Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano


Rating: (Recommended)




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Veuve Clicquot CEO Mireille Guiliano shares her life story and personal dietary habits and recipes on the pages of her new book, French Women Don’t Get Fat. As the maker of the fine La Grande Dame and other champagnes, and one who eats more than 300 restaurant meals a year, her credibility about fine food and drink while maintaining weight stands up to scrutiny. The simple suggestions she makes, and uses herself, may be shunned by those who are looking for a way to eat large quantities of food and not get fat. Guiliano’s approach to fresh foods, in season, quality over quantity, and the occasional avoidance and soup only diet, make sense, and are likely to work for those who can settle for a single piece of Belgian chocolate as a sweet. Most Americans have become accustomed to losing the challenge, “Bet you can’t eat just one!”


Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 9, “Bread and Chocolate,” pp. 181-188:


I recently saw a short play in Paris called Les Mangeuses de Chocolat (loosely translated, Women Who Eat Chocolate). Three young addicts decide to try group therapy, and the therapist (an ex-chocoholic herself) will try to help each find her élé­ment déclencheur (key to getting unhooked). They all fail (sur­prise), and nothing gets resolved (this is French theater), but there are lots 0f good lines, some with more than a grain of truth. For instance: A survey reveals that nine out of ten peo­ple admit to loving chocolate. . . and the tenth one is lying.

The play was satirizing a French obsession (chocolate), but also the therapeutic establishment, which perhaps one couldn’t get away with in America. I took it in good fun, except when a comment was made about women who eat their chocolate en cachette (in private). To the French, the idea seems silly enough for a gag, but given my American experience, I couldn’t laugh. Too often, American women eat on the sly, and the result is much more guilt than pleasure. The tendency goes with an attitude that should be changed. Nothing is sinfully delicious. If you really enjoy something, as I adore chocolate, there is a place for it in your life. But we cannot allow guilt-ridden scarfing. Only with cultivated pleasure can you enjoy chocolate in the clear light of day. The same goes for other excellent foods Americans have come to consider no-no’s.

French women eat chocolate (about twelve pounds a year on average). They also eat bread (we fought a revolution over it!), another item on our watch list of offenders. But: French women don ‘t get fat. In fact, here’s another form of the French Paradox: Pretending such pleasures don’t exist, or trying to eliminate them from your diet for an extended time, will prob­ably lead to weight gain. The only long-term effect of depriva­tion is the yo-yo—down today, but up again before you know it. It’s utterly pointless, especially because both bread and chocolate are good for you.

If we are going to eat bread and chocolate (and we are) and not get fat (and we are not), we need to use our heads, as Dr. Miracle advised. Maximize the rewards of pleasure while minimizing the costs. In fact, he insisted little pleasures (menus plaisirs) were the key to success, and according to his prescrip­tion, I absolutely needed to have my chocolate, but in little doses (par petites doses). I also had to cultivate my appreciation for what I was having. In short, he taught me the French way of enjoying those foods that can be friend or foe depending on how we treat them. The keys are sensory awareness, portion sense, quality, and an eye to the big picture of overall wellness (bien-être).

I’ve already confessed that je raffole de chocolat, which basi­cally means I am a chocoholic. I’m convinced I inherited that gene from my mother. She had an amazing repertoire of chocolate desserts, as well as a passion for straight consump­tion. It made her the easiest person in the world to shop for. Bringing back chocolate from Belgium, Switzerland, or any good French chocolatier was a sure way to her heart. Some years ago, when a famous chocolatier in Lyon passed away in his late seventies, the obituary in Le Monde revealed he had eaten one tablette (a good-size chocolate bar) a day for most of his life. The joke in our family became that there was now proof of at least one person in France who had eaten more chocolate than my mother. But since she would live past ninety, enjoying chocolate all her days, I’m sure she beat him out in the end.

If the magnitude of the chocolatier’s habit doesn’t sound impressive to you, your relation to chocolate must be exam­ined. For the man from Lyon was, by French standards, extraordinary—few of us could eat as much and still eat it properly. Not that enjoying chocolate is a competitive sport. In fact, when Mother was enjoying her fix, it was more like Zen meditation. No one talked. One look at her expressions, her lips, her eyes, commanded a hush in the house. It was a natu­ral way of honoring our mother, allowing her the moment to savor one of her most elemental pleasures. To know how to appreciate that burst of delicate flavors, that supreme smooth­ness of texture as it melts in your mouth and begins its way down your throat, is to me a great accomplishment of sensual eating. It’s an experience that could not be more remote from eating a Snickers bar on the run. But how did this gentle mad­ness evolve? History reveals there are deep roots to the allure of Theobroma cacao, the technical term for chocolate, meaning in Greek “food of the gods.”

Chocolate came to Europe via the New World, in the age of more than one discovery. The Olmecs (1500—600 B.C.) seem to have happened on it first. Their idea of chocolate was as a high-energy drink, extremely bitter and peppery, and a sort of proto—PowerBar reserved for men (priests, princes, and war­riors); they believed the magic food would improve war mak­ing, sexual prowess, and one’s chances of surviving snakebite. But our own version may be traced to the later pre-Columbian civilizations, around 3000 B.C., when wild cacao trees grew in the warm and humid soils of Mesoamerica, modern-day Mex­ico and Guatemala.

