La Gastronomie Française

Hi, it's Sam here, corresponding from Caen, France! I’ve lived in France for more than 7 months now. In that time, I have noticed quite a few differences between North America (N.A.) and France when it comes to food culture. Here are some of the highlights: 

 Real ingredients are what count. The French aren’t scared of fat. Or sugar. Or salt, for that matter. Full-fat cheese, yogurt and cream (especially in Normandy) aren’t just the norm – they are a part of the daily diet. Baguettes made entirely of white bread? Patisseries (baked goods)? Lardons (diced ham/bacon) on everything? Bring it on! It almost seems like in France, the more calories, the better…yet the French aren’t overweight. Why? Well, that’s a subject of its own, and has already been well-documented in this book over a decade ago. Unlike in N.A., if the French read an ingredient list or enquire about an item on a menu, they likely aren’t checking to make sure the product doesn’t have too much saturated fat or sugar. They’re just curious as to which whole, delicious ingredients & foods make up their meal.

Snacking is for dummies. I think we can all agree that we snack quite frequently in N.A. We are sometimes even counselled to eat several small meals per day (six is a common number thrown around) rather than three large meals. In France, my impression is that it’s the opposite. Breakfast is fairly small (e.g. a coffee and un pain au chocolat or un croissant), but lunch is a large, usually 3+-course, hot meal eaten among family or colleagues. Dinner is also a sit-down meal, eaten as a family and often accompanied by wine, a cheese course, and dessert. However, other than “le goûter” (children’s snacking hour), which takes place at about 10:30am and again at 5pm after school—since dinner typically doesn’t happen until about 8pm—I get the impression that the French don’t snack all that much. People almost NEVER eat on public transport, and no one is pulling a granola bar out of their purse between classes or eating a panini as they rush from one appointment to the next. Everyone gets an hour for lunch (as far as I can tell), and they take it. They rarely eat at their desks, and they certainly don’t snack throughout the workday. I actually think that snacking is considered quite unhealthy here. A few months ago I actually saw a McDonalds advertisement for a quarter pounder (which is called “Le Royal Cheese” here…)  with a French disclaimer that translated to: “For your health, avoid snacking”. Interesting. In my opinion, it depends more on what you are snacking on than on the act of snacking itself. However, given the French people’s ability to eat croissants and camembert daily and stay thin, I have to think that maybe they’re onto something.

Drinks are not “to go”. Unlike in N.A. where many of us treat our travel mug and reusable water bottle like an extra appendage, no one here uses travel mugs to drink their coffee on the go. I repeat, no one. Not on the tram, not on the metro, and not at their desk. Similarly, I’ve seen the odd plastic water bottle here and there, but never a reusable one. This is in stark contrast to N.A. where there is a huge market for to-go bottles (I think I’ve owned about 15 in the last decade, in various shapes, colours, sizes and materials). Here, you drink your coffee at home with your breakfast, during your break(s) at the machine à café (coffee vending machine – a wonderful invention!), at the lunch table with your colleagues, or after dinner with your family…but you certainly don’t drink it on the tram. C’est impossible! Being North American, I still carry around a stainless steel water bottle, and several of my English students have asked what’s in the bottle I’m always drinking out of. “Vodka???” a student teased, earlier this week. Everyone is always surprised to learn it’s just plain ‘ole water.

Milk and eggs aren’t refrigerated at the store. Eggs don’t actually need to be refrigerated. Who knew? Even more strange is the fact that French milk is sold in bulk in plastic bottles on the shelf. You don’t need to refrigerate French milk until it’s open due to the Ultra High Temperature (UHT) processing they use. (More on the health effects of that later…more research is required on my part). It is possible to buy “fresh” (refrigerated) milk, but it’s much rarer: there are maybe about 5-10 bottles of milk available in the cold section versus an entire aisle of unrefrigerated bulk milk (see photo below). We switched over after living here for a few months, purely due to the convenience of not having to buy a bottle of milk every two days!

Our non- refrigerated milk. Quite the adjustment!  

Our non- refrigerated milk. Quite the adjustment!  

The rules of table etiquette are much stronger here. This deserves a post of its own, perhaps after I’ve lived here longer and really begun to understand the nuances of French culture. For now, I’ll just note that we’ve witnessed the French using a knife and fork to eat both slices of melon and chicken wings. Enough said.

Bon appetit!

xo Sam 

P.S. The French really do say “bon appetit” before every meal – and not in the sing-songy-half-joking way that we say it. They really mean it.