19 October 2013

Les Arts de la Table

Personal Picture - Home made Pumpkin & Chestnut spice cake

After reading Dominique Loreau's l'Art de la Simplicité again this summer, I have decided to write small "simplicity chapters" summarizing my own views on various elements of life. As a follow up to my first post on Quality, here is the second Simplicity mini-chapter, exploring the subject of food and all there is around it.

Since I am no nutritionist, I will not go into diet recommendations or nutrition rules. I believe that, since we each have our own metabolism and lifestyle, one's own food habits should be tailored to these specific needs What I would like to share today is my global vision on how I approach not only food itself, but all the moments around meals, what we call in French les arts de la table.

The Dukan Anecdote

Before detailing my current values and habits, I would like to share one defining experience which changed my approach to food a lot: my attempt at the infamous Dukan protein diet back in 2010. It was the beginning of summer, and for some reason I hadn't managed to shed the Christmas pounds yet that year. My mother in law had just lost 25kg with the Dukan protein diet, and decided to kindly offer me this diet book as I complained about gaining one pants size.

The Dukan diet is simple: you have a list of high protein, low fat no carbs foods you are allowed to eat (chicken breast, eggs, low fat plain yoghurts for example). These are the ONLY food you can eat, but you can have as much as you want. No need to say, despite my attempts at inventivity in the kitchen, after one month, I was bored to death with stuffing myself silly of the same tasteless crap.

In the end, I did manage to lose my Christmas pounds, and I spent all of September reclaiming all the food I was missing, which was, oddly enough, not pizza or chocolate but vegetables and fruit (I lost a few more pounds that month, ironically).

After that experience, I vouched to never resort to short term diets ever again - because it had messed up my food habits, made me too anxious about the food in my plate, caused a number of small health troubles, and made me dislike the meal time.

Health and Pleasure

What this Dukan experience also taught me, is what aspects of food and eating were really important to me: health and pleasure.

We only have one body, and the food we choose to fuel it with has a huge impact on our health. My mother was always careful to feed us with organic, home cooked meals, so I didn't really realize the extent of that influence until that "Dukan month", when the lack of fat, fibers and carbs had a quick and alarming effect on my health.

My rules are now very simple at the kitchen: a bit of everything. As Mireille Guiliano says in her book French Women Don't Get Fat, the keywords here are "petit" and "peu", which both mean little or small. In my opinion, there is no forbidden food, as long as it is eaten is small quantities.

That being said, I tend to avoid processed food as much as possible. Simplicity in the kitchen is about eating a selection of fresh produce, seasoned with a few herbs and spices. I try to use a few ingredients of high quality, cooked simply to deliver their full flavor.

I have always liked the meal time. Not only the pleasure of eating itself, but cooking new things, discovering new restaurants with friends, try new dishes. One of my favourite shows on TV was "Fourchette et Sac à dos", where the presenter would travel to all kinds of places in the world, and taste the local cuisine.

There are very simple ways to make a meal more enjoyable, the first of which being diversity. I like to cook with seasonal products, not only are they cheaper and more tasty, it makes me discover new foods and try new combinations.

I also like to pay attention to the presentation of my food, even (especially) when I eat alone. A table nicely presented, with fresh flowers, beautiful linen, simple plates and cutlery, and the food nicely disposed on the plate gives more meaning to the moment. It helps being more mindful of what I eat, enjoy it more.

Lunchbox for work

Sunday Brunch

Sushi dinner

Finally, in my opinion, as long as the balance between health and pleasure is preserved, there is no reason to consider food as an enemy. There is nothing wrong in rewarding onself with a good meal, so long as it is practiced in moderation and indeed pleasurable. I also believe that, in today's society, we need to reclaim a simpler relationship to food.

As a conclusion, I don't think my views on food are anything extraordinary, probably just a mix of my culture and traditions, combined with my interest for cooking experiments. What about you? Is it my French culture that places les arts de la table in such a high regard, or do you also enjoy discovering new foods and eating in nice plates?

Previous simplicity chapter: Quality.


  1. I don't think I was logged in for that last post! Anyway, big fan of your blog- I think it's my favourite that I read currently. I sometimes wish you would post more often, but then every post is such a reflective, beautifully presented gem that I take back my impatience!

