Writing from deep ends of my native France after pondering as to why french people live significantly longer than other populations. I was born in South Burgundy, the land of grass fed beef, goats, free roaming chicken, and of course fine wine. This is also a place where the art of gastronomy has been rooted in culture since the middle ages. With that comes the magical art of… Moderation!
This way of life gives you people who live well into their 90s. On that sunny and cold 9th May, I buried one of my grandmas. She was 93. She was also the one who taught me about fine food and nutrition, and portions (ok, she did go to a prestigious restaurant school, so that’s a head start on your average french person, but still).
As I was looking around at the attendance in church, I could see several of her neighbours, most of them in their 80s and beyond. These people, like my nan, live on their own, look after themselves, and believe you me when I tell you they know how to enjoy their food and drop(s) of wine!
This is a sight I’m accustomed to as a native. I wouldn’t even think about these healthy elderlies’ eating habits if I wasn’t an expat’. I live in the UK, and have done spells in the USA too, where obesity, diabetes, heart diseases and autoimmune conditions have reached epidemic levels. Not so much the case in France, or western continental Europe for that matter. So what is the difference?
Gastronomy and the respect of your environment make the difference.
Conscious, thought through, sustainable, respectful eating turned to an art form that is passed down from generation to generation. Meal times are non negotiable events, everyone participates in the preparation and anyone who dares not being at the table on time will be scolded (whether you’re 5 or 55). Food that nourishes your body, that pleases your palate, that is sourced locally (to the exception of special days such as a birthday) is made a priority, and the rest of the day is organised around these. Most people know where their meat comes from (as in what actual pasture it grew in), they know how to assort it, present it, and most importantly they know how to eat and digest it.
Catching up with my grandfather, also in his 90s, whom is unfortunately senile (a reknown sweet tooth, and had taken to drinking wine at every meal when he retired from his activities in his late 80s), he has fond memories of hunting game, which my grandmother would turn into terrines, pates, roasts, steaks, stews…
To this day, the simplest, everyday meals follow the same model of a three course meal, with a pause in between courses, such as:
- Lunch: a salad of green leaves, or raw vegetables (eg carrots, tomatoes, celeriac, button mushrooms) with a drizzle of dressing
- Dinner: often a soup, as an alternative to salad.
- Main: lean meat or fish with their side of vegetables
- Dessert: cheese or yogurt or fruit
As an aside… Grandmas will always try to force feed you, I believe that’s a universal fact of life! The French ones I know are ever so slightly more respectful and understanding of you admit that you’ve pigged out already.
That really is how we rock. Rich food and wine drinking is very much reserved for one or max two meals over the weekend. Days with a treat meal are followed by two or three days of eating lightly. This acceptable throughout, such that if you are invited, it is common courtesy to make your host aware you’re going to have a large meal the day before, so that they allow a lighter meal when you visit them.
Standard portions are very much based on not stretching your stomach. The old reference is that your stomach is the size of your fist. This translates in:
- Your starter salad being about the size of you fist
- Your piece of meat being similar size of the palm of your hand
- Your side vegs will be a handful’s worth
- Your cheese will be roughly like your thumb
The adage “you are what you eat” should really be “you are what you digest”. This is something else that gastronomy takes care of. The art of eating in France dictates that little pause between courses. Observing this pause allows for your food to reach your stomach and be digested without the strain of piling up other food straight away. As a result, you give your body a chance to recognise the feeling of fullness, and know when to stop eating.