Tips on food and cooking (#1)

And also :

Photo: "Bio" bread baker Michel Moisan in his shop in the 14th arrondissement. Try the pain au basilic!
Five secrets of the French diet ...   Have you ever tasted ....? 

 Americans are always amazed that the French "eat so much and remain so slim ". How do they manage? Is there a French mystery ? What is the secret of the French woman ? Read Lithe! Slender! French! about the best selling book, "French Women Don't Get Fat".

  • No eating between meals (no snacks!) : don't eat when you're hungry, eat when it's time to eat. With regular meal hours, you're never hungry ! French parents tell their children that only animals are hungry...

  • Complete meals (several courses) with small portions.

  • Food bought fresh from the market : Although the French shop in supermarkets or "hypermarkets", they also enjoy a once or twice a week outing to outdoor markets for fresh fish, fruit, vegetables. Bread is not bought for the day - fresh baguettes are purchased meal by meal.

  • Lots of vegetables and olive oil.

  • No guilt!! Chic French women watch their weight like hawks but when they go out to dinner or a party, they're ready to celebrate. Champagne? A piece of delicious "tarte aux fraises" (strawberry tart)? Of course! Even if our French person is "on a diet", he or she won't say it. After all, a party is a party! The pleasure the French take in the conviviality of food is one of their most endearing qualities and quite probably keeps them slim as well!

The result : the % of obese people is 7,4% in France, compared to 39,1% in the USA (but it is growing....) See comparative figures and read my column about "the ugly American eater".

If you liked "French Women Don't Get Fat", you'll love French Fried, Harriet Welty Rochefort's tale of how she learned the French secret for staying slim while enjoying the thinking about, shopping for, preparation of, and savoring of sitdown meals, whether for family or for company, informal or formal. French Fried explores Harriet's forays into the MINDS of the French and the way they think about food. Conclusion: for the French, food is a delight and there's nothing that can beat assembling a meal and pairing food and wine.

For more on the French and their healthy, sane attitude toward food, read "French Fried" which the only nine-star chef of France, Alain Ducasse, called a "lively, hilarious, and insightful" book.

  • Fruits : the mirabelle is a delicious small yellow plum, which grows mostly in the region of Lorraine ; the season is very short (two or three weeks, late August) : not to be missed!

  • Cheeses : do you know Gaperon ? It is a tasty slightly-garlic-flavored cheese from the mountainous region of Auvergne in the center of France. It is pasteurized, so you might be able to find it in the States or, at least, bring it back home.... And what about Cancoillotte ? It is a very soft, buttery liquid cheese from the East of France that you spread on bread.

  • Less well-known vegetables : you can find them everywhere and they are delicious ; among them, salsifis (oyster plant, purple goatsbeard), topinambour (Jerusalem artichoke), bette (garden beet, chard), etc...

  • Beverages :you haved tasted Cognac (brandy), but do you know Armagnac ? Coming from a region called "Gers", it is a wonderful brandy, different from cognac (which tastes a little drier). Floc (armagnac mixed with wine) is a delicious before-dinner drink, as is its equivalent in the cognac region, pineau des Charentes, or in Burgundy, Ratafia.

  • The huge variety of saussages, hot or cold : hot like merguez (small, 2/3 beef + 1/3 lamb + quite spicy, comes from Algeria and is one of the most popular) or andouillette, or cold like andouille (sort of a much bigger cold andouillette).

  • Always try regional delicacies such as Crème de cassis (creamy alcohol from black currant) in Burgundy, piment d'Espelette (sweet red pepper) in Basque country, poiré (cider made of pears) in Normandy, huile de noix (chestnut oil) in Quercy, etc...

  • More to come..

USEFUL TIP ON ...... TIPS : in France, in restaurants, cafés, etc..., the TIP IS ALWAYS INCLUDED. You may leave a little something (the yellow coins in a café, 1 or 2 Euros in a restaurant, more in a very fancy restaurant) but you do not have to and nobody is expecting it.

DID YOU KNOW THAT ...? In France coffee is not served with dessert. It is a separate course and will come after it, even if you are very specific when ordering. That's a French custom !

 Drawing by Cabu, in Le Canard Enchaine April 19, 2000 about little Elian Gonzales ("Today/Tomorrow : The danger for the little Cuban if he stays in Miami too long")

Why don't you just enjoy it?