    1. Thank you, I really appreciate it! I'm very happy that you enjoy my posts, and I'm sorry I don't have the time to post more often. Thanks for the note of appreciation :)

  2. I love this post :) I believe there is a lot of your tradition in this too. For 8 months we had an EVS girl from France here, and she was definatelly the first one who put a greater impact on dinner parties, dish presentation, quality (over quantity) when it comes to wine (and never mixing it with anything :D). I must say she definatelly changed my perspective when it comes to food and enjoying it :)

    1. The first time I saw people mixing wine with something else (coke of all things) was in Japan, and I almost had a heart attack. It's definitely a cultural thing then :) Maybe we French people appear to be a bit rigid when it comes to food in foreign countries, but we also get asked for receipes and avice, so I guess there is a good side to it too!

  3. I always love your posts. Thank you! The title "Les arts de la table" is really good, as a French native speakers reading a lot of English, I sometimes forget about some lovely terms as this one.

    1. Thanks! Ah that happens sometimes, I also read a lot of English and I find it wonderful to rediscover our native language :)

  4. Very good post !
    You're right about the French tradition.

    My boyfriend is German and the idea of having meals 3 times a day is foreign to him, as well as drinking water. He also can't understand this idea of pleasure (except when it comes to chocolate). Moderation is also another foreign concept to him. He basically feeds himself on sugar and doesn't understand why he puts on weight. I'm trying to "educate" him in some way but he remains very suspicious

    1. I thought the same thing when I read "French women don't get fat". Basically the concept of the book is to explain French culture and traditions to American women so they can enjoy the pleasure of meals etc. without getting fat, and most of the advice was natural to me - like drinking water, cooking seasonal food, use the stairs and walk to the local store... Sometimes we tend to forget that most of the values we live by are specific to our region or country and not universal at all.

  5. I haven't been able to eat as well as I like, because too often I slip in meals around work, instead of sitting down and really enjoying it like I should. Your meals make me envious!

    I have never believed in faddish diets, and a look at any of my friends that have endeavored to lose weight proves this true - the ones that exercised and ate in moderation without any drastic removals of a particular food group shed the pounds they wanted and became healthier, while the ones who randomly cut out carbs or whatever is fashionable to cut saw no results, or no sustained result.

    1. I agree it's difficult to work around a busy schedule and take time to eat well. Not all my meals are perfectly prepared and presented either, but sometimes it only takes a few little things - for example remove the plastic box and put the food in a proper bowl. For work, I eat in front of my desk most of the time, after my sport session, so it isn't anything extraordinary, but I still use nice little bento boxes to make the meal more "special".

  6. I really enjoyed this post. I like taking pleasure in seasonal ingredients, food presentation, etc. Coming from North America, we definitely have a tendency to obsess too much about the sub-elements of food (fat, calories, vitamins) and not take pleasure in the whole. I am thankful that for me, this was tempered by growing up in a mostly Italian family. Living in Europe now, I really appreciate how meaningful food is, and how much of it is about pleasure. I do sometimes tire of the food norms though - gasp, you're eating a yogurt now?? :)

    I enjoyed the post with the picture of you! You look great and confident in your style. And it sounds like I need to check out those GAP pants!

    1. It is true that European cultures, especially French and Italian, have their customs and traditions about food and some tend to judge people who don't follow these. I think it isn't out of smugness or anything, but because following these rules is so natural people are actually shocked to see people behaving differently.

      I remember a friend telling me people were looking at him weirdly on the train in France one day, and when he dared ask why, one of the passenger answered "you are drinking a family sized bottle by yourself!" because he was drinking a 1,5L bottle of coke instead of the regular 50cl one.

      However, I noted more and more French people worry about fat, calories etc. in their plates too, about losing weight and eating healthily. And we do have our share or famous diets (after all, the docteur Dukan comes from France. He has been banned by the medical order though).

      Thank you very much! I don't post many outfit pictures as it's not practical to take, but I thought this particular photo was a perfect example of my go-to outfit. Yes, you should definitely check out these GAP pants! I think they are on the way to become multi-seasonal classics there, probably because they sell very well.