French Women for All Seasons by Mireille Guiliano

When I went to my local library recently there was a book I had heard about and quite interested in reading: French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano. As far as I had read this was a book that was less about diet and more about a classic French lifestyle that results in a healthy body and mind. Unfortunately, the closest copy of the book was in Corner Brook. Being impatient, I turned to another one of Guiliano’s books, French Women for All Seasons, which was available at the time. In this book, the author looks towards “l’art de vivre, the finer points of living to the fullest”

The book begins by diving into some key points including “The 50 Percent Solution“. This idea, rather than prescribing to strict portioning rules, offers a method to approaching food and drink in halves. Think, “will I be just as happy eating half as much?” Indeed Guiliano writes that when a large meal is offered to her, she “eats half. Slowly, of course, chewing well. I then ask myself whether I’m content, and therefore whether continuing would be a matter of pleasure or merely routine.” And then it goes, that if you eat half and decide to eat more, you eat half of what is left. Herein lies Guiliano’s “Zeno’s Paradox of portion control” whereby “if you continue eating only half of what’s on your plate each time, you will never eat the whole thing.” But Guiliano pushes the idea as more of a way to stop and reflect on our food and drink, slowing down our pace of eating and thoughtfully understanding when we are full and when our body has stopped appreciating what we are putting into it.

I can understand the logic behind this. I fully sit down to meals and mindlessly shovel food into my mouth at such a rapid pace that I’m full way before my brain has a chance to catch up and tell me so – and sometimes even when it has told me my body’s had enough, I still continue eating and generally it ends up as a happiness-sapping, blob fest. It’s a sad and scary habit, one that’s hard to break. Guiliano’s “50 Percent Solution” seems like a simple way of not over complicating mealtimes but approaching them with a healthier attitude and one I am keen to start putting it into action.

In considering the sweetness of food, especially in North America, Guiliano applies the “50 Percent Solution”. She looks towards increasing sugar sensitivity and moving away from such things as sweetened coffee. Take, for instance, a “double double” (a coffee with double cream and double sugar) from Tim Hortons. It is, pretty much, liquid sugar and perhaps isn’t the best drink for your body. But Guiliano suggests as she did to her husband that you can half the amount of sugar in your coffee and over time you will adjust to the drink and come to like it. If you do adjust, you can continue to half the amount of sugar, perhaps to the point where the coffee that you look forward to in the morning is black. I actually took this approach to coffee more directly a few years ago – first by completely removing the sugar in one go and second, by cutting out the milk. I have trouble with the notion that ladles of sweetener is required for such a drink as a “double double” but then I think of the numerous hot chocolates I’ve had over the years and realise that I still have my own trouble areas in regards to sugar to which I could apply the “50 Percent Solution”.

This “50 Percent Solution” sets the tone for the book. It is more about restricting but not banishing various foods. It’s about selecting good foods like fruits and vegetables in a way that is exciting, not monotonous, and about embracing other food like chocolate and wine, which in moderation still hold some nutritional and psychological goodness. She’s not asking you to eat vegetables all day every day but shows you that the way to have exciting food year round, and with it, a healthy lifestyle, is to incorporate the changing seasons of the year and appreciate local markets. To do so she provides a week’s worth of recipes for each season. Indeed what I like most about her recipes, is that they are widely varied and filling. It’s not just a piece of fruit for breakfast, lettuce for lunch and carrot for dinner. For example here is one day’s worth of meals for Spring:

Breakfast – 2 prunes; 1/2 cup yoghurt with 1 tbsp pecan granola and a drizzle of honey; 1 tbsp of soy nuts; coffee or tea

Lunch – Salad composée with hard-boiled egg, tuna and haricots vert; Mustard-oil-vinegar dressing; 1 slice whole wheat bread; 1 pear; 1 square chocolate; noncaloric beverage

Dinner – Salmon with Sorrel; 1/2 cup tagliatelle with lemon; 2 slices baguette; coffee Petits Pots; 1 glass red wine

The one issue that I have with this book is that, while these meals would be fantastic, I just came out of University not so long ago and I support my partner still in University – we don’t have the money to afford the meals she suggests each day of the week (we are not like Guiliano, the President and CEO of Cliquot, Inc. flying back and forth between France and America). Indeed the variety of ingredients for which Guiliano suggests for a week in spring, autumn, winter or summer is fantastic and you would never get bored. But in our house, we find it easier to have the same meal or complementary dishes planned for multiple nights so that when we go for our weekly shops, we buy ingredients that we are not just going to use once and throw out.

