the proof is in the profiteroles: on “dieting” in france

Dieting is not an especially French activity. Nor does it feel particularly patriotic to live down the street from a small market and ignore the siren song of its milky white goat cheeses and fresh baguettes.

Flower market

But that’s what I did (or tried to) for a whole month.

All in the name of health, I did my best to follow the Whole 30 program, an eating regimen designed to “push the reset button with your health, habits, and relationship with food, and the downstream physical and psychological effects of the food choices you’ve been making.”

The simplicity appealed to me. This is a diet where the Yes is simple: eat real food.

The No, well that’s a little more complicated. No foods containing added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, or sulfites. At first I wondered what harm there could be in foods like chickpeas and brown rice, but Whole 30 has you eliminate the foods that commonly cause problems and could be negatively affecting you. For example, you may have a low-grade allergy to peanuts or an intolerance to dairy and not even realize it (a lot of people do). In doing so, it helps teach you a new way of thinking about eating.

When people hear “diet” they so often think of weight loss, but there are of course many other reasons to reform the way you eat. Mine were largely mental and psychological. I tend to eat when I’m sad, snack when I’m stressed, go without meals when I’m busy.

I thought of myself as healthy because I counted kale as one of my favorite foods. But when I took an honest look at my habits, I wasn’t impressed. All that kale and tahini sauce was drowned by the way I had no command of moderation. I would have a perfect eating day, and then someone would open a can of Pringles. Half an hour later, oops. The can is nearly empty and I’m fighting nausea.

In the morning before school, I spent more time putting on mascara than consuming protein and fat (both elements more likely to contribute to the success of my day than would the length of my eyelashes).

And like most people, I had my own array of little health annoyances: debilitating headaches, bouts of fatigue, and other things that might hold a connection to my eating habits. It was worth a try.

Whole 30 focuses on good fats, protein, fruit, and as many vegetables as possible. I started the program on a Sunday, rummaging through the cabinets at my friend Rémi’s house. He was going to move back to Bordeaux for over a month to finish his studies, and I would occupy his home in the time being.

“Nope, this has to go,” I tossed him boxes of cereal, a jar of Nutella, a bag of sourdough rolls. By the end of the morning he was ready to lug home ketchup and mayonnaise (because they had added sugar), a bottle of wine, a package of tortillas, several wheels of cheese, tiny cartons of cream, and a can of chantilly.

Rémi was devouring a hunk of Brie. He looked at me and for the third time, said, “You really can’t have cheese?”

“C’est qu’un mois !” I kept saying. It’s only a month.  acs_0514

His wide-eyed doubt was making me nervous, so I set off for Grand Frais, my favorite grocery store, to wander the wide rows of colorfully abundant produce. Those first-week post-paycheck groceries were a sight. Salmon and chicken and pork sausage and tuna. Mushrooms, peppers, eggplant, kale. A fresh basil plant. A huge bowl of blood oranges. Eggs, coconut milk, coconut yogurt, sweet potatoes. A papaya. acs_0270

Even Rémi could admit it didn’t look like the prison diet he’d been envisioning.

We hugged goodbye and without the devil on my shoulder, I respected the rules flawlessly for two weeks. The first breach of my new programme alimentaire happened on an innocuous Friday. That evening was a soirée entre collègues. I was looking forward to it, but as the event drew closer I had a comic moment of shock: I had agreed to eat in a restaurant–a French restaurant–during a Whole 30. What had I done? What was I going to do? The drama was real.

One “cheat” meal probably doesn’t sound like a big issue, but for two reasons, it is. The first is that Whole 30 strongly discourages bending the rules in any way, stating you can’t expect to reap the rewards of the challenge if you so much as consume a grain of sugar (for example). The second is that I have a bit of a self-control issue. “Just one episode” and I’m up half the night. “Just a little cheese” and the whole block disappears.

I wanted to respect the limitations of this “diet” so I could learn more control and thoughtfulness over what I consumed. It was all or nothing, and I wanted it to be all. Somewhere in the middle, “just doing my best,” is not a safe choice for my particular personality type. I’m either committed, you can count on it, or I’m not doing anything.

I didn’t want to give in because I was sure that meant I would just keep giving in, day after day, until there were no healthy changes left to speak of.

I thought of possible plats I could consume without derailing my progress.

On a scrap of paper I scrawled: moules frites, steak frites, confit de canard. All delicious options that should contain a minimum of wheat, dairy, sugar.

There was still the wine and bread to consider. But I would cross that bridge when I came to it. C’est parti. 