  • One secret of French cooking : Don't follow a recipe ! Most French chefs rely on smell, feel and taste and don't worry about the exact quantities. After all, they're in a kitchen and not a pharmaceutical company! The exception to this is pastry where temperature, quantities and ingredients have to be extremely precise. Click here for more information about the metric system

  • When outside Paris, always choose the local speciality. It includes local products and know-how and it is always better than elsewhere. For example : bouillabaisse (fish, in Marseille), cassoulet (beans, in Toulouse), choucroute (sauerkraut, in Alsace), mussels with cream (Normandy), quenelles (fish, in Lyon), etc...

  • Don't be obsessed by chefs, recipes, newspaper articles, etc... : just enjoy what you eat and drink ! (remember that in 2009, the movie "Julie and Julia" was one of the biggest flops in the history of cinema : nobody in France knows the name of Julia Child !). Read about pleasure...

  • Why are the French (and particularly French women ) so slim? The answer "They have a croissant in the morning and they smoke the rest of the day" is funny but wrong...

  • Don't pretend you're "allergic" to something, unless you've been declared allergic after serious medical tests. Be frank and say you don't like it or you don't want to try it...

  • Read Harriet's book "Joie de Vivre" to understand why the French have such good food !

  • Best-selling cookbook author and lover of Paris, Betty Rosbottom has cooked and eaten her way around the City of Light : visit her site for restaurant tips and much more.

  • More to come.....


France in a nutshell!

Gastronomy in kindergarten and primary school ... In case you are wondering why food is so important to the French and how they manage to maintain this tradition, look at this document : it is the menu, day by day of a school in Paris (kindergarden and Primary : 3 to 10 years old kids). Five-course meals, changing everyday, with the reference to quality ("homemade", "organic", "regional produce", etc). Not twice the same dish for each of the 5 courses on a period of a month or so. Not much sugar, lots of fruits and vegetables, zero soft drinks : a very healthy diet. The price is very reasonable for the parents (almost zero to 7 Euros/day, according to the family income, average = 3.50 Euros). The idea is to give to the kids an education of variety and quality, even with simple dishes. A few more details :

  • you can see that there is nothing sophisticated but nothing banal either : traditional sauces, nothing fried, nothing straight from the can, ... ; even the kind of bread changes every day
  • there is an option for children who do not eat pork
  • to help the mothers : every day, a menu is suggested for the dinner of the family (this is to educate the parents!)
  • more details on the site of the Caisse des Ecoles (something like : the school board)
  • more to come . . .

DID YOU KNOW THAT...... ? The story of Parmentier and the history of the potato in France : Antoine Parmentier (1737-1813) is famous for having contributed to the introduction of the potato in France. The French are very conservative and it was difficult to convince people to plant and eat this new vegetable ; he succeeded by using two tricks which illustrate a profound understanding of the French character:
- Snobbism : Parmentier convinced King Louis XVI to wear a potato flower on his jacket : nobles of the court immediately thought the potato was a fashionable plant
- Lack of civic sense : Parmentier had a field of potatoes guarded by soldiers (instructed to be blind and do nothing) : people immediately came and stole the potatoes.
That is the way to deal with the French !

An odious and chauvinistic joke !
 Tips on French food...  

Most repulsive French food....

 About wine ...

  • Do not drink it too cold : never chilled, no ice cubes ! Why? Kills the taste.
  • Do not serve yourself (at formal dinners)
  • Do not believe that wine gives headaches (unless you drink too much !) : what give headaches are sulfites (i.e. : bad wine)
  • Do not fill the glass more than half
  • Talk to people (who sell it or who drink it with you) : they'll teach you a lot
  • Remember that the "rules" are flexible (for instance, certain white wines match perfectly withe certain cheeses)
  • More about wine

About cheese ...

  • Do not cut too big pieces : do not leave uneaten food in your plate. It means you did not like it (and cheese is expensive!)

  • Cheese is a living entity : eat raw milk cheese (and do not keep it too long)

  • It it traditional to offer cheese only once and not propose a second helping

  • Talk to people (who sell it or who eat it with you) : they'll teach you a lot

  • More about cheese...

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? The French do NOT take it seriously when you say that your are allergic to something..... For them, it is just a pompous way to say that you don't like it or that you don't want to taste it. Allergies do exist, but they are considered a "real" illness and treated as such. I remember, once, when I was in an emergency ward with a young American student who had had plenty of Champagne and pretended she was allergic to Champagne. The doctors, could not believe it : for them she was just drunk, and they were absolutely right!

About bread ...

  • NEVER forget bread if you have French guests!

  • Do not put bread ON your plate : put it on the table.

  • Buy fresh bread once or twice a day.

  • You don't need to put butter on the table

  • Remember there are many kinds of bread.

  • More DOs & DONTs...

