Demystifying French Food and a Simple Recipe to Arouse Joie de Vivre
By Trish Sebastian
One of my quirky secrets to learning about a place I will be traveling to is to devour literature revolving around food, be it cookbooks, travelogues or essays, written by people local to that place. I find that by doing so, you are initiated into the intricacies and nuances of not only the food, but the wider context of culture and even history from a different angle.
I am a closet francophile and although it is considered vulgar in most French standards to exhibit exuberance, I will defy that convention and be adamant in my right to be giddy. I will be traveling to Paris for a few days and the excitement is a little bit irrepressible. I was in Paris for the first time a year ago, and it truly is a mecca of astounding beauty –architecture, art, culture, people, and it is no secret, food.
I must have geek in my DNA because before traveling anywhere (in this case, Paris), while it is always helpful to browse a well-worn Lonely Planet for a 30,000 foot perspective (never a sole itinerary guide), one of my local insider guides to the vast and fascinating kaleidoscope of French food is “French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano.
Like The Fat Kid Inside, Mireille Guiliano was once overweight who also ate her way into fitness. She is born and bred French and after she moved to America briefly for school, she watched herself grow large eating what Americans ate. To lose the unhealthy weight, she had to revert back to how she was used to eating – like a French woman. A health plan eating like the French? Sign me up stat.
Despite the abundance of patisseries, boulangeries, and creperies in almost in every corner and how I can tell from the first bite of anything at a restaurant that they are not phobic to butter, it is befuddling how the French people are not yet obese. The book attempts to demystify the French food culture and how to enjoy (real) butter, sugar, red meat, multi-course meals, and all those scary things – guiltlessly. It contains Mireille Guiliano’s personal stories and anecdotes, infused with menu suggestions and recipes of a great deal of French classics.
It is such a rich book, not only as an unconventional travel guide, but also as a map of sorts to eating well. Here are some principles about French food culture and why they don’t blow out of proportion in so doing:
- Variety: “Gastronomic boredom leads to lots of unhealthy eating.” (Remember that you can use the resources at The Fat Kid Inside to help plan variety in your meals!)
- Quality not quantity: Yes, it applies to macarons, so put that box of eight down.
- Fresh ingredients: “Part of living like a French woman, then, will mean searching out and paying a bit more for quality, whether at the open-air market or at least a good grocery shop with market suppliers… French women live on budgets, too, but they also understand the value of quality over quantity.”
- Right-size portions. Oh, give up the pout. This just means you could have more courses and wine.
- Ritual dining: Eating slowly and at a nicely set dinner table, without computers, cellphones and TV’s in periphery. Notice that I did not mention fine bone china because it doesn’t mean that.
- And finally, the demystification on how they get away with all that butter and sugar: “Despite its reputation as a butter-rich cuisine, authentic French cooking these days actually uses relatively little fat, preferring to create taste with other elements. And we are even stingier with sugar. But we get away with it because we start with quality ingredients. Fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes naturally contain all the sweetness you should desire. But you can’t fake a good tomato. Find what’s in season and where you can work from there.”
What I’ve observed in the French is that their culture is so entrenched in food and cuisine that they have developed a long-standing relationship with food. And like any revered relationship, they are careful and thoughtful with it. They regard it with attention and love. And I admire that. And maybe because it is a relationship treated with such delicate care, it becomes a significant part of the French joie de vivre.
Food is an affair, an important one, as I think all food should be. And even if you’re not trying to emulate the French, there is something for everyone in this book, if only for the recipes. It has very practical, executable recipes, often with just a handful of ingredients, so you too can have a piece of that joie de vivre within easy reach, at your dinner table.
Grilled Rosemary Chicken Breast
This is such an easy and delicious dish great paired with a fresh salad. It’s chicken inasal (signature grilled chicken in the Visayan region of the Philippines) meets piri-piri (Portuguese grilled chicken).
For 2 plates, you’ll need:
2 Chicken breasts – skin on, bone in
4 Garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
6-8 fresh rosemary sprigs
Juice of half a lemon or if using calamansi, about 5 of them
- In a small bowl, mix all ingredients except the chicken. You can add more of any of the ingredients depending on your taste buds.
- Slather the mixture all over the chicken. Use your hands to rub all this goodness on the chicken.
- Wrap the chicken in plastic wrap and stash in the fridge for at least two hours to marinate.
- Grill until cooked.
- Plate with fresh salad and serve with red wine.