Timothy Bond is a television director. He divides his time between Toronto and his 1,000-year-old house in the Loire Valley.
Last month, I ate a strawberry. The taste exploded in my mouth as my throat was bathed in rich juices. The meat of the berry was soft and succulent.
I was in France.
Last week, I ate another strawberry. There was a slight reddish flavour, which combatted the petroleum essence of the packaging. The meat of the berry was corky, dry and flavourless.
I was in Canada.
Much has been written about why French women aren’t obese (not always true any more, sadly, due to the influx of fast food) or why French men don’t have as many strokes. The theory is that it’s the red wine, which we regard as something mildly sinful.
I say nonsense. It’s the food.
A famous French chef once said that we eat too much in North America because our food has so little taste – we eat more and more, he said, hoping to achieve satisfaction. This explains the huge platefuls I sometimes scarf down in Canadian restaurants.
It also explains the much smaller portions in France, where the food totally satisfies your taste buds, and the longer time we spend eating each meal in France, as time passes happily between each small course. Is that why I always come home after a few months in France a couple of kilos lighter, despite the near-daily servings of dessert?
Ice cream actually made of cream. Chocolate that is not just brown, but bursting with musky, dark flavour. French desserts – handmade tiny flavour bombs of delightful mixed textures – are so good. Not huge lumps of doughy pulp coated in sugar and grease like our cupcakes, which are all the rage these days.
Why is so much of our “fresh” food so tasteless? Is it the week-long trek in a truck all the way from California? Is it the countless days sitting on loading docks at food terminals, warehouses and supermarkets? That’s part of it.
But the big difference between our produce and the fresh food I buy in France is simple: Our varieties are selected and grown for shipping durability and visual marketing, whereas French fruits and vegetables are selected and grown for taste, taste, flavour and taste.
Take tomatoes. Ours are bright red, perfect orbs of cellulose, holding as much water as possible to increase their weight. They look perfect. And now there’s a new marketing trick: They are strung together on their vines, which are also sold at $2.99 a pound. We take home our perfect-looking tomatoes and slice off a bite: cellulose, water and seeds. No discernible taste. There’s a whole generation in our society that actually thinks these things are tomatoes!
To be fair, we line up in late summer to buy field tomatoes that explode with flavour like my French strawberry. We get a couple of weeks of real taste, when we eat them every day.
French tomatoes taste like our August tomatoes, but they’re available year-round. Their heirloom varieties taste even better.
A few years ago, the French supermarkets tried marketing those bright red tennis balls on the vines, those things we know and try to love. They looked nice. People tried them – once – and never bought them again. You don’t see them much any more.
In a desperate effort to satisfy us, the North American food industry strives to give us flavour, but in the cheapest way possible. So they give us salt, grease and sugar. And we gorge and gorge, hoping for something better, something real.
There is one food that we do better in Canada: beef. French beef comes from the same strain of cattle that were used as draft animals, and it is tough. The meat is not marbled and it tends to be sinewy. They have invented good ways of cooking it; with a great sauce, it can be delicious. But it’s one mighty chew.
There’s another reason why eating in France is better for you. Unlike us, the French eat their largest meal at midday. It is very important to them. They get two hours off work to eat properly.
Parking is free for these two hours, because everyone must eat. French employers are obliged to provide their workers with a real meal each workday. So, they sit down and converse while they enjoy the meal. With co-workers, like with family. Maybe with a glass of wine, which doesn’t make them drunk or even tipsy, and costs less than a glass of Coke.
In the evening, after finishing work at 7 p.m., they sit down en famille for a light supper – soup perhaps, or bread and cheese, a little ham, some great baguette, which is crispy and freshly baked just down the street a few minutes before the meal.
Taste, flavour and enjoyment of food is central to the French way of life. It is not refuelling; it is the most important thing in the day.
How I wish we could pull off a sea change in our food “industry.” We look so terrible waddling down the Champs-Élysées in April.