Do you know why the State sets the vacation dates of your baker ?


 Other than snails and frog legs, if you want to experience the kind of food that the French enjoy but which is most unusual for many Americans, try the following :

  • Boudin : a blood sausage, delicious with mashed potatoes, spicy when " Antillais " (from the French Carribean Islands)

  • Cervelle (brains) : very delicate (lamb or veal brains), with melted butter and capers : read a funny letter about it

  • Civelles : baby-eels (one to two inches long), eaten raw with a vinaigrette (a delicacy in Nantes and Bordeaux)  credit
  • Cheval (horse meat) : very tender and fat free, recommended for children and convalescents (some butcher shops, called "boucheries chevalines" sell only horse meat)

  • Huitres (oysters) are eaten raw with vinegar or lemon (yes, they're alive!)

  • Lapin (rabbit) : fried or in a stew, delicious when roasted with mustard

  • Os à moëlle : bone marrow (to eat with coarse salt)

  • Pied de cochon : fried pig's foot (many bones and nails to suck...)

  • Rognons (kidneys) : fried, with a mustard or a wine sauce

  • Steak tartare : mashed raw beef meat, mixed with sliced onions, egg yolk, parsley, spices,...

  • Testicles (of billy goat or bull) : very milky, fried or used in "bouchées-à-la-reine " (a classical first course in banquets)

  • Tête de veau (veal head) is a delicacy including everything (nose, cheeks, ...) served with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise

  • More generally, anything from the interior of a pig (or a calf) : stomach, heart, intestine, tongue, liver, kidney, sweetbreads, etc : called " les abats " (some shops, called "triperies ", sell only that)

  • More to come

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? The Foie Gras is one of the most appreciated French delicacies and it is associated with festive opportunities such as Christmas, New Year's Eve, fancy dinners, elegant coktails. It is made of the liver of force-fed geese or ducks. If you are offered "foie gras", never call it "pâté" (it is much better and much more expensive !). It was banned in April 2005 by the City of Chicago (and by the State of California since 2004) in the name of the defence of animals against cruel treatments. The French thought that this was a very funny decision and that there will be more foie gras left for them. 


DID YOU KNOW THAT... French eating habits and table etiquette are very particular in France. For a humorous view of them, you may enjoy an article by Harriet Welty Rochefort : "Don't Eat Your Soup With a Fork - And Other Conseils of French Politesse" !

USEFUL TIPS.... In France, people use much less ice cubes and it's an absolute no-no to put ice cubes in wine, red or white, and in champagne. Remember alos that a "limonade" is not like US "lemonade". If you want a "lemonade" ask for a "soda au citron" or you'll get either nothing (because only children drink "limonade") or an extremely sugarry and sticky beverage... 

 The Chocolate War...   Two radically different defenders of French cuisine

REAL chocolate is composed of cocoa and cocoa butter - and no vegetable fats and traditionally was the chocolate one bought in France. You can still find this real chocolate in specialty shops and some supermarkets in France, but buyers beware! Why? In March 2000 the European Parliament voted to permit the addition of margarine and other oils into chocolate. The burden is now on the buyer to read the label to see if the product is the real thing. Which European countries started this movement towards ersatz chocolate? England, followed by Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Portugal and Sweden. Ah, the pitfalls of modern Europe!

Conclusions : 1/ Down with globalization when it comes to quality food, and 2/ Never follow the eating habits of the English.

To enjoy REAL chocolate :

  • La Maison du Chocolat 225 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré 75008 & 52 rue François Premier 75008
  • Christian Constant 37 rue d'Assas 75006
  • For more on this subject, read French Fried on the French and their food.

See the Raw-Milk-War and the Wood-Shaving-War.


How to read a (French) label?

  • French regulation is strict on food products. More and more it is set by European rules.
  • The most important thing to check is the " date limite " (deadline) which is strictly mandatory. Two wordings : " à consommer DE PREFERENCE avant ... " means : best before .... (but no risk if you eat or drink it after) but " à consommer JUSQU'AU .... " means : it can be hazardous after this date.
  • Other indications include : " % de matière grasse ..." (i.e.% of fat), " OGM " (i.e. Genetically Modified Organisms), "fermier " (i.e. elaborated in a farm, no industrial process), "AOC" (i.e. produced in a given region with a given high quality process), etc...
  • each of the word used to describe the characteristics of the product must correspond to a specific number or bracket and not a qualitative appréciation : "faible teneur en.... " (I.e. low % of...), " riche en ... " (i.e. high % of...), " sans ..."(i.e. without...), " teneur réduite en ..." (i.e. reduced % of .....)
  • More to come.

