photo: Andrew French
French women don’t get fat, but if Mireille Guiliano is any example, they do have class, style and charm. At the release party for her latest book, The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook
, Guiliano mingled among her fans, signed books, and enjoyed a meal designed around her recipes prepared by talented executive chef Nathan Ivry of Moussy’s, the equally charming, fairly new bistro at the Alliance Française (1345 Bush Street between Larkin and Polk, 415-441-1802, www.moussys.com
I had eaten at Moussy’s before the event (named for the small village located in the Champagne region of France, hometown of owner Jean-luc Kayigire’s father), and it’s one of the best-kept secrets in the Northside – quaint and romantic with a menu of tasty, sharable dishes; a lovely wine list; and a terrific happy hour. It was the perfect place for Guiliano’s party. The courses, which included fava bean and avocado tartines, warm pork rillette, mission fig conserva on toasted brioche, and roasted gulf prawns with white bean puree, highlighted the very points of her book: French women don’t get fat, they don’t diet, nor do they give up the good things in life.
I sat down with Guiliano before the party to talk a little more about the ways to enjoy food – and life – like a French woman.
When I was 6 years old, I brought a friend home for some of my mother’s beloved madeleines au chocolat (shell-shaped “cookie-cakes” made with dark chocolate). When we arrived in the kitchen, we found the madeleines cooling – I loved them warm – but we also found another guest: a mouse. We were so scared of mice that we both jumped up on the table, although the mouse ignored us. He wasn’t near the madeleines, thank goodness, but I know he could smell them! I don’t know how long we were there before my mother came in, laughing her head off, and scared away the mouse.
So why don’t French women get fat?
The three Ps: pleasure, portion, plan. It takes going from laziness to a bit of work, but then it’s easy. You make a chicken on Tuesday, and you do something with the rest of it on Sunday. We have 400 years of gastronomic culture – the French love good food. They eat local, seasonal, fresh, three meals a day, no snacks, and there is fat, carbohydrates and protein in each meal. There is a lot of different food, courses, small plates, and they eat slowly. When you eat, you must focus on your food. The pleasure factor is enormous. No TV, no iPhone, no iPod – just sitting together at the table eating and talking. This is the French way. You can have bread, pasta, chocolate. I’ve not spent many days in my life without eating cheese. We don’t count calories or deprive ourselves of anything.
We know the stereotype of a French diet – lots of rich foods with sauces, lots of bread and lots of wine – but what is the average French diet really like?
Most French people eat at home. In Paris they eat at restaurants more often, but in the rest of France restaurants are for special occasions. In the provinces, people still come home for lunch. The whole family is involved in making dinner from start to finish, but the mother controls and delegates. There are lots of vegetables and lots of soups eaten in most French homes. And it starts young – French schools serve the lunch and then tell the parents what to make for dinner to complement it. When kids are small, they don’t know the difference between brownies and broccoli. Don’t force them. If they don’t like something, try it in a week. After three times they will like it, and that becomes a habit that continues into adulthood.
What are some kitchen staples for more healthful eating?
Lemons, vinegar, olive oil, honey – don’t use sugar – and yogurt, which is the main weapon of French women. We eat at least one yogurt per day. We don’t eat anything “light” or “nonfat.” The yogurt is milk and cultures and that’s it. It’s so easy to make yourself, too; you can buy a yogurt maker and make eight for the price of one.
Is it possible to make classic French dishes like beef Bourguignon or coq au vin more healthful without sacrificing flavor?
Yes, you don’t need the usual amount of cream or butter. You’d be amazed what a teaspoon does.
Should you avoid red meat if you want to eat more healthfully, or is it “everything in moderation”?
Moderation. In France we eat meat perhaps once a week, and it’s usually lean – duck, venison, bull ... bull is very good and it’s big in the provinces. Hanger steak is another cut of meat that has a lot of flavor but is very lean. Americans eat three times what we would in a meat dish.
In America, people work out constantly – what do the French do for exercise?
Walk, walk, walk; bike, swim,
hike. They don’t go to gyms. In my village they take three-hour walks, but even a 20-minute walk daily makes a difference.
The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook, by Mireille Guiliano (Simon & Schuster; $24.99).