During a recent class cultural discussion on L’île de France the origin of Brie cheese came up and someone asked, “Have you tried it?”
“Is it good?”
‘Definitely, very, and I’m vegan.’
Gasps!… What?… What’s that?
I’m thinking, wow, poor things; French kids, by the time they start Ecole Maternelle at age three, have sampled most of the 300+ types of cheese. But then two squirrely students began to quarrel over the roots of my mostly veganism. One confidently said, “It’s because she doesn’t like animal cruelty!” Student two said questioningly, “No, it has to do with her religion.” Thirteen year old’s are quick to be correct. I still corrected them. For me it has little to do with either of those reasons, “It’s more about health.”
We digress. Back to the lesson.
Yet, yes, France has influenced my flexitarianism a little and dissuaded me from eating straight up vegan all the time. Here are five reasons why:
1. Petit portions are the norm.
Each morsel of a meal is savored with many courses and by racking the silver between bites taking time to discuss food and life. My favorite memories in France are around the dinner table savoring many small courses of a long meal: une soupe au poisson (fish soup), une viande (main meat dish), une salade, plateau de fromage (cheese plate) and a rich creamy dessert, un café, plus slices of wonderfully glutinous baguette on the side. All mainly things I would not typically pair together in a meal, and all while enjoying the company of friends until wee hours of the morning.
2. We don’t just eat crêpes all day and we grow out of le goûter.
French school children have one snack, le goûter, around 4:30pm. Adults typically forgo and imbibe un café, a strong small coffee. Doctor François Baudier of France’s Committee for Health Education suggests that, “the French, in contrast to Anglo-Saxons, hardly ever snack outside of meals.” Pure iron will? Maybe. Or it could be that their fat-rich diet of: red meats, crèmes, and fromages stimulate the production of cholecystokinin which signals satiety. This extended sense of satisfaction occurs after eating even small amounts of high-fat foods. So the French may eat more fat calories, but in total calories we have them by a couple hundred. This discrepancy can add up to a 10 pound weight gain each year. This is making me hungry for a cheese course of Chaource et Maroilles (“sha oorse ay mar wahl”).
3. French invented the locavore.
They just didn’t invent the name. Unlike in the States where farmers’ markets have been revived of late – nation-wide up 170% since 2000 according to Farmers Market Coalition – le marché has always been significant to French culture. The Des Moines farmers’ market is one of the best west of the Mississippi, but its different, there’s more of a fair feel. Au contraire at French markets the French are all business. They tote their reusable shopping bags on wheels and select fresh and local produce, meats, and cheeses. Going au marché is a vacation highlight and an experience of France’s well-surviving gastronomic heritage. Even French McDonald’s have absorbed this heritage. This Café Viennois was my ticket to the WC, but the strong traditions in French gastronomy has even transformed the golden arches into something of a fine dining experience.
4.Terroir is the notion that you cannot grow or produce just anything just anywhere. The biodiversity of one specific area, mixed with the savoir-faire of farmers are what produce a particular product.
For example, Roquefort bleu cheese is only produced in the small area of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon because the natural conditions influence the grass and flora that the sheep eat and, as a result, the milk they produce. Thus the combination of those two factors, biological and human, Roquefort is solely produced in that specific “terroir.” This is a complex yet simple way to bring quality control to foodstuffs. Terroir applies also to meats and wines amongst other foods. For instance, you can taste “salty” meat from the livestock that eat along the salty shores of the English Channel. And wine makers know that soil and micro-climate in their hectares of vines have just as much to do with their wine as human influence. Plus, there are cute little men like Jacques making perfect Pinot all over the place.
5. No to GMOs. I once had a French exchange student field a question about food differences between France and the US. In her heavily accented beautiful 16-year-old English she said to my students, “Are zyou fameeliar wizth zee Monsanto Corporation?” Blank stares. She went on to explain what genetically modified organisms are and why the French work to keep them out of France. The most poignant moment was when one of my students looked at me and asked, “Why hasn’t anyone told me about this?” Good question. Similarly livestock are held to more stringent regulations than corn-fed American beef. For instance, growth hormones are illegal in French beef; we don’t have such regulations in the states. It’s not all grass-fed or anything, French cattle are often finished on feedlots similar to those of the US. Still you can trust you won’t be dining on testosterone in your steak tartare or genetically modified cucumbers in your salade niçoise.
So when in France I’m served Boeuf Bourgeoning the size of a silver dollar, I’m not turning it down. For one it’s 8pm and I haven’t eaten since noon, and I trust I’m not dining on progesterone. Most of all, bread, meat and cheese are tied so closely to the culture that I won’t let my particularity ruin the mood of an otherwise charming party.
Enough with all that, now let me give you one of my French flexitarian favorites, salade chaud (“sal-ahd show”). Hot salads tend to be a plate of fresh greens topped with traditional salad fixings like tomatoes, a bit of cheese and vinaigrette. Then they finish them off with something like fried potatoes, an egg over easy, or some duck margaret. I love mine vegan or vegetarian style (if we have some fine cheese lying around), topped with steamed potatoes or sweet potatoes that are finished sautéed in a little coconut oil. The possibilities are endless. Here’s what I do:
Clean my new red potatoes. Steam them in a large pot just until they’re starting to get tender. Turn off the heat and roll them out onto a cutting board. Let them cool for a minute. Once you can handle them, slice them and start to heat some oil (I’m a coconut addict), about two tablespoons, in a skillet. Add potatoes and cook until they’re starting to brown. A crispy fried potato would be nice, but that’s so messy and takes way too much oil. I find the flavor just as delicious if they’re just browned a little. Salt and pepper to taste.
While the potatoes finish cooking, plate up your salad. Use a full dinner plate-sized pile of your favorite greens. Add any other salad toppings and choose your favorite vinaigrette or dressing. I love a simple vinegar, olive oil, and strong Dijon mustard whisked with a little honey, salt and pepper. Once again, your choice. Pour your vinaigrette over the salad and top with hot potatoes. Enjoy immediately.
Bon appétit !