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Six Healthy Food Gifts to Bring Back from France
July 31, 2020 | Guest post by: Nancy Conway
Let's face it, when you think of French food, kale and granola don't come to mind! France is often associated with fancy meals containing rich sauces and ending with pastries full of cream.
However, despite the association with heavy cuisine, the French have among the highest rates of longevity in the world. The secret is that many of their everyday foods are not heavy, but actually quite healthy for you. These foods have often been cultivated for centuries and are a part of France's cultural tradition.
Here's a list of six healthy French food items that would make great gifts to bring home from your next trip to France:
1. "Lentilles Vertes du Puy" - Green lentils from Puy-en-Velay
The "Lentilles Vertes du Puy" come from Puy-en-Velay in the Haute-Loire region of South Central France. The climatic conditions, soil, and farming techniques used in the Puy-en-Velay region all contribute to making this green lentil different from others. This is the notion of "terroir." There are green lentils cultivated elsewhere in France, but only the "Lentilles Vertes du Puy" have the AOC ("Appellation d'Origine contrôlée") and the AOP ("Appellation d'Origine Protégée") labels.
The AOP label is the equivalent of a "Protected Designation of Origin" label in English. The AOP designation protects against counterfeit production throughout Europe. It ensures that a producer of green lentils doesn't use the name "Lentilles Vertes du Puy" unless his product is cultivated in a certain region of France according to specific conditions.
Many online sellers have French green lentils but they're not the "Lentilles Vertes du Puy" if they're not grown in the Puy-en-Velay region. The authentic lentil will always contain a red and yellow seal on the packaging which guarantees its origin.
Why is it so special?
The authentic "Lentille Verte du Puy" has the following advantages over other lentils:
- It holds up well in cooking: it doesn't fall apart and become mushy like other green lentils
- It has a thinner outer covering or skin (called the "tégument") which makes it more permeable. This different chemical structure causes it to give off less starch during the cooking process so it's healthier to eat.
- It has a delicious aroma similar to hazelnuts
Everyday French Uses:
- Vegetarian: This lentil is often served cold in France as a starter. Vegetables and onions are added along with red wine vinegar.
- Non-vegetarian:: I cook these lentils in the winter with carrots and serve with a smoked sausage from France called a "Saucisse de Morteau" from the village of Morteau. They go well with any smoked sausage or bacon.
2. "Mogettes de Vendée": White Beans from the Vendée region
There are several types of white beans produced in France: the Mogette (sometimes spelled Mojette or Mojhette), Haricots Coco, Haricots Tarbais, and Haricots Soissons. They vary in terms of form and taste but, like all beans, are very healthy for you.
The Mogette de Vendée has an IGP label ("Indication Géographique Protégée) which protects the use of its name throughout the European Union. It's produced in the Vendée and Loire-Atlantique regions of Western France.
This white bean was originally imported to France in the 19th century from Central and South America and has since become anchored in French regional cuisine. It's also an integral part of meals in French monasteries and is sometimes called "the food of monks."
Everyday French Uses:
"Mogettes de Vendéee" are usually soaked for several hours before cooking at length on a low fire or in an oven.
- Non-Vegetarian: They're traditionally served with ham or duck.
- Vegetarian: Once cooked, the French serve Mogettes mashed on buttered toast with or without garlic.
3. "Riz de Camargue" or Camargue Rice
The Camargue is located in southeastern France between the two arms of the Rhone Delta. It's known for its salt harvests, white horses, bulls, and pink flamingos. The Camargue wetlands are France's rice-producing region. The climatic conditions of abundant water, salt, sun, wind, and stable temperatures are ideal for this crop.
Rice was probably introduced into France around the 14th century. However, the Camargue region was cultivated later, in the 16th century, under the orders of King Henri IV. Ironically, growing rice in the Rhone Delta during the 19th century was used primarily to block the salt that threatened to turn the Camargue into a desert during the high tides of the Rhone river. Rice paddies were used to prepare the land for other crops, like grapes for wine.
Today rice growing makes an important contribution to the ecological balance of the region. It's rotated with other crops such as wheat and alfalfa. The irrigation of the rice paddies contributes to the desalination of the saltwater coming from the nearby Mediterranean sea.
During World War II, when maritime traffic was slow and food transport difficult, Camargue rice growers were encouraged to increase their production. Rice became more fully appreciated as a food in France during that difficult time.
Many of the rice farmers today have converted to organic production. Camargue rice has an IGP label that guarantees its quality and protects the use of the name throughout the European Union. The label comprises the 25 varietals of rice designated as Camargue rice.
How the French use it:
- The Camargue round rice is used in desserts like rice puddings, "riz au lait" or in paëllas or sushi.
- The "mi-long" or medium-long rice is used for risottos.
- The flavorful long and very long rice, red rice, and black rice accompany meats or vegetable sautées.
4. "Crozets de Savoie" - from the Savoie region
Crozets are small, square-shaped pasta from the Savoie region in southeastern France. They're made of buckwheat or wheat flour, or a combination of both. Traditionally buckwheat is a more accessible product than wheat due to the terrain in this mountainous region. It's also gluten-free, which is healthier.
