A taste for the good things in life


How true to life is Mireille Guiliano’s famous book on French eating habits? On the money, it appears, writes BONNIE BENWICK

THE FRENCH cheeses on the platter are at a perfect room temperature as wafts of garlic and melted Gruyère fill the air at the home in Potomac, Maryland, in the US. Cooks Michele Arnaud and her 23-year-old daughter, Catherine Arnaud Charbonneau, are almost finished with what would be a feast in anyone else’s home.

Confit duck legs are bathing in a skillet-sized pool of their own luxurious fat, with thyme and softly tanned onions. Brown-edged potato slices peek through a blanket of gratin and a mix of frilly salad leaves glistens with homemade Dijon vinaigrette.

Hot from the oven, a thin, crisp apple tart has just been kissed with an apricot glaze. There are baguettes and an open bottle of Coteaux du Languedoc 2009, and the music of Jean Ferrat booming from the next room.

“We cook every night,” says Arnaud (56) in a singsong Montreal accent. “We take a lot of time at the table: two or three hours. We love music, food, art, wine. The good things.”

These women are beautiful, lithe and graceful as they move in the kitchen. Something about this is familiar and a little exasperating. Then the words of author Mireille Guiliano bubble up. As she explains in her 2004 bestseller, French Women don’t Get Fat, “French women eat for pleasure”.

Michele, her husband, Albert Charbonneau, and Catherine are all real estate agents. They work, live and cook together happily. “Every time my husband says, ‘Where do you want to go out to eat?’ I say, ‘At home!’,” says Arnaud.

Sounds like Guiliano again: “French women think dining in is as sexy as dining out”.

Arnaud’s friends admire her way with food. It comes from her upbringing in Mandelieu, in southern France. Her father and mother were masters in the kitchen, but Arnaud had no time for their lamb rolled with herbs or Savoy cabbage stuffed with veal, pork and beef. “I just wanted to be outside playing,” she says.

In her teens, Arnaud began to understand. “It was relaxing for my father to cook,” she says. “He would stuff quail like farci; they were so good. Or fill a rockfish with onions, tomatoes and potatoes. Anytime he put stuff on the table, we were eating with our eyes.”

As Guiliano puts it in her book: “French women care enormously about the presentation of food.”

Arnaud eventually moved to Montreal, where she met her husband, and became a family doctor specialising in alternative medicine. They built a pharmaceutical business and sold it.

She admits to a certain restlessness that prompts her to change careers every decade or so. The family moved to the Washington area in the mid-1990s so Catherine could attend the French International School.

Catherine describes growing up in a house where her parents were always cooking. “So I wanted to be in the kitchen, too,” she says.

Unlike her mother as a child, Catherine was attentive to the proceedings. Arnaud started her off with washing dishes, but by age 10 “she was surprising us” with things she made, her mother says proudly.

Guiliano again: “French women train their taste buds, and those of their young, at an early age.”

After college, Catherine moved back home to work in the family business. She usually does the nightly salads and dressings. Baked salmon slathered with pesto is a speciality of hers.

Arnaud keeps vinegars and oils by the stove, in a tray that her daughter made when she was six. “We love to grab a group of vinegars or olive oils or cheeses or wines and sit around and taste them,” says Arnaud.

Arnaud’s tightly-knit group of friends sprang from the mothers who watched their high-school-age daughters play volleyball.

They’ve gotten together every Wednesday for the past six years to spend happy hour at various local hangouts. Do the mother and daughter remind their friends of the women Guiliano wrote about?

“Of course!” says Christine Henck, a massage therapist. “But you know, it’s okay. I think a lot of it’s good genes. Otherwise, it would be very unfair.”

Arnaud doesn’t read cookbooks or consult recipes. She’s a natural, inspired by seasonal ingredients and the pots of herbs on the backyard deck.

But she does have some tried-and-tested methods she’s glad to share. She preps bouquets garnis and pops them in a freezer bag to use year-round. She chops by hand: it’s a workout, she says. She buys only olives that are cracked, because the pits add flavour.

Whatever she does is wonderful, Henck says. “But it can be dangerous. We’ll be standing in the kitchen and a fabulous Caesar salad will come out, and incredible cheeses. The wine is flowing . . . and the next thing you know, it’s two o’clock in the morning. On a week night!”

Dining late into the night. Having bread with every meal, and cheese at the end of every meal. Hmm. When asked why she and her daughter can eat that way and not get fat, Arnaud shrugs. “We don’t eat between meals,” she says. “We’re very active. We don’t watch TV very much. We don’t eat processed food. We don’t fry. We eat very little sugar.”

Indeed. It’s all in the book.

– (Washington Post, Bloomberg)