If you believed the slew of books written about them recently, you’d think the French had cracked it.
The women don’t get fat and have uncovered the secret to feeling beautiful every day.
The children don’t throw tantrums because French parenting is so good, and everyone balances life and work to perfection while pausing at mealtimes for a piece of cheese and an apple, or a plate of home-cooked confit de canard.
The most recent in this genre comes from a US diplomat’s wife called Ann Mah who spent a year travelling from Alsace to Avignon and all points in between to write Mastering the Art of French Eating, in which she recounts the story behind every cassoulet or salade Perigourdaise she meets. She exults in the simplicity of a slice of fresh baguette with butter and jam eaten in a Paris cafe as only an American can.
Well I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but a trip to western France has convinced me that French eating is having a bit of a crise de foie. They may all be feeling beautiful, but I saw more fat women, fat men, fat children and elasticated waists in France than I’ve ever seen before.
The following observations may not offer any causal connections but I’m seeing a trend. A couple opposite me on a TGV were eating Snickers bars at 9.30 in the morning. Bakeries in ancient towns which used to sell nothing more processed than a ham sandwich are now stuffed with the gargantuan, super-sized sugary muffins, cookies and and glazed doughnuts you see in every Costa outlet in Britain. And American-style upselling (“Would you like a croissant with the coffee?” ) has arrived.
Compared to how things were in the 1980s when, as a student in the south-west, I myself mastered the art of French eating, being force-fed andouillette, Pyreneen cheeses and oysters — I craved Twixes and crisps. There has been a revolution.
It is true that French restaurant opening times are still regimented: miss l’heure du midi, and forget it, the kitchen will be closed ‘til dinner time, as it should be.
The difference now, though, is that you can guzzle a range of fatty, sugary snacks between meals that were simply unavailable to previous French generations.
Consumption of French bread is slipping, meanwhile, with young people eating 30 per cent less bread than a decade ago. The trend is so alarming that Francois Hollande’s government has launched a campaign with the slogan “Coucou, to as pris le pain?” (“Hey, don’t forget to pick up the bread”) which advocates bread as healthy, unfattening and “part of French civilisation”.
My niece, 21 and on an Erasmus university year in the Loire, could provide the government with an insight into the youth response to the bread campaign. She shares a flat with two French students, one of whom phones his mother every night with a detailed account of what he has eaten since they last spoke.He does nothing to conceal from Maman that his diet consists almost entirely of coco pops and instant noodles.
The Irish, English and Scottish students go to the weekly market for fresh vegetables to make hearty potage for a few euros and get visitors to import porridge oats via the Eurostar. Their French co-locataires think such behaviour eccentric, as they head off to Lidl on their motos to stock up on sugary breakfast cereals, “promo” (value) frozen pizzas and ready meals. Surely, the end of civilisation.