A question about French chefs : when you see the picture of a French chef, he always has a striped collar blue-white-red. Why? Click here to know what it means!



Facts and figures about the French and food

  • The French spend more than two hours (2:15) eating every day, about twice the time Americans devote to their beakfast, lunch and dinner (1:14). See detailed figures.
  • In French, the word for "organic" is "bio" (beeho)
  • More to come....


DID YOU KNOW THAT. ? In France, obesity is much less frequent than in the USA (see : Why French Women Don't Get Fat ?) but it is progressing. Measuring obesity by " Indice de Masse Corporelle " = Weight (in kilos) / square of Height (in meters) if larger than 30, the percentage of obese people in the total population varied in France from 7 or 8 % in 1980 to 12 or 13% in 2005, when in the USA, for the same period, it varied from 18 to 19% in 1980 to 42 to 44% in 2005.


DID YOU KNOW THAT ? In France there is a doctoral program called " the Harvard of Taste " : at the university of Reims, the " Institut des hautes études du goût, de la gastronomie et des arts de la table " (IHEGGAT, Institute of Advanced Studies on Taste, Gastronomy and Arts of the Table) offers courses at a pre-Ph.d level with the help of prestigious chefs like Alain Ducasse and the best experts from Champagne and Cognac companies.

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? In spite of Jose Bové's demonstration, France is the most successful and profitable country for McDonalds ! Not only that, but the French are making their McDonalds French by redecorating the interiors in French style and adding courses !

   José Bové
 (Photo: Simon/AFP- Le Point)  His claim to fame in France : With nine other members of the Confédération Paysanne, Bové a sheep farmer and political activist, dismantled a McDonalds under construction in the small town of Millau in southwest France, an act for which he served one month of prison in preventive detention and was brought to trial. The trial, with more than 40,000 supporters from three continents, turned into Woodstock - sur - Tarn. Bové announced that the anniversary of the trial would become an annual meeting for healthy and traditional food and against high productivity in agriculture. In June 2003, José Bové was emprisoned to serve an 8-month term. He is very active against GMO and he ran for president of France in 2007 (he got a pretty meager score !).
José Bové is the controversial French hero of anti-globalization. In August 1999 this mustachioed pipe-smoking English-speaking leader of the Confedération Paysanne and one of the leaders of the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization became a national hero. He is now a very active member ofthe European Parliament..

This modern day Astérix, the fisty Gaul of comic strip fame who fights the Romans, speaks good English and likes America and Americans but not the "Americanization" of European societies. (See "exception culturelle".) 

Harriet Welty Rochefort, along with José Bové and Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, spoke at a conference on "Taste, Technology and Terroir" which took place at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin on September 8, 2000.

Alain Ducasse
The only chef in France to hold a coveted fourteen stars from the Michelin Guide, Ducasse has 21 establishments in Monaco, Paris, and the U.S. and has inspired "Spoon" restaurants in Paris, Mauritius, London, and Tokyo. In addition to contributing to and writing cookbooks, the latest being "Le Grande Livre de Cuisine" Ducasse is the president of the prestigious "Chateaux & Hôtels de France" chain and has a training center for chefs outside Paris. He also has a training center for young chefs and each Sunday presents a new chef to the French public in the "Journal du Dimanche".
 Born on a farm in Castelsarrazin in the Landes region of southern France, French chef and businessman Alain Ducasse is as outward looking as José Bové is inward: while Bové was striking out at McDonalds in France, Ducasse was busily increasing his fame and empire. Starting at age 16, this tireless worker for whom the phrase "impossible n'est pas français" was tailormade, worked for the great French chefs Roger Vergé and Alain Chapel. At the tender age of 33, he was Head of Cuisine and Chief Manager of the Louis XV restaurant in Monte-Carlo which was awarded three stars in the Red Guide. From then on, he has gone from success to success.  Ducasse occasionally - and generously - endorses books about food. Here's what he wrote about Harriet Welty Rochefort's book, French Fried: "In a lively and hilarious style, French Fried gives an inside look at the world of French cuisine and wine. This insightful book reminds us that beyond cultural differences, it is important to keep an open mind when it comes to food."

USEFUL TIP..... When is it best to eat oysters ? Answer : if the name of the month includes an "r", i.e. not in Mai, Juin, Juillet and Aout (all the other months include one "r") ! In Summer, oysters are perfectly edible but they are fat and greasy.

To related pages : more tips on food (#2), French recipes, American kids in French restaurants, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To Wine & Cheese Tastings in Paris with a talk on intercultural differences by Harriet Welty 
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