That evening the teachers carpooled to Pégomas, a little town 10km from Cannes where small farms produce roses and jasmine for Chanel. We stopped at a cozy country restaurant in an old wine cave. On était quinze, fifteen ladies decompressing after a day at school. Thursday had seen a big national strike on the part of government workers, including teachers, and the recent shooting in Carcassonne was fresh in the collective mind. This recent stress meant that the suggestion of wine from the restaurant’s propriétaire was met with actual applause.

Santé ! I raised my chilled water with gusto and escaped notice.

The restaurant was high quality, offering just a few seasonal choices scribbled on large chalkboards on the wall. I was pleased to see some options that weren’t too crazily indulgent. Comme entrée, I ordered bulgur with a poached egg, asparagus, prosciutto, and vinaigrette. For the plat, I ordered sea bream royale, a typically Provençal fish, with silky mashed potatoes and a sauce sweetened with shrimp. acs_0512

The food and conversation were both lovely. As I ate my dorade royale, I remembered our last dinner together in December and thought about how much had changed since.

Then: still a little unsure, doing my best at work but not entirely convinced, didn’t really know anyone at the school.

Now: feeling fully integrated as part of the team, proud of the job I’ve done, able to follow rapid-fire French at a big group dinner.

It came time for dessert. Slowly the propriétaire worked his way down the table, recounting the evening’s offerings in a drowsy rhythm. Tarte tatincharlotte aux poires, profiteroles. Tarte tatin, charlotte aux poires, profiteroles. 

But it stopped with my rien pour moi, merci. 

This was unacceptable.

I hoped this man would keep it discreet but no such luck. He paused, like maybe I was joking. The teachers caught on, and suddenly there were five women urging me to order dessert. “Oh, it’s just that– j’ai assez mangé,” I tried. I’m full.

Bah c’est pas grave ! Came the response. “You’ll take a bite, and if you don’t like it or are too full, you’ll leave it to share with the rest of the table! We’ll help you!”

The school’s directrice who I often see in classes at the gym, said “vas-y, Jess-i-cah. You can go to Fitlane tomorrow!” She waved her hand.

“It’s not that”– I started to protest.

“You’ll get some profiteroles, won’t you?”

“I’d say she should get the profiteroles. Bien sûr.

C’est le week-end, Jessica ! 

The man was waiting. And how could I say no? I got the sense that abstaining would be an abject rejection of team spirit.

Alors, I said slowly. “I guess I’ll be having the profiteroles.”

The order was met with cheers. acs_0513

I kind of had to thank them for the peer pressure, because these profiteroles were really good. The deep chocolate sauce was still piping hot. With the cold chantilly, it tasted like a luxury.

Later, my friend saw the picture and said “that looks like high fashion on a plate.”

At least I went out with some style.

The evening led to the development of a new plan I respected, one of my own. Chez moi, the Whole 30 rules stood.

But in public, I decided to prize social connection over maintaining a perfect diet plan. Because I think that would be missing the point.

I went on dates and had wine or cider. You can’t really agree to go out for drinks and then have a glass of water.

I had Italian aperitivo, eating a little bit of cheese with the prosciutto. I ate a pizza and relished every single bite.

But at home, I ate like a person transformed. Or transforming. And I still do, continuing my humble and nourishing meals featuring sweet potatoes, fish, steamed kale, baked chicken, and colorful vegetable soups.

Breakfast is not optional. I get healthy fat from coconut milk throughout the day. My protein intake has gone way up, powering my workouts. I drink double the water I did before. My snacks have changed from too much cheese and sugar-loaded Lindt bars to kiwis, blood oranges, dried plums, and cashews. And I actually crave and love eating all these things.

I’ve noticed a higher level of energy and a stabler mood. I don’t eat because I’m bored. I don’t overeat. Simply put, I’m a lot healthier.

In technical terms, I failed the Whole 30. Miserably. But I did find balance and learned something important: moderation is possible, even for me.

la gourmandise (what to eat in Toulouse)

In French, the word for “greedy” has richer connotations than its English counterpart. Tu es gourmand probably doesn’t mean: listen, you’re a greedy pig, but rather: you know how to enjoy something. You have joie de vivre. I like this, the concept of eating well, with moderation and with gusto. I like that this can be something to notice and compliment.   france-patisserie

La gourmandise is a good theme for a trip to Toulouse. It’s the perfect destination for the lazy, hungry traveller. There’s no need to pore over restaurant reviews or splurge on an out-of-budget dinner. Just take a walk and scan restaurant windows for the brightly-colored travel guide recommendation stickers (they’re everywhere!).

Toulouse is small and central enough that it’s easy to navigate on foot. It’s a good place to wander, where you’re more likely to stumble upon a charming little salon de thé than the outskirts of a creepy neighborhood.

