I guess every Soviet family had a copy of this legendary cookbook, the first edition of which was published in 1939 and was instantly bought up. It was created with the help of “doctors, scientists, engineers, master chefs and housewives”, and besides sometimes surprising recipes, such as scrambled eggs with herring, it contains a lot of articles and reference information on rational nutrition, in general, as well as on specific products, in particular. The illustrations of its flyleaves, incidentally, suggest a completely different idea than a healthy diet.
However, this book popped up in my mind not only because my mother gave me a copy, but also because – I guess, for the first time in my life – I seriously pondered on the benefits of proper nutrition. I’ve never had any problems with my weight, but after having spent two years in France I realized that I’ve easily lost kilos, which I’d never even regarded as extra. The enjoyable climate and state of being totally in love did not seem to me sufficiently tangible arguments, so I tend to believe that a thorough review of my whole food system has played a significant role.
I am pleased to share with you my observations on this matter:
Perhaps you are already exercising this, but for me it became a discoverya. Forgetting about breakfast until noon, grabbing my lunch at the time of the afternoon snack, and filling myself up with all the “treats” late at night…. not always, of course, but quite often my day routine looked like that. The only exception was breakfasts in the hotels – I would rarely miss them: in any case, the vibes are quite different when you’re on the move.
My Frenchmen eat strictly like clockwork. More than once I heard my husband yelling on the phone at employees of various services, who are choosing lunchtime for their marketing calls. Poor timing for an aperitif or a dinner is a matter of “an unfortunate misunderstanding” for him, which should be avoided at all costs.
Moreover, there is also the taste distribution of meals: breakfast and nuncheon are sweet, whereas lunch and dinner – salty.
Random snacks are not available in this daily regime, and indeed, you wouldn’t need them.
And, perhaps, the most important thing is to take unconditional pleasure of the meal and a table conversation with your companions, if any. Neither a mobile phone nor a TV is normally invited to participate.
The majority of French cafes or restaurants would most likely offer you a jug of water in the first place, and would not even ask if you need it. Do not get outraged: it’s tap water and you do not have to pay anything for it. It’s another thing if a smiling sly waiter puts furtively a bottle of Voss on your table: its cost is clearly stated in the menu.
In Moscow, I made several attempts to enure myself to drink water: I bought 1,5 litre bottles, put them on display, kept my glass ready and even downloaded the application for Iphone to monitor the water balance in the body. However, my acts of will sooner or later had been coming to naught.
In France, water literally started pourring into me. It is now hard to imagine any meal without it. Temperature changes, fatigue, headache, and emotional outbursts – for all these cases my husband has the unique answer: “Drink some water!”
Of course, the French are eagerly drinking more invigorating drinks also. Local wineries are world-famous and they fully deserve their high reputation. However, alcohol is a more subtle matter, a whole symphony in some cases, and I will certainly devote it a separate post one day. While water is omnipresent, regardless of the dietary preference, individual taste and age.
Before marriage, culinary skills could not be considered as my strong side. I could put nicely a kettle on fire, open a bottle of champagne, whip up a salad or, at the very least, cook a “charlotka” (by the way, the dessert, which my Frenchmen call a charlotte, has nothing to do with our apple pie).
My fair husband is a Frenchman to the bone (literally), who appreciates all kinds of gastronomy, including good old home cooking. During the first months I was balancing on the verge of stress and a menu of semi-prepared products, but now the cooking ritual became as natural as, say, teeth brushing. At that time every day started with a dreadful inner question, “What to cook?”. Today I do it willingly and with pleasure. While buying food, I know exactly when and how I will cook it. In fact, I don’t even think I spend too much time on this.
I hope you do agree, that savouring a dish freshly cooked can not equal with the one just heated. Based on my personal observation, only soups could benefit from a night over in the fridge.
