people rave!) It was real food; fresh food; food cooked with respect for the ingredients; food eaten with reverence. And yes, let’s not forget, the wine. There was wine. White, red, champagne, dessert; wine with every lunch and dinner.
With all that food and wine (with dinners lasting at least a few hours and several on the weekend) you would think all of France would be overweight and yet, all the women and most of the men were downright sylphlike.
Flash forward several years later (well, not THAT many years later) with books like French Women Don’t Get Fat flying off the shelves and polyphenol drops on sale everywhere from infomercials to fashion magazines as scientists try to find the “magic bullet” explanation for how the French can be so impossibly thin yet eat such rich (amazing) food. After years of investigation, what did they come up with???
It MUST be the wine!
It couldn’t possibly be the entire mindset or lifestyle. That would just be too much work. Right?
So what exactly IS the French Paradox? How do women stay so impossibly slim, sexy, downright sensual and chic?
I’m going to share what I have learned (and a few things that might shock you, as well!) about what it takes to “be like the French”.
First up? The French exercise. Oh they don’t go sweat it out in a gym for hours on end on a hamster wheel tread mill or in spin class. They walk. In Paris they walk everywhere! Yes, there are cars on the road but it’s bloody expensive to park, to fill up with petrol and maintain your car. People do drive but the vast majority of the time they walk. Women shop every day and that means walking to the local market, usually one for meat, one for bread, one for fruits and vegetables or a very long farmer’s type market that has everything but you must still walk to find things. Some walk several kilometers a day. Ah the joy of effortless exercise. For the ones not in the city, bicycles are often the mode of transport. I spent a summer in Aix en Provence and I bicycled everywhere!
Shocker:: Nowadays, though Paris is still a walking city, more and more own and drive their cars. Because the countryside farms of 20 or even 10 years ago are being made redundant (thanks to cheaper Chinese produce imports) these beautiful country villages are being abandoned and replaced with machine shops, mechanics, and other industrial businesses so, except in more touristic towns, bicycling is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Sad but true.
Next up? The French savor their food and friendships. It’s not unusual to see business men taking two hour lunches at cafés or couples and groups of friends spending hours talking over meals and drinks. Although conversations are often lively, food is enjoyed thoroughly, not scarfed down quickly rushing through courses and fighting over the bill to get “somewhere else”. The French are present. They enjoy lively conversations as well as eating and forks and knives are generally laid down between bandies across the table. Rarely do you see someone inhaling a sandwich as they race back to their office or, indeed, mindlessly gulping down some limp salad and a coffee at their desk.
The French are mindful eaters. They acknowledge meals are to be enjoyed and savored, not looked upon with disdain as a drain on their time. They take the time to nourish their bodies and their souls.
Shocker:: Unfortunately McDonald’s has started to proliferate the Paris neighborhoods, Starbuck’s and the last time I was there even (Quelle horreur) a KFC “adorned” (NOT) one neighborhood in particular and it was sad to see how jam packed these fast food establishments have become. Granted, the portions are significantly smaller in France than the US with a Large drink in France being the equivalent to a small in the US and even the sandwiches about 1/3 smaller AND the French still take time to eat instead of woofing down a Big Mac in 3 bites BUT sadly, I am beginning to see people walking out while still eating. Also, though I do love my crepes, it is not unusual to see people hovering around the crepe stands chowing down on a “Nutella and Banane” crepe. Still, these are more than likely tourists so I am not really sure that counts.
The French value quality. I have been often fascinated to see women at one of the local outdoor markets wrinkle up their noses in a disgusted look at a particular piece of fruit or a vegetable. “Non.Ce n’est pas si frais!” (No, this is not fresh!) they would bark at the vendor who either argued right back insinuating that this woman had no business buying food OR would offer an approving and knowing look as if they shared some secret between them before he went below the table or to the truck to present her with her well won prize , having garnered his approval at her “knowledge”.