Actually, Guiliano’s book highlights particular ingredients each season: some affordable and easily accessible, such as pears and leeks; and some not so much, such as oysters and fiddlehead ferns. Fiddlehead ferns intrigued me especially as I hadn’t realised that these were edible and indeed a traditional eat of Asia, Australia and New Zealand (in Māori they are known as pikopiko). Fiddlehead ferns are the young tight curly ends of ferns and they look like the scroll at the end of a fiddle, hence the name. One New Zealand newspaper clipping from 1937 describes “pikopiko, when prepared and cooked,” as “a vegetable like asparagus.” Indeed Guiliano’s recipe for fiddlehead ferns is a simple pasta in which the ferns (steamed and sautéed with olive oil, garlic and lemon beforehand) are added along with prosciutto and parmesan to spaghetti. This is a recipe which would do nicely for asparagus as well. I feel a bit gutted that I never tried them in New Zealand and while here in Newfoundland, I don’t think they’re going to be so readily available. I’ll just have to wait until my next trip home to try some fiddlehead ferns or pikopiko.

So leeks. Apparently, the leek was “the star vegetable of French Women Don’t Get Fat, whose publication actually caused many a local run on them.” I’ve never been happy with straight leeks on my plate. But when leek and potato soup was introduced to me at primary school I was astonishingly surprised to find that when incorporated or hidden in a meal I do really enjoy them. I had a reminder of this when we discovered Jamie Oliver’s leek and kale pasta. However when I read about Guiliano’s “Magical Leek Soup” (boiled leeks -that’s the recipe in its entirety 😕) and her detox weekend, this was one thing in her book that got too close to a diet for my liking. The weekend detox consists of consuming the juice made from the soup every couple of hours, while the leeks from the same soup are to be eaten when hungry – half a cup each time with a bit of oil and lemon juice. For the final meal of the weekend, you can have a small piece of meat, two vegetables and a piece of fruit. I can do without sugar, dairy or gluten for a month. Even without these groups there still is variety in your diet. But I don’t think I’m ever going to have the determination to try this dull, lifeless detox for a weekend (yes, I’m a wimp). The only way I would do it, is if the final meal was a McDonald’s Burger and fries, throwing the whole detox down the drain.

Now there were definitely a few recipes that I will be trying in next wee while or so:

  • Banana Mousse
  • Coffee Mousse
  • Chocolate Petit Pots
  • Coffee Petit Pots
  • Hot Chocolate Soufflé (yeah, bring it on)
  • Pear-Apple Compote with Honey
  • Pears on brioche
  • Cocotte de Légumes (Vegetables) Croquants
  • Lait de Poule au Jasmin (egg yolks, sugar, milk and jasmine tea – I’m really intrigued by this especially as you’re meant to serve it in eggshells???)

I know this book is meant to be about healthy eating and moderation, so please ignore that almost all the recipes listed are desserts. They’re the recipes that stood out to me the most. There were a few other pointers and tips offered by Mireille Guiliano and I’ll only mention a few more briefly here that stood out to me:

  • Water
    • We should drink lots of water
    • We should simply use cold water more (I want to try this but it’s definitely going to be hard coming into winter):
      • To provide shine to hair, use cold water with lemon juice and a teaspoon of vinegar to rinse hair
      • To increase blood circulation, use cold water to rinse body in the shower
  • Walking and biking
    • I basically took from this book that we shouldn’t bother with the gym. Just practice moderation when eating and bike or walk everywhere and every day. Given St. John’s typical RDF (Rain, Drizzle, Fog), this plan perhaps does not extend to Newfoundland.
  •  Scarfs
    • Guiliano must own a lot of scarves! She describes many, many ways of tieing a scarf and one is even named after herself:
      • Classic Kerchief
      • Mireille’s Jacket Scarf
      • Belt scarf
      • etc.
  • Wine
    • While largely beer drinker myself, with a whole chapter devoted to wine, I realise now I may have been missing out on a whole world of wine that I don’t think I can ignore anymore. However, though Guiliano established that you don’t have to have the fattest wallet to enjoy wine, I might have to wait just a little bit longer and save a little bit more money before I traipse into the wine connoisseur world.

Guiliano has a reserved writing style, and perhaps a worldview and lifestyle that could come across as uppity. But quite frankly she sounds like the classic french woman you would stereotypically imagine – all class, style and grace yet with a rustic feel and almost pastoral background (without being a country bumpkin). While I really enjoyed this book I did not feel that I lived up to Guiliano’s elegance at the end of it and I felt like I had been doing a lot of things wrong in my life. Up until now, that is. From now on I will follow all Mireille Guiliano’s advice from dawn to dusk. Well, at least for a couple of weeks.

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References

Guiliano M. 2006. French Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes, and PleasureRandom House Canada: USA.

Maori Use of Fiddle Heads [Online]. Available at http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/video/10908/maori-use-of-fiddleheads [Accessed 02/11/2016].

Auckland Star [Online]. Available at https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19370403.2.173.3?query=pikopiko%20fern [Accessed 02/11/2016].

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