C'est Si Bon! Healthy Eating in France
In his book, French Lessons, best-selling author Peter Mayle writes that historically, the French have paid extraordinary attention to what they eat and how they eat it. He attributes two factors for this extraordinary trait; the gift of nature and the army of outstanding chefs. The outside world associates haute cuisine with the French, but can one actually eat healthy while in France? Indeed, yes. Let me show you what I mean.
My adventure with French cuisine begins with a French tradition, Sunday lunch. After attending the Gregorian mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral, we come upon a cafe called La Rosace located across the street from the Cathedral. As we sit down in the cafe, we could smell the waft of fresh crepes frying in a nearby stand. Delicious, sacrificed my stomach.
On top of my list is the French Onion Soup, and for salad, I chose Salade Parissiane. My friend Aida orders Spaghetti Carbonara, away from French Onion Soup. My sister Joan who is suffering from colds, orders French Onion soup as well.
The waitress comes back with a basket of bread, the baguette. This is what I like about France, the bread is on the house, with butter. Fresh baguette is crusty on the outside yet soft on the inside. I learn that it is made from wheat flour (farine de ble) which is grown in many parts of the country. Like baguette, a pitcher of tap water (carafe d'eau) is also on the house, but one must request for it Otherwise, they will offer and bill you for bottled water, gas or no gas (Perrier, Evian or Vittel).
Soon our onion soup arrives, steaming hot in a bowl. The broth is a medium shade of brown, topped with bits of baguette and melted cheese. The fragrance of the caramelized onions, beef stock and white wine fill my lungs with healing warmth. Strangely, I am reminded of home, family dinners and busy kitchen. The soup is flavorful, and in a sense, still traditional with the presence of real onions, baguette and bits of cheese. This is how the French serve it – you could see the broth and pieces of baguette, and cheese on top. It is not a pureed soup, the caramelized events are still present. I am glad the French prepare it the traditional way of cooking since it is not too rich in cheese.
In her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, author Julia Child recommends that onions need a long, slow cooking in butter and oil, then a long, slow simmering in beef stock for them to develop the deep, rich flavor which characterizes a perfect brew. It is fascinating how a soup made from angles could be so elegantly transformed and yet remain healthy.
Next is the Salade Parissianne. My order came in a big plate! Aside from the usual contents of lettuce, spinach, arugula, tomatoes, French green beans, slices of hard-boiled egg, it contains green grapes, a fruit that is in abundance and cheap in France. Topped with a little dressing of warm butter, garlic and lemon, I begin my healthy eating in France. Aida's spaghetti carbonara arrives. I try to sample it. I can distinctly taste the excellent quality of fresh eggs, milk and cheese. No wonder Aida is happy with her Carbonara. It is light, and the amount of Italian ham or pancetta is just enough. Soon, it is time for dessert.
There are many kinds of crepes and we order crepes with banana and chocolate Nutella. The French crepes are slightly toasted to a golden color, folded in a plate and, lightly topped with melted Nutella dark chocolate sauce. The bananas are tucked discreetly within the folds of the crepes. I would have loved it heavy with chocolate sauce but I will soon learn that French cuisine is never too much of anything – not too sweet, not too sour, not too salty or spicy. All in moderation, as in subtleness, a trait which best describe the French.
To continue my healthy eating in France, I certainly order fish or seafood and not beef whenever we eat out. In a restaurant in Montmarte, Au Cadet de Gascogne, I see a couple on the next table order a plateful of steamed mussels (Moules) which intrigues me to order the same. The shells are black in color while the Mussel is so tender and fragrant with wine and herbs. It is an exquisite experience, made more alive in an artistic ambiance that only Montmarte could give.
I would encounter the Mussels again in Collioure, a seaside town in the south of France. Here, the mussels are very large, and are served in many different ways but the best we like is baked Musels with aoili, a Provencal Garlic mayonnaise.
The freshly made mayonnaise, consisting of mashed bread, garlic, egg yolk and olive oil, is a perfect topping to the tender flesh of the mussels, and I learn that aoili has to be made the traditional way, using mortar-and-pestle to pound it to a smooth, thick paste.
At the corner of Rue Cler and Rue Grenelle, Paris, there is a restaurant of reputable fame called Café Roussillon which is usually crowded. Here, I order the fish of the day, grilled, fresh cod with vegetables on the side. Golden-brown on the outside, the fish meat is juicy and white. One has to add salt and pepper although as it is cooked on the bland side. On three other occasions, I will taste fresh trout, fresh tuna or fresh sole fillets which are cooked on the bland side but still very fresh and crisp. I dare not ask for salt or pepper, as the chef may feel slighted and a dash of fresh lemon and fresh orange did the trick. I note that fish is always served with fresh vegetables on the side.
There is a regional soup dish in the Catalan region in the south of France called Cassoulet. It is composed of white beans cooked in a confit (reserve) of goose or duck with fresh tomatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, herbs, a piece of fresh sausage, and some pork crackling. Did you know that the goose and duck fat are closer in composition to olive oil than it is to butter or lard? As the old saying goes, balance is the key. On a cold rainy day, like the days we would spend in Lourdes, a Cassoulet is very filling and heartwarming.
What country has 365 kinds of cheese to try? Bien sur, France. For a low-salt, low-fat cheese, the French chevre (goat) cheese is fresh and tasty in a wheat bread sandwich, or a green salad. Another is the fresh mozzarella. From our friend Rachel, we learn how to make the Tartine, a French open-faced sandwich, composed of slices of baguette drizzled with olive oil, tomatoes, Italian sweet basil and topped with mozzarella cheese which are toasted until the cheese melts. It is perfect with pasta, salad or fruit. Aside from grapes, one must try the oranges in France. They are very sweet and large and are imported from Spain. It is no wonder the Valencia oranges are renamed worldwide.
Also in the south of France, a Catalan-inspired dish called paella is very popular and another healthy option. In our hotel in Lourdes, La Cascade Brasserie, the owner makes the paella himself, and it is tres, tres bon (good). I like the fact that paella is a complete meal by itself; the rice, seafood, sausage and vegetables are mixed with saffron that makes it yellow and exotic in taste. With the Muslims and homemade sausage in it, this southern version is as good as the ones we had tasted in Barcelona, Spain.
A little dessert is still a good way to end a meal. A traditional French pastry, the macaron is made of egg whites, almond powder, icing sugar and sugar. It's like a meringue cookie, and it comes in different flavors such as dark chocolate, coffee, raspberry, pistachio, almond, or caramel. The newly baked macaron is crunchy on the outside and is moist, chewy, and full of flavor on the inside. It comes in a small size so one can control the portions. The Chocolatier is the place to buy it. Another delicious cookie is the Madeleine, a scallop-shaped cake popular in France during tea time or snack. How about a scoop of glace or french ice cream? Berthillon in Ile St. Louis, is famous for its home-made, fresh ice cream. It is soft and flavorful, almost like the Italian gelato. Did you know that gelato has more milk and less fat in its content? My favorite is the dark chocolate and coffee. The best part about our French ice cream experience is that we could walk along the Seine River eating our ice cream off. I could have about the chocolate truffles for now, as it is too rich and fattening.