I’m one of those people – I don’t eat to live, I live to eat and if you’re doing it any other way I think you’re mad. As a huge food lover, living in France for a year was an absolute dream. I spent the first 3 months gorging myself on bread, cheese, wine and pastries. But when the weight started to pile on, I looked to my international friends in panic – ‘but I can’t stop eating!’ My newly arrived friends shared my hysteria – what’s more important, fitting into your limited amount of clothes or eating cheese three times a day? Pass the Comté. Thankfully, our more weathered friends came to the rescue. With knowing looks and pats on the shoulder, I was told not to worry, ‘just keep eating and eventually you’ll get sick of it.’ I was sceptical to say the least. Two months later and I was still happily eating half a fresh baguette on the way home from work.
Despite still worrying I was going to end up in a patisserie induced diabetic coma, I realised that I was actually learning something from my foray into French food. Thanks to my 3 French roomies and working with little French people-in-training, I learned a lot about the French approach to food. So, here’s 5 Food lessons from France I’m still trying to stick to.
#1: Snacking is Strictly Prohibited
I’ll never forget the look on my flatmate Louis’ face when he walked into the living room at 5pm and found me stuffing my face like a grizzly bear in springtime. If I remember correctly, my plate consisted of a mixture of crisps, nutella and blocks of cheese (don’t judge me). He was genuinely horrified – it’s not dinner time! I told him that I hadn’t had time for lunch and I was starving… while this would be a completely reasonable excuse for snacking in the UK (let’s be honest we don’t need a reason to snack in the UK) he wasn’t convinced. ‘It’s only two hours until dinner time and then you won’t want to eat.’ That’s right, my 19 year old flatmate was chiding me for ruining my dinner.
The French way: stick to your meal times and you can eat as much as you want.
#2: Never Eat Alone
Ok, so while it’s not necessarily against the rules to eat alone in France, it’s seen as a shame. A missed opportunity to break bread with your family or friends. Dinner time was always a big deal in our apartment, and it was one of my favourite times of day. We would generally take turns to cook and would eat dinner together at least 4 times a week. If someone hadn’t prepared a large meal, we’d still often sit down and eat our separately prepared suppers together. We would wish each other ‘bon appetit’ and dig in while we discussed our days and I practiced my French. If any of us was found eating alone at the table, more often than not someone would sit and chat with us while we ate, or at the very least wished us ‘bon app!’ as they wandered past.
The habit of eating together provided us with a solid structure to our days, reinforced social bonds and most importantly, made us be more mindful of and take our time with our food. The French way: Take the time to sit down and eat with your loved ones.
#3: Quality Over Quantity
It sounds simple but the reason French food is so good is because the French like good food. There’s a reason that fast food just isn’t that big of a deal in France. Despite the fairly recent rise in popularity of the humble hamburger, I’ve heard ‘McDonald’s’ mumbled like a dirty word by someone who often exclaims ‘putain!’ at the slightest grievance. While this often means a normal food shop can cost you an arm and a leg, it’s an extravagance that enriches their way of life. With any meal in France, you can bet the food served is of the highest quality and, as a result, in the appropriate quantity.
Nothing proved this to me more than my friend’s boyfriend Matthieu. The guy lives for food, and was always ready to school us foreigners in French cuisine. A glass of local red wine and a couple of slices of charcuterie like you’ve never had before and you were good to go. The French way: Everything in moderation. But if you’re going to limit yourself, make sure it’s the good stuff.
#4: Don’t Waste Food on Kids
I promise that the French do feed their kids, but let me explain. In the UK, you hear a lot about how mothers shouldn’t run themselves ragged preparing separate food for everyone and how the family should all eat the same thing together. I totally get the benefits to that, as mentioned before, eating together is a big deal in France as well. But here’s the thing – in France, the children aren’t always included. In fact, in my experience, the kids had already eaten, bathed and been put to bed before the parents even thought about dinner.
The biggest difference I saw was in what they ate. Children are often served super simple, nourishing meals without any question of what they want to eat. Think a couple of organic slices of ham and some peas and carrots on the side with a yoghurt to finish. After they were in bed, the parents sat down to a much more sophisticated offering at a table for two. The French way: give the kids what they need, not what they want, eventually they’ll be the same thing.
#5: Don’t Forget the Drinks
It’s not technically food, but it IS just as important. In France, two things happened to my drinking habits: I drank more wine and I drank more water. In fact if I wasn’t drinking one, I was drinking the other. That was mostly it! Saying the French are known for their taste in wine is like saying the sky is blue. But maaaaaaan do the French know their wine! I’m still an absolute novice, though I can happily appreciate a quality bottle much more than I used to. And while I still had many boozy nights during my time in France, I did learn to appreciate alcohol for the craftsmanship (trying not to laugh as I write this). Also, I realised how much unnecessary sugar I was consuming with squash/cordial/syrop. Most important lesson from France: if you’re going to drink a sugary drink, make sure it’s fermented and make sure it’s French. If you’re lucky, you might end up in a situation like this on a weekday night: