I was recently asked what the three most important things are that I’ve learned from my time in France. The question, posed by a reader, has kept my mind turning this past week. I’ve rolled it over and over in my mind for days trying to come up with the very truest, most honest answer I could. In the end, the first of this list is also the very first that popped into my head: how to eat right.
It might sound trivial at first, basic even, and yet knowing how to eat like the French is no small task. It’s not that their food is so much more complicated than Anglo recipes (although that’s true to a certain degree). And it’s not that the French hold their forks in a funny way (although they do set the table differently than we do in North America). In fact, after much reflection, I’ve finally come up with a suitable way to articulate the most striking differences between the way I used to eat and the way I’ve learned to eat as a French person. It’s really quite simple when I write it out in words, and now that it makes up my daily routine I hardly think about it at all anymore. But it wasn’t always like that. There was a time a few years back when I spent a great deal of time trying to get a handle of all this cuisine savoir-vivre. Now I’m going to pass it on to you.
There are essentially three main prongs to eating like a French person, and I’m going to spend a post on each one: (1) variety, (2) proportion size, and what I’m going to call (3) à table.
Today, I’ll start with the first: variety.
When I used to walk into Publix in the States or Longos and Loblaws in Canada, I’d spend most of my time in the produce section, which many health professionals and diet gurus tell us is the right thing to do, the buying mostly unproduced food part, that is. Without fail, I would walk out of the store each week with the same ten vegetables and fruit. Variety, I knew, was a staple of a healthy diet, and I interpreted the concept as varying my meals around this rather small selection of produce. I’d never thought about variety meaning more than a simple rotation.
The French know this instinctively.
My mother-in-law is a master of this particular piece of savoir-vivre. She plans her meals a few days in advance – the French shop for only a few days at a time – and writes out the meat, vegetable, cheese (or yogurt) and fruit that will make up the menu of each of these lunches and dinners. She cycles through beef and pork, chicken and turkey, lamp and rabbit (the French do eat more types of meat than we’re accustomed to), fish and crustaceans. Beside the meat course she writes a different seasonal vegetable and ends by including a fruit which is the dessert course of French family meals most of the time. That’s one part protein, two parts fiber, one part dairy, and of course the wine.
She instinctively knows that summer offers us crispy green beans, white asparagus, a whole family of tomatoes, not to mention all those fabulous fresh herbs. Fall brings us eggplant, zucchini (think ratatouille), artichokes, cabbage, endives and beets. The winter months are laden with all those root vegetables that are fabulous for soups and stews. I wrote a post a few months back including a list of what produce is in season when (in temperate climates), so for a more complete list, look here.
The key to my mother-in-law’s menus is not just varying the types of products she buys, which was my early conception of eating right, but also knowing and buying the produce in its natural season. This is a concept that completely escaped me back home. Like I mentioned above, I’d go into the store and buy the same ten fruits and veggies without even thinking – apples, oranges, grapes, strawberries, red pepper, cucumber, zucchini, tomatoes, onions and potatoes. It never occurred to me that green beans weren’t in season in the winter or that tomatoes were at their best in the summer. It had all perpetually just been available, polished and ready for me on the stands at the store, so I bought it year-round without a thought.
Then, I moved to France and realized not only that strawberries are delicate kisses of sunlight in the summer but that you cannot even buy strawberries except in the summer in most of France. I suppose these restrictions make things a little easier, in fact. We don’t really have to worry about getting the seasons right. Nature does it for us.
Those of you lucky enough to have a farmer’s market nearby enjoy the same advantage.
The best part about taking the time to eat in season is that when you look the varieties of produce are multiplied tenfold. Right now, for instance, its prune, mirabelle and fig season in France. We’re just at the cusp of grape season (wine harvest) which begins in mid-September. And strawberries are over. Did you know there are about eight different types of prunes? And did you further know that they aren’t black and hard and wrinkly? You might laugh, but before moving to France I didn’t have any idea that a prune was a delicious, fleshy, sweet fruit. I’d only ever seen dried prunes (which I suppose should have been my first clue given that a dried anything has to have come from an un-dried something in the first place – I never gave it any thought). In France, those dried prunes are called pruneaux (prune-o), by the way – something other than prunes.
What I’ve come to love about this first prong of eating like the French, after the original shock of not being able to buy exactly what I wanted when I wanted, was that in the summer I love strawberries more than I ever did before. And I look forward to summer in part for their sake. I buy giant bushels of them and eat them in practically every kind of tart or pie or cake that I can think of, not to mention by the bucket full straight out of my hand. My belle-mère has a similarly special relationship with peaches. In the summer when she spends her time in the countryside, she goes every couple of days to the same lady at the local market and buys crates of peaches by the kilo. And they are nothing short of juicy, sweet deliciousness.
Then when the bright summer rays begin to fade into a soft autumn glow, we begin a new love affair with prunes, apples, mirabelles, grapes, and the heavier vegetables for thick stocks and stews.
The added bonus of eating in rotation with nature like the French is that as each season comes back around the next year you rediscover an entire world of recipes you’d almost forgotten. It’s rebirth at its finest and most gourmet.
Nature does all the work for us if we let her. Vegetables and fruit eaten in season are on special order from the land and Frenchmen would be hard pressed to have it any other way.