They are not afraid of real food. Butter does not phase them. They buy (and many prefer) bone in meats, chicken and fish,and offal, they use cream in everything and nary an artificial sweetener passes their lips as they sweeten their desserts and pastries with cassonade, vergeoise, sucre mi blanc, and have many different types of sugar for such undertakings as jam-making and crystalization (as in creme brûlee). They use sucre en morceaux for their teas and coffees (it would be unacceptable to serve “sucre cristal” for such beverages!). They pride themselves in creating beautiful silky soups made of a melánge of vegetables and fresh stocks. When they cook, they revere the preparation which brings me to my next point.
They create a palette for the eyes and soul, not just the stomach. The French have an innate sense of designing a meal. Not only is the food beautifully presented but the table has not been merely laid it has been crafted. “The eyes eat first” as the bran is responsible for 30% to 40% of digestion sending hormones, enzymes, and blood to the stomach and digestive tract to begin digestion. The French are marvelously sensual beings with penchants for fresh flowers and using their fine crystal and china instead of keeping it only for “special occasions.” How could they not be anything but fabulous with women who would not be caught dead wearing their husband’s old sweatshirt and sweatpants!
The French have portion “control”. Control is really a myth. Rarely will you see anyone with a plate piled high. Because they have a tendency towards wanting quality and they love a beautifully designed plate, portions tend to be on the small side. Since they eat much more mindfully (oddly enough without them knowing they are eating mindfully) their bodies signal leptin to tell them to they are satisfied and to stop eating.
French mothers teach their children (specifically their daughters) how to be mindful of portions. I remember vividly about 6 years ago being invited to a “tea”. There was a strikingly beautiful brunette woman with an adorable little girl about 4 years old . I remember the little girl asking for another piece of cake and her mother looking up at her and quietly (so as not to draw attention) murmuring to her “Pas trop” (not too much!). (Forgive my French grammar memory! ) I expected a typical tantrum (as I have seen from other children in many parts of the western world) and instead, the little girl nodded a little, took a tiny piece and looked rather happy. The woman became aware of my witnessing the exchange and remarked “We must train them now, no?”. The funny thing is, the little girl got a little more of what she wanted, no fits or screaming with not so much as a raise of the voice or descent into bargaining. (Of course there is LITTLE marketing done to children.)
The French, though they do pay attention to food, do not make it an obsession. It is a part of their culture but it isn’t something they think about 95% of the day. They eat fat, they drink wine, they eat carbs but they do so within reason and they do so with quality.
Of course, sadly this is changing and there are indeed parts of society you never really hear about in mainstream media. French women are professional dieters and many do often deprive themselves of that extra bite of dessert. Many smoke which does account for some of the lack of appetite, and obesity incidences are starting to creep up, mainly in the lower classes.
Farmers’ markets are declining in numbers and the quality of French grown fruits and vegetables is steadily on a downward slope thanks to cheap imports. Supermarkets are becoming much more mainstream which is, in my view, a crime against French humanity. The French do have the same budgetary issues that we Americans face and many cannot afford fresh produce or good quality meats, chicken and fish. Packaged foods are becoming more mainstream with many families resorting to dried potatoes, frozen foods and low-quality cold cuts. McDonald’s offers a cheap solution for families stretched to the breaking point. France’s economy is on a downturn and many companies are abandoning the French art of seduction and slow business in favor of American workhorse attitudes which means working lunches at desks in some cases. The culture, though kicking and screaming, is fighting what looks like a losing battle. Diet products and US diet guru books translated to French are starting to line pharmacy shelves and bookstore windows and gyms are starting to “catch on” with the younger generation. This saddens me to no end as it is not a march towards progress but a death of a lifestyle steeped in grace and sensuality.
Still, it hasn’t changed yet and even now galls me to no end that scientists studied for years how the French could live such decadent lives (food wise) and stay so healthy and all they came up with was “it must be the wine”!
I urge you to connect with your inner “Frenchie” for your next family meal. Design the table, light some candles, go to a farmers’ market and see what is on offer fresh. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. Leek and potato soup is easy to throw together. On a budget? A frittata is quick, delicious and healthy as a main dish and don’t forget dessert. Homemade ice cream, custard, flourless brownies, homemade jello with cream all make welcome treats at the end of a meal.