All these chance encounters had me doing the math: how much could I possibly eat in a day? I didn’t spend much on entertainment: visiting museums, galleries, and cathedrals (all free or inexpensive), so I was able to taste quite a bit of what Toulouse had to offer.

Marché Victor Hugo

a covered market near St Sernin. Good place to buy stuff for a picnic and talk to the vendors about their food. Buy some local cheese and fresh bread!

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Santine

near the river, a perfect place to have dinner. It’s cozy and packed. Classic French food with a twist, like lamb and tagliatelle in a sauce with zucchini and honey. They do brunch too.

Cave au Cassoulet

Cozy restaurant near the river serving the specialties of the region (foie gras, cassoulet). You eat downstairs in a former wine cave. Reservations required. Come with a huge appetite.

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La Brasière

Super classe. We had oysters that tasted just like the sea and I had a salad with chèvre toasts cut in little hearts. And cassoulet, because it’s my new favorite comfort food.

Mami-Wata

You can only go to a French bistro so many times in a row. This African-Carribean place offers something different. I had a bissap cocktail and banana beignets to start, then chicken with coconut milk and tomatoes, followed by house-made mango yogurt. The plats come with sweet potatoes, rice, and bananas. The restaurant, on a nondescript little street, is dark, elegant, and cozy. A great date spot!

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Boli Café 

This Korean café is just adorable, and a great location near le Capitole. Get the bibimbap and a pot of tea. It’s served with a bowl of nori soup and a clementine for dessert. A nice break from heavier stuff.

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Cafe des Artistes

Just a good place to grab a coffee and read. Great ambiance and location, just across from the Garonne.

Flower’s Café

A local favorite, this place is always packed for lunch. It’s hard to get a seat even on the terrace. If you want to avoid the line, go around 10am and get some of the best chocolat chaud of your life. It’s the real stuff, so thick you need to eat it with a spoon. You can get it with banana or fleur d’oranger, among other choices.

Pillon

Crazy-good pastries with multiple locations around Toulouse. Try the little tarts topped with fruit or an éclair in an interesting flavor. Some days they have brioche à la violette (specific to Toulouse!).

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Moloko

A local guy brought me to this cute cocktail bar near a busy restaurant area. I tried the fresh tomato martini: foamy with basil syrup, vodka, and a cherry tomato. Weirdly good. Some dancing does happen here when it gets late. Soundtrack: The Cure.

 

foie gras & pop art in la ville rose

This year I vowed to get better at that whole adventure thing. I’m good at following people around, but I haven’t yet developed the necessary skills myself.

I’ve never picked a place and just gone. Never figured out the dates, times, and hotel fares, the train schedules and directions. That’s why my summer abroad in Lyon a few years ago was a perfect start. We went to Marseille, Cassis, Avignon. I planned nothing beyond how many pairs of shorts I could stuff into a bag.

This year is different: if I don’t plan, I’m not going anywhere. How’s that for motivation?

Mary and I had talked about ideas for the first two-week vacation. One night we sat and looked at maps and google image searched a bunch of French cities…that was weeks ago. When we started teaching, travel planning became lesson planning and then it was the first day of our vacation and we had nothing.

We knew but one thing: we wanted to go south. So as of yesterday, here we are in…Toulouse!

Toulouse is known as the ville rose because many of its buildings are made of pink brick. Promising warmer temps and pretty views, it was good enough for me.

Lonely Planet calls Toulouse “a southern version of Paris only smaller, cheaper and friendlier, with fewer crowds and warmer weather.”

I’ve found that to be true! Today was 73 degrees and pleasantly windy. We walked everywhere easily, no need for the bus or metro. I didn’t notice a single tourist, and even though it’s Sunday, the city was lively from morning to night. img_2886-1

The biggest & best surprise: Toulouse is known for its food: classic southwestern France country food. This means foie gras everywhere. Duck everything. These are two of my very favorite foods so I’m giddy about it. The fact that it was a surprise made it even better. As we looked for a place to eat last night I noticed these items in some form on every menu and decided right then to make this a sort of gastronomic vacation. There are just too many good things to eat.

Tonight we visited the Cave au Cassoulet, a well-known spot where reservations are a must and the menu is foie gras, cassoulet with duck & sausage, and dessert. It was my first cassoulet and my second foie gras (of the trip, that is). The restaurant is underground, an old Toulousain wine cave. Cassoulet is the ultimate comfort food, warm and savory, the white beans velvety in a rich gravy. It was brought to the table in a heavy pot that Mary and I shared and still it seemed we hardly made a dent. I ate as much as I could, though, for I know I’ll soon be craving it on cold winter days in Montluçon.