For the Aztecs and Totecs, chocolate was not only an elixir, but a symbol of value. Their system of commerce was based on the cocoa standard, and the chocolate produced was consumed by noblemen and merchants (all men, 0f course) at banquets. It was still very bitter and peppery, but it was mixed with vanilla, honey, and flowers and served cold and foamy, usually at the end of a meal along with the tubes for smoking tobacco. Apart from its energizing powers (these blends were highly caffeinated, no doubt), it was believed to be an aphro­disiac. The emperor Montezuma is known to have consumed huge quantities, of various colors in golden cups, before pay­ing a visit to his harem!

Europeans first tried chocolate following the fourth voy­age of Columbus in 1502, but the Spanish appear to have been unimpressed until 1528, when Cortez brought back not only cocoa beans, but a recipe and tools for making chocolate. It became a Spanish sensation. After that, the direction 0f global conquest was reversed, at least gastronomically. Europe has remained a continent 0f chocolate fanatics ever since. Louis XIV’s wife, Marie-Thérèse, is reported to have assured the Sun King that she had no passions except for her husband and chocolate (although one wonders which she valued more). By the nineteenth century, no less an authority than history’s greatest gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, proclaimed, “Chocolate is health,” and he prescribed it for many ills long before sci­ence confirmed its therapeutic properties.

In its pure dark form, chocolate has indeed been shown to be “heart smart,” with more antioxidants than black tea or red wine, as well as lots of magnesium, iron, and potassium (all vital to women’s health). It can also ease anxiety and depres­sion, as it contains serotonin and theobromine, which act on brain receptors and have a beneficial influence on mood. As it is also high in fat, however, it is better enjoyed after lighter meals than after fat-laden holiday feasts, or by itself as a pick-me-up.

One of the most dispiriting developments of the twentieth century was the mass production of chocolate. It created an inferior product loaded with bad fats, and as a result, many Americans have never in their lives tasted the real thing. But relief has appeared with the rise of new artisanal chocolatiers, passionate guardians of traditional methods that were per­fected in the eighteenth century. It is to these chocolate mak­ers, now popping up across America, that we must look for the quality that first inspired chocolate worship. My mantra of quality over quantity is doubly important when applied to something as potent as chocolate.

Quality chocolate is labor-intensive and complex. It requires careful orchard selection, cultivation, and then har­vest of the precious fruit. Next comes fermentation and two rounds of drying, followed by roasting and a few more delicate procedures before one obtains the cocoa mass. The proof of adequate attention and skill will be in the pudding, literally. From that mass, three products are extracted: liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. These are the materials from which the artisan works, making chocolate slabs, ganache (a mixture of chocolate with either butter, crème fraiche, or a milk prod­uct), praline (a mixture of sugar and ground almonds or hazel­nuts with chocolate), or chocolate filled with fruit or liquor. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Hershey, Pennsylvania, anymore.

In tasting chocolate, sweetness, saltiness, acidity, and bit­terness are key savors. Acidity is what you should feel inside your cheeks, and it’s essential to the diffusion of aromas and length of taste in the mouth. Bitterness is felt at the tip of the tongue. It signals a chocolate with little sugar, and it’s a good quality as long as it does not cancel out any other sensation. Texture is also vitally important to character: smoothness, the crunch 0f the shell. The artisan’s ability to play with the yin and yang of chocolate—sweet-salty, sweet-bitter, acid-bitter, hard-soft, crispy-luscious, cold-warm—explains why the experience of one master’s work can differ meaningfully from the experience of another’s work.

For French women, the real thing remains dark chocolate, bittersweet or, even better, extra-bittersweet, which is the purest, with the highest percentage of cocoa solids—the stuff that makes chocolate taste chocolatey. Although you rarely meet someone who “doesn’t like chocolate,” what the average American consumes, a chocolate connoisseur would never touch: milk chocolate, white chocolate, or any 0f the various packaged forms sold in supermarkets and drugstores. This is, quite simply, junk food, loaded with sugar, very low in cocoa content, and more often than not artificially colored and pre­served (real chocolate, like fresh-ground coffee, has a very short life of full flavor).

Admittedly, we French get carried away with chocolate: we have chocolate museums and clubs. We have magazines dedicated to chocolate, a université dii chocolat, and salons du chocolat (fairs). There are tastings and competitions for the best chocolate soufflé, the finest chocolate macaroon. Some Parisians will cross the Seine simply to buy the grains de café (chocolate in the shape of coffee beans) from a particular shop. And France being France, there is une Academic du chocolat, for ultimate authority. Whenever I would come home with a good report card, my mother would say, Tu mérites Ia médaille en chocolat(“You’ve earned the chocolate medal”). It was a bit­tersweet compliment: in a country where national honors are routinely doled out according to connections, only a distinc­tion of chocolate could be an honest acknowledgment of merit.

The value of good chocolate holds steady. Many French women say, Je déprime doncje chocolate” (“When I’m down, I chocolate,” meaning, I splurge on the dark stuff). When you come to recognize the potential for taste pleasure and psychic relief, you will understand that it’s worth the investment. For­tunately, with good chocolate you don’t need—and should not want—pounds of it for pleasure. A couple of choice pieces a day won’t disable your budget or your weight-maintenance program. For those not near the chocolate boutiques flow appearing in most American cities, it is possible to order high quality online, such as dark, rich, delicious Valrhona.

And of course, using a little “food of the gods” can elevate the simplest dessert to a sacrament.

Here are four of my favorite family recipes embracing chocolate.


For her recipes after this chapter and others, read French Women Don’t Get Fat. If you like Belgian chocolate, I recommend Piron in Evanston, Illinois, from which I purchase vast quantities of chocolate each year.


Steve Hopkins, April 23, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2005 issue of Executive Times


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