How the French do it
The Eurovision Fat Contest results are out, and unlike the musical version, we have done rather well. Our men currently heave in at fourth place on the Obesity Scale provided by the World Health Organisation. On the male measuring tape, fattest of all are the Irish, with the Maltese second and the blubbery Icelanders third. Meanwhile our ladies can only manage fifth place, behind sizeable rears belonging to Belgian (top), Bulgarian, Russian and Turkish dames. Welcome to the obesity crisis affecting seemingly the whole of our continent. The future looks even worse. Over the next fifteen years, we are all going to get fatter, it seems, apart from the famously cycle-crazy Netherlanders. One other country might escape the creep of obesity. What are the fat findings for our nearest neighbour and keenest rival? Basically, how do the French fare? We have heard much about branches of MacDo on the Champs Elysees and the abandonment of a civilised lunch hour in favour of sandwiches at the desk. One predicts (hopes) that the French will suddenly find themselves as fat as we have. But I am wrong.
It is very tiresome, but yet again the dastardly French thwart everyone, it seems, by their insistence on keeping slim at all costs. Zut alors! The men come in at 26th place; the elegant women do better, only reaching the 28th position in the Fat League. Even in the future, when les Rosbifs are predicted to get a tiny bit slimmer, and les Frogs a tiny bit wider, we still lead them by a lardy country mile in the fat stakes.
How do they do it? I hardly need point out that theirs is a country groaning with delicious full-fat cheeses, charcuterie, creamy desserts, red meat and alcohol, all of which are calorific payolas and all of which the inhabitants appear to quaff with enthusiasm. Dieting? Forget it. The 5:2 diet is far too strict for a country so slack that its President openly visits his mistress on a moped, and I can’t see the French dumping carbohydrates. As anyone who has ever gone into a Parisian boulangerie will attest, the eating of a daily baguette is akin to a national duty.
I put the irritating French capacity to remain slender down to two things; home cooking, and vanity. Both of these elements lie deep within the Gallic psyche, as is made clear by the journalism of the post-war French correspondent for the New Yorker Janet Flanner, whose collected essays are a trove of coolly considered analysis. Writing in 1945, she depicts a liberated yet impoverished France, where the electricity is of such short supply that it is turned off from dawn to dusk ‘except for an hour at noon’. This is so that women can cook the family meal. When peace was declared in the newly liberated French capital, almost exactly 70 years to the day, she observes Parisians dressing up in their shabby, but best clothes, “standing on its handsome boulevards waiting in the sun for the “Marseillaise” and the pronouncement of its leader de Gaulle.” The French care about how they look, and they cook their food from scratch. They did then and they tend to do now. Indeed, theirs is a nation whose citizens are still far closer to the actual production of food than we are.
As the Radio 4 food critic Sheila Dillon pointed out to me recently, ours is a ‘broken food culture’ with a huge overreliance on processed nutrition. “Our move off the land had been very extreme, much more so than in France, Italy or Germany,” she told me. “We had early industrialisation, and two World Wars, which effectively ended the idea of local food. It didn’t used to be polite to have an interest in food. Food was regarded as vulgar.”
So, slim down by elevating food. Cook at home, and wear chic clothes. Go a little bit French, in other words.