Fortunately enough, local shops and markets offer a large selection of poultry, meat, fish, vegetables and all sorts of groceries. Giant posters in supermarkets serve a careful reminder on the necessity to eat 5 fruits and vegetables per day to maintain a balanced diet. Almost every TV channel suggests a choice of several culinary weekly programs. One of my personal favourites – Norbert Commis d’Office (literally: Norbert, a lawyer appointed by the court to defend), where a smart jolly professional with a cheerful goatee, quite talkative and every other time following his advice with a short performance of a popular song, spends 2-3 hours in correcting the most notorious “criminal” cooks.
It’s a shame to admit, but the term of “chain of cold” was not included in my lexicon before. Stephan took his time to explain to me what exactly is happening with the products during repeated freezing, – thus having heard the horrors of the microbes’ expansion, I tend to believe his word.
Dressing with flavours and olive oil
This is the foundation of the cuisine à la provençale. Without olive oil, it’s not even worth starting a conversation, in most cases.
By the way, in France olive trees grow only in regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and local oil can hardly be found in grocery stores outside the country. Quoting my husband: we do not have enough for ourselves.
I will not bore you with statistical data on the incredible benefits of olive oil – you know it all by yourself – although, I’d like to note that it can also be labelled as AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée). Thus you can be sure that the entire production process occurred in a certain area implying certain varieties of grape. This oil is quite comparable in value and taste nuances with the Grand Cru wines.
As for the flavours, taking a back glance to William Shakespeare and English folk epic we could yet see the salt weaved into the tissue of the play about a wretched father of three daughters. Salt, pepper, basil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, savoury, sage, mint, marjoram – these work magic in transforming the taste of meals! I almost memorized “the faces” of all these herbs by now: life with an agricole has its huge advantages.
Indispensible bread and cheese
One of my closest friends quite often goes on a diet, although she’s got absolutely no need, if you ask me. However, every girl knows better, and the fist of her iron will crushes all the principal enemies of slenderness, including the bread, governing the hostile army. Crunchy, soft, flavorous, freshly baked – could you resist it? And the point is, should you?
Already mentioned numerous cafes and bistros will treat you not only with a free supply of water, but also with a basket of fresh baguette chunks. You can count on a second helping in case you sweep away the bread at the peak of your diet, while waiting for the order.
I can not recall any dish a local gourmet could not accompany with bread. It is not just a pleasant supplement to the meal, but its obligatory component, about the same important as salt.
A bakery within walking distance is a compulsory sign of any French settlement. It seems that every local resident is able to give you a spontaneous lecture on the peculiar differences in the structure of a baguette compared with, let’s say, a banette. None of the sad sack plumbers or bungler locksmiths could ever come close to the pedestal of shame dedicated in the minds of the French for a baker who does not do his job well. His name is disseminated by word of mouth with the speed of the mistral, and just in a few days he becomes a local “black sheep”. Everyone would avoid his boulangerie and would not even address a greeting to the poor man in the street. If a person can not cope with such a “simple” affair as baking bread, what other unpleasant surprises should one expect of him? However, in order you can enjoy your daily fresh baguette for 90 cents, he turns on his stoves at 5 am every day, including weekends and holidays, and is entitled to close his bakery only once a week to take his rest.
The first time we decided to feast on a cheese plate with Stephan and I already raised my curious fork, he exclaimed: “What, without bread? “In France, this is the only way to eat cheese; in case you neglect this rule, don’t be surprised by astonished glances of your tablemates, as if you were eating with your hands.
There exist whole ceremonies and guidelines for enjoying cheese – depending on its taste, maturity and consistency. Unlike the Russian habit of snacking with cheese, and then moving on to more serious food matters, the French take cheese after the main course, before dessert.
All in all, observing the provencal feasts, I came to the conclusion that eating is not just a process of receiving the nutrition necessary for normal functioning of the body, but always a small celebration. It’s the moment of enjoying your own or others’ culinary skills. The moment when you “let the world wait”. No wonder that in November 2010, UNESCO Special Committee included the French national cuisine in the list of the World Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Read in Russian: О вкусной и здоворой пище