Anyone who has spent time in France is impressed by the ceremony that surrounds the growing, marketing for, cooking and sharing of food. The French excel at enjoying the moment. For them food, family, and friends are considered three of the essential pleasures of life, all meant to be savored. Enjoying a meal s l o w l y is a good step.
France is the world’s second biggest agricultural producer of comestibles after the United States. While the United States typically exports 36 billion pounds of produce, France exports 22 billion pounds from land that’s fifteen times smaller. And France accounts for 18 % of European agricultural production, ahead of Italy and Spain.
Until recently, the southwest countryside of France, where I live, has been cut off from major roads and train service for decades. As a result culinary traditions have been largely maintained even in the face of a declining population and fast-food influences from the West. What is most dear to me about this largely undiscovered corner of the hexagon is that is it acceptable to eat and drink richly every day. Good food, carefully prepared with first-rate ingredients is not a luxury, but a daily priority.
There are more than 10,000 farmers’ markets in France, many of which have been around for centuries and are an integral part of French culture. Weekly markets are held regularly in most villages and towns on specific days of the week with Saturdays and Sundays being the most popular. They are a place where locals come to socialize, catch up on gossip, and shop for their daily needs.
Commerce stops between noon and twelve-thirty, and doesn’t begin again until two-thirty or three o’clock. Everyone pauses for lunch.The roads appear deserted. Gathered round the table whether at home or at a restaurant usually takes between one and a half to two and a half hours.
Modern French cooking draws inspiration from the many concepts French chefs have developed and presented over centuries. As early as the 13th century the French court grasped that its influence throughout the world was partly through gastronomy. Francois Pierre La Varenne published the first French cookbook in 1651 titled Le Cuisinier François. The French Revolution in 1789 further helped to spread the study of cooking, since it shattered the occupational restrictions established by the government. The French invest time in preparing their food, typically from scratch, making meals the highlight of the day.
Dinner service in French restaurants is deliberately slower. There’s plenty of time to have a drink and peruse the menu. After ordering there will be a pause between each course. Lingering at the end of a meal is encouraged. It is a moment of conviviality where everyone feels good and relaxed, and sometimes even asleep. Nodding off after such a long meal is not uncommon. The first meal my husband and I went to in a French friend’s house lasted four and a half hours. My husband feel asleep after midnight, his chin resting on his chest.
In France cuisine is all about sharing. To the French, cooking is not a detached process of transforming food, it’s an extension of the land itself. Sharing food becomes an almost holy communion. Many stores are closed on Sundays, especially in small villages. It is a tradition in France allowing everyone the opportunity to have a leisurely lunch en famille.
Enjoying food slowly with family, friends or colleagues is not only proven to inspire more happiness, but also to improve one’s well-being and to help us live longer. The benefits of slow eating includes better digestion, better hydration, and most importantly, better relationships. Eighty percent of the time the French spend à table is with other people.
In 2010, UNESCO declared French gastronomic meals a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, officially highlighting the importance of French rituals at the table for the world.
“[t]he gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. […] The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.”
| Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group, slow travel tours into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Provence and beyond. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.|
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, England and other European countries.