Saturday, 3 March 2012

Born and Bread

I've started reading Mireille Guiliano's 'French Women Don't Get Fat ' as a type of literary insurance policy, hoping that I will absorb the necessary wisdom to ensure that my time in Paris is indulgent but not overly destructive. So far, it has not told me much that I didn't know already, if I took a little time to reflect, but it has definitely reminded me that the true secret to staying healthy does not lie in restraint, guilt, punishment or denial. It is, rather, all about maintaining an inner sense of equilibrium. This is something that an increasing number of Americans and Brits are losing or in fact have never had, and derives from something that seems to be almost a continental birthright. French women, by and large, are not slaves to the scales, do not have gym memberships, and do not put themselves through weeks of milkshake lunches before holidays. They manage their health simply by being sensible, and are more likely to recognise the need for a little restraint by they way their clothes feel.

I love the fact that the plastic sachets used at the bakery for sliced-to-order loaves are all stamped with a smiley baker and the motto 'Bread - your health's friend '. Now, I recognise that cigarettes were once thought of this way, and that Guinness tried this too, and although midwives of old were possibly onto something by giving an iron-restoring pint to new Mums (and I'm guessing that as much as alcohol at this point is definitely not a good idea, to be fair many probably feel like they deserve something a lot stronger!) it is not a healthy tipple to be enjoyed often. My point is that in France, carbs are not the enemy. If you sit a French couple and and English couple on adjacent tables in a French restaurant, it is likely that the English couple will eat all the bread offered and ask for more. French bread is lovely, they're on holiday, and it is simply not the same at home. The French couple will probably not, however. They recognise that all good things are best enjoyed in moderation (and, incidentally, they will know if that bread is as good as what they get from their favourite local boulangerie). They enjoy their food slowly, and treat meal times with due reverence, which means not accompanying them with a TV soundtrack. I lived in France for the best part of a year in 2005 and remember being struck back then by how underwhelming the ready-meal world is here. Since then I have worked in a UK supermarket, where the ready-meal aisles were among the busiest. In seven years, little seems to have changed in France, regardless of world economic crises and harder work lives.

I'm not trying to say that the French have everything right about food, nor am I trying to say that the UK or US have it all wrong. I'm just saying that, like the laws of physics, every action has a reaction, and that seeking balance is no bad thing. Being balanced is, we are always being told, healthy. A few ways to be more balanced when it comes to health and diet are below.

Drink more water. French women in particular are at this all the time (and note that the French recycle more than the Brits, due in no small part to the increased volume of plastic bottles, but this is a discussion for another time). Studies have shown that a significant proportion of UK adults don't drink enough water. Not only does this make our bodies have to work harder, but it makes us retain fluid and feel bloated and it slows our digestion. It also possibly makes us eat more as dehydration can cause feelings of hunger.

Practise mindful eating. 'Mindfulness' is one of those buzz words doing the rounds at the moment, and when it comes to food it makes sense. In order to feel sated when we eat, our brain has to register that we have eaten. Chewing food properly triggers this response, which is also more effective the fewer things our brain has to juggle while we are eating. It is still very common for French schoolchildren and parents to come home for lunch, and whilst this isn't necessarily practical, making sure you do get a change in scenery when eating, sitting to do so in order that you can concentrate on what you're doing, will make you feel fuller for longer.

Make meals interesting. This doesn't mean every meal has to be an exploration in molecular gastronomy, it just means making sure your brain is stimulated by what you eat, and that you enjoy your food. Shake things up a bit once in a while if you're falling back on the same meals regularly, because if you have a happy, comfortable relationship with your food, it is more likely to treat you right. Whilst eating a variety of different foods on the same plate is more likely to increase the chances of getting one's 5-a-day, a word of caution - having too many different things on one plate over-stimulates the brain and increases the amount of time needed to feel sated. As before, everything in moderation.

Try it from scratch. Few of us have the luxury of time, equipment or energy to make all of every meal from scratch, all of the time. But once in a while it's good to try to get back to basics. This connects you with what you are putting into your body and helps you to reflect on ingredients and provenance. For example, I bought my first pasta machine last week and have used it twice already. I'm finding different ways of making pasta, enjoying the pride of eating tagliatelle I've rolled and cut myself, and actually eating much smaller portions than I would if I had bought it. Plus, it's great fun!

Patiently drying pasta. Clothes airers have many uses.

Explore seasonal produce. By trying to restrict what you buy to an extent by what is in season, you are helping to minimise food miles, saving yourself money, and getting everything in its prime. This means your food is in fact better for you. Not only will it taste better (meaning that you will need less of it) but it will be richer in nutrients. A seasonality chart can be seen here.

Food shop little and often. This goes with above, but it stands to reason that the more food you buy at once, the more food you eat at once. It is also likely to increase the amount you throw away, and so should by association mean that your food expenditure is less.

A Kouign Amann, a delicious breton speciality
made with salted, rather than sweet butter.
Lovingly bought and enjoyed from La Pâtisserie des Rêves. 
I won't ever be French, nor will I ever be a size 8, but I am happy with who I am and am trying to borrow some of the French's best bits to become a bit healthier. I haven't got there yet - the bakery is non-stop, so I'm definitely not drinking enough. The amount of bread left over at the end of the day for staff to take is staggering at times, and the first time I helped to close, I fell prey to a carb-induced coma with my spoils. I set out the other day determined to make rabbit ragu followed by a rhubarb compote without realising that now is not the best time for buying rabbits, hence why I couldn't find any, and that I'm a little early for rhubarb here. But I've also discovered Paris' network of hire bikes and worn out shoes with all my exploration by foot, and after a particularly successful jogging exploration this week I treated myself with a trip to La Pâtisserie des Rêves. I am learning new food vocabulary as I familiarise myself with early spring's seasonal produce, and I sit at a table for every meal with the TV off.

Well, almost every meal. Everything in moderation, after all.


  1. LOVE this post. really interesting. I've definitely got a few of these down pat, others I know I need to work on, and some are new to me (so thanks for the info!). ps that bread looks ridiculously good..... can you send me one?!

  2. Interesting post, Sarah. I've recently discovered a beautiful and authentic little boulangerie only minutes from our door in Sydenham. Must admit, I've always been a 'stuff yourself Brit' whenever I've been in France, visiting family, but perhaps next time I'll be a little more reserved now I have the experience so close to home.

  3. I've just finished reading 'French Women Don't Get Fat' and found it very interesting, of course a lot of it is common sense but it's not until it's really pointed out to you that you appreciate its importance and relevance.

  4. A truly thoughtful morsel of your experiences! Brava! Your writing is becoming a good reason to turn the TV firmly off - unfortunately the computer screen may have to take over as we read and re-read your posts whilst chewing slowly and drinking more water. More please ...