The origin of the name "Crozets" isn't clear. Some say it comes from the Italian for square pasta: "crozetti" (the Savoie region was an Italian province until 1860). Other sources state that the name is from the Savoyard word for small: "croé. "
The flavor of this pasta is due to its traditional, slow-drying process, lasting several hours. In the old days, ladies would dry their home-made batches of crozets in the sun.
How the French use it:
- Crozets are used in salads or cooked like a risotto, usually with mushrooms.
- They're also served as a side dish with meat or mixed into classic or Asian-style soups.
- The traditional crozets recipe (but not the lightest) of the Savoyard mountain culture is the "Croziflette." It's a sort of macaroni and cheese casserole with smoked ham and baked in the oven.
- The cheese used is Reblochon, which is also a specialty of the Savoie region. This would be a great dish to keep you going on a snowy winter day in the mountains!
5. Gluten-free Almond Cake from Provence
I couldn't resist including a pastry reference when talking about French products! The Provençal almond cake is similar to an extremely dense pound cake. It's often flavored with local fruits like lemon or orange. It contains a lot of butter, so it isn't the lightest of deserts.
The Provence region traditionally uses healthy, gluten-free almond flour for many of its cake and cookie recipes. Almonds are harvested between the regions of Mont Ventoux and the Luberon of Provence. Almond, hazelnut, and chestnut flours make up the variety of gluten-free flours that have long been part of the local dessert traditions here.
Today, some bakers use almond meal combined with wheat flour to make this traditional recipe, but others still use only almond flour and almond meal. Ground almonds make up 30% of the cake's ingredients, the rest is sugar, eggs, butter and vanilla extract or other flavorings. The ingredients are all-natural, gluten-free and the high almond and butter content give it a rich deliciousness you'll remember.
Besides being gluten-free, it has the additional advantage of traveling well: The almond cakes are small, and many brands pack them in air-tight tins so they keep well for a long time. A little piece goes a long way with an espresso or tea, for example.
If your trip to France doesn't include Provence, you can easily find an excellent almond cake under the Biscuiterie de Provence brand in the Naturalia shops throughout Paris. Another brand, Albert Ménès, also carries these cakes in air-tight tins at their own Paris store or in supermarkets like Monoprix.
6. Herbal Teas
The French are masters at mixing herbs, other plants, and flowers to create delicious tasting blends called "tisanes" that they steep (or infuse) like a tea. These beverages are also called "infusions."
They love drinking them in the late afternoon or after dinner. There is no theine in the plants used, so they won't keep you awake at night.
The therapeutic benefits of plants have been recognized in France for centuries: some are used to help digestion (hence the tisane after a meal), and yet others for their calming effect.
Plants have been used traditionally as supplements in the French diet. Medicinal plants, however, are only sold in French pharmacies. This is why you'll see capsules of certain plant extracts sold there.
Specialists in the use of herbs, plants, and flowers were called "Herboristes" and they had a specific training which earned them a diploma to qualify for this title. An herbalist has the right to sell 148 authorized plants, mainly aromatic plants to make herbal infusions or tisanes.
Their expertise in the use of plants for health benefits allowed them to advise clients looking for more natural remedies to their ailments.
The end of a profession
In 1940 there were 4000 French Herbalists or "Herboristes." However, this profession was essentially eliminated from 1941 onward: The Vichy Regime under Marshall Petain canceled the Herboriste's diploma and the profession is no longer officially recognized in France. Only those possessing the diploma in 1941 could continue in their profession until they retired.
At the end of 2018, however, a report was sent to the French Senate encouraging the creation of a law for the reinstatement of the herbalist diploma. It was well-received, so perhaps this profession will be revived in France. The French interest for this domain and other natural therapies called "medecines douces" continues to increase. While herbalists don't replace doctors, the French still believe in the benefits of using plants regularly for their therapeutic benefits. For example, many practice what's called a "drainage" twice a year, usually in early Spring and late Fall. This is a sort of detoxification using herbal infusion drinks.
Michel Pierre, the present owner of the iconic "Herboristie du Palais Royal" has 60 000 clients for his boutique in the historic Palais Royal section of Paris. He trained with the former owner of the shop who was one of the last official herbalists in France. He continues to advise clients on ways to use plants to relieve minor ailments. He sells approximately 3 tons of tisanes per year. What is the product French clients request most often? Thyme for its digestive and antiseptic virtues.
How the French drink tisanes:
The typical after-dinner ritual you'll see in French restaurants or in French homes is the offering of an "infusion" or "tisane. " The most common plants used for this drink are chamomile, (for its calming effect), verbena or "verveine," mint leaf, or a mixture of verbena and mint leaf (for their digestive benefits).
Thyme and sage leaves are sometimes offered in restaurants for their digestive properties.
I hope this list will inspire you to look for these food items on your next trip to France. They're healthy, delicious, and firmly anchored in French culture and tradition. If you bring them home as edible gifts, I'm sure you'll wow your friends and family. They're reminders that French cuisine isn't confined to a long meal of dishes with heavy sauces. It also can include the wonderful diversity of healthy French food products from around the country - if you know what to look for.
Nancy is a French-American blogger and gourmet food judge at the National Agricultural Fair in Paris (ironically, she grew up on Twinkies). She encourages her readers to enhance their home-cooking by using high-quality, French-inspired ingredients in their kitchens. You can find her at https://www.nancyconway.com/
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