Last night we ate a perfect meal at La Santine. I had foie gras with fig jam and toasts, then lamb with tagliatelle (this item was translated as “knuckle of lamb” in English…?). Dessert was crème brûlée with jasmine. There’s something dreamy about cracking that golden crust with your spoon. It was so good I nearly skipped home.img_2888-1

Our hotel is lovely, featuring a classic French window overlooking a busy street; sleek design, a bathtub (and most importantly peut-etre, it’s inexpensive). When we left this morning to see the Basilique Saint-Sernin, we were surprised to see what was taking place outside the hotel: the tenth annual marathon. Everyone (maybe except for the panting runners) seemed in high spirits. A French band was playing music. From the sound of it, they knew two songs: “Proud Mary” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” (The ten-minute renditions of these two songs repeated became a bit fatiguant, but they definitely get an A for enthusiasm).img_2884-1

We went to Marché Victor Hugo with the goal of finding a violet brioche. Toulouse is known for this little flower. Violets are used in candy, infused into honey, and apparently baked into pastries as well, but we couldn’t find the brioche anywhere. Mais bon. Instead we bought a rose éclair (!!!) and a tart with wild strawberries the size of my thumbnail.

The covered market Victor Hugo reminded me a lot of Lyon’s Les Halles. It’s something to see just for the experience, though I’d recommend bringing cash and a bag and buying food for a picnic. The vendors are friendly and knowledgeable. Now that I actually enjoy speaking to strangers in French, I like asking questions when it seems someone has the time. I talked to one man about how to cook cow stomach, the sort of dialogue I never practiced in school.

I like looking at the seafood: fresh crabs and lobsters with purple rubber bands on their claws; stacks of coquilles St. Jacques, even prickly sea urchins.

It’s not a place for the faint of heart. In the meat cases you’ll find rabbits, still with all their fur, and slaughtered ducks, their brilliant green heads and floppy feet oddly juxtaposed with their bodies plucked of feathers. You’ll find the hind legs of a lamb, pickled pigs feet, escargot bright green with herbs.

The crèmeries are glorious. I have my eye on some of that Gorgonzola DOP with mascarpone. I have not yet tasted this cheese, only read about it. (You can take the girl out of the cheese department…) It’s happening, like, tomorrow.

Our day was only half about food. We also visited two museums, les Abattoirs for modern art and Fondation Bemberg, displaying the art and antiques of a private collector from the 15th to the 20th century.

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I liked les Abattoirs. I found things that made me grin and that deeply disturbed me. I left inspired, in any case. My favorite piece was a six-minute experimental film, I guess you’d call it. Projected on the length of a room, just a few feet wide, runs a video of an undulating silver mass on a red background. It seems to quiver and ooze, soft yet solid, like mercury or octopus tentacles. There’s a faintly queasy quality to the mass, like a beating heart or the workings of some terrible machine, like something you shouldn’t be seeing. After a few minutes, a black ant scurries across the screen, through the gaps in the silver ooze. It’s cartoonish in style, huge against the wall of the room, but the movement captures exactly that of an insect in nature. Then another, another. Hypnotizing. An awful noise starts, sudden enough to be disquieting, louder than you’d expect. You couldn’t call it music, more like an industrial scraping, jarring and awful. There are more ants, more ants, streaming across the screen for a second before disappearing forever, each marching in its tight little pattern for the second it comes into view. Then the noise stops. The ants stop. The mass continues.

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It’s haunting and sort of terrible and I watched it three times. One thing I like about this sort of art is how it can provoke physical senses besides sight, unlike the picture on the wall. The movement made me dizzy, hypnotized. The sound made me uneasy. It was like looking at a painting, but a painting that was able to communicate. I read that the artist’s goal is to make the viewer contemplate his own mortality. One in a line of ants, finite. The piece is a success, I’d say, for when I read that, it clicked like information I had heard before. Of course.

Fondation Bemberg was cool too, definitely worth a visit. I won’t wax poetic about it but that’s just me, more likely to espouse on animated ants than praised 18th century paintings. Know what you like, man.

As we walked back towards the city center we happened to see a little gallery. Inside, Rolf Saint-Agnès, a Swedish-French artist, was working on a painting. We talked to him for quite a bit about his work. His pieces have French/English puns in the titles and all kinds of satirical hints hiding throughout. He wants to gently criticize but avoid aggression, he said. I thought that was kind of cool. His stuff is bright and misleadingly whimsical, like something in a children’s book, but it’s a bit of a ruse, disguising what’s beneath the surface.

Super modern art, classic French cuisine. I’m ready for more charming anachronisms.