Food Glorious Food by Jennifer Dewar
When we first moved to Gascony, my husband and I put on a lot of weight. We couldn’t believe how hospitable our neighbours were – a seemingly endless round of lunches with our French neighbours and dinners with our non-French friends. Regular ‘aperos’ would be accompanied by huge mounds of crisps, foie gras, charcuterie, pate, nuts and bread – everything you are not supposed to eat. We were still in the habit of having a light lunch and then dinner in the evening. Something had to give, and not just our belts.
A typical range of foods at an Auberge Espagnol
I sometimes wonder whether some of our neighbours are different physiologically. How is it, they can eat large heavy meals during the day, followed by sugary desserts, and seemingly stay slim and active? We on the other hand would collapse onto the sofa in the late afternoon, after a Gascon lunch unable to move, sometimes for several hours. Many of our neighbours had had lives working the land, and so perhaps they are just hardier and able to stomach very calorific food.
There is a book I came across called ‘The Blood Diet’, together with studies showing the differences not only different races, but how we have evolved as people. People with O blood type for example are able to digest meat far more efficiently than other blood types, as they naturally have more acid in their stomachs, so perhaps it is something ancestral.
Then there’s the strange contradiction in the Gers, that people generally live to a ripe old age eating foie gras and drinking local wines, Madiran in particular is meant to be one of those super wines which are actually good for you. Then there’s duck. A friend of mine with heart issues was told by their local doctor to eat more duck – apparently duck fat has the same effect on the blood as olive oil, so is actually very good for you. Why is that only common knowledge in this region of France, and is it true? Food glorious food!
Perhaps the longevity of this region’s residents actually has more to do with a slower pace of life, less stress, and fresh air. They certainly got plenty of that when they went everywhere by foot or by bicycle. Today, with the omnipresence of the car, and mechanization on the farms, means obesity is inevitable with a more sedentary life.
It was only when we started to change our own habits that our new food regime became manageable – we made a three point plan, well sort of……
Firstly, we began to eat a proper lunch every day – two, sometimes three courses. Then in the evening, we just eat soup, or salad in the summer, to give our bodies a break. Restaurants have very cheap lunchtime menus and are closed in the evening, so this was an easy change to make. Eating a large meal in the evening now seems heavy going.
Secondly, when we are invited out for aperos, we no longer bother eating anything afterwards. We are both quite greedy, so snacking or ‘grignotting’ is quite enough, as we’re usually completely stuffed eating finger food.
Thirdly, when going to people’s houses, we now know how to say a polite ‘no thanks’ to extra helpings, as we are only at the beginning of the food journey.
Sharing food at a gathering is the norm
At the same, I like the fact that people are less fussy about what they eat. It’s very ‘devil may care’ and it probably means they enjoy life more. The main thing is that people love eating, and usually communally, as the two-hour daily workers lunch is testament to the importance of breaking bread together. This is also very evident when it comes to the tradition of each invitee bringing a dish to someone’s house or to an event. It takes much of the stress away from the host and is also very collective. It’s called Auberge Espagnole, and is so commonplace here, that people seem surprised when you don’t ask them to bring a dish of food when you’re hosting. It’s not just neighbours and friends, it seems that this is a tradition when it comes to any event.
During the summer in particular, large tables are put out alongside each other, with benches or chairs at most gatherings. People put their dish in the centre of the table and just share whatever they have, usually with lots of wine too. We always laugh about it, as the main focus of any meeting or event seems to be what there will be to eat. We recently had a meeting for the village at our house, and the ‘apero snacks’ filled our kitchen.
It’s really nice, and it’s very generous so long may it continue, food glorious food indeed!
One top tip though, if you’re planning to host an Auberge Espagnole, try and get some idea of what people will bring, or you could end up with A LOT of quiche!