Lessons from eating abroad (in Chamonix)

Saucisson, croissants, cheese fondue, buttered baguettes, French pastries. Throw fresh Italian pasta into the mix, and flapjacks, and you’re pretty dam far from “Paleo” or “gluten-free”.  We all like to remark that there aren’t fat people in Europe.  There just doesn’t seem to be a problem with chronic obesity.  In traveling to Chamonix for a month and a half, I didn’t have the expectation that I would put on 100s of lbs, but I was concerned about changes to my diet that would impact my health or athletic performance.  By health, I mean all of the manifestations of a sugar and alcohol rich, nutritionally deficient diet: weight gain, allergies, skin problems, fatigue and energy levels, motivation, and mental clarity.   Over course of my stay I ate my fill of butter rich French baked goods, and I had a few pasta heavy meals with good friends.  Though I felt a bit of food guilt at times, I didn’t grow the inner-tube around my waste that I was afraid of, and enjoyed a new cultural experience there through meals with new friends and new foods.   Here are some of my observations about eating while in Europe, and the food culture there, distilled through conversations with various folks:

Lesson 1: “Don’t let what you eat make the world smaller”

This is actually some advice from Miriam Nelson, a well-respected author, researcher, and political advisor focused on nutritional science, and more recently, food sustainability. I had the chance to share some hikes and meals with “Mim” and the rest of her wonderful family.  Due to mutual interests, our conversations often drifted back to nutrition.   This advice, “Don’t let what you eat make the world smaller”, really resonated with me as I considered deviations to my “diet”.  Primarily, the idea is, if you remain narrow minded about what you are willing to eat, you miss out beautiful and integral aspects of other cultures.  For instance, it would be hard to really experience France without indulging on a croissant and small espresso in a small cafe.  Similarly, we (Mim and her daughter, Alex) shared some wonderful fresh Italian pasta the day before I left, where Mim and Alex had literally watched the pasta being extruded into tagliatelle in a small, local shop when they purchased it earlier that afternoon.  These are both cultural experiences important to the region.

As another point in support of being flexible about your diet as you travel, is that being fixed to one particular set of foods is often expensive and unsustainable.  I would have emptied my bank account had I tried to stick to sweet potatoes, kale, and salmon – the typical Northwest fare I was used to.  Consuming the local cuisine meant that I aligned with the food production chain in the Haute-Savoie valley.  This alignment provided convenience, and kept costs low, both for me, and likely for the environment. In short, enjoying local food and cuisine isn’t just enlightening, but also cheaper and more sustainable.

Lesson 2: Find local, fresh ingredients, and get to know the butcher

When I first started buying vegetables in the grocery story in Chamonix, I was a bit dismayed by the selection and the prices.  It wasn’t until I went to the farmer’s market that I realized that most people don’t by their food a  at large, mega grocery stores.  Visiting small local shops for food, and the relationships with farmers at the Saturday market, are important parts of daily life in Europe.   People buy fresh, local ingredients (veggies, meats, cheeses, breads,…pastas) from local producers. These people customarily visit the same stalls, where they recognize the farmer, the butcher, the cheese maker, or the baker.  It might not be on a first name basis, but enough to know that the items for sale are fresh and made with care.  Sure, a supermarket that is open Monday through Saturday for staples and for last minute items is useful, and becoming more so as lives get busier.  There is a market that runs every Saturday in Chamonix, with plenty of options for diverse local food.  It is a must do while you are there.  When I took a brief trip to Grenoble, I found that the market ran every day, quite a contrast to our weekly markets here in the states.

The importance of local cuisine in France, even in a very international town like Chamonix, reminded me of the “farm-to-table” movement spreading throughout American dining and cuisine.  The large difference seems to be that this is something that Europeans have valued for centuries, rather than an ideal now being embraced by restaurants and packaged goods companies for its marketing value.  On a positive note, I found online that there seems to be a renaissance of farmer’s market venues in the last 10 years (up 180 percent from 2006 – 2014).   Its great that people are (re)learning to appreciate the importance of local, fresh food.

Lesson 3: Share your meals

It might have been because I came from a larger city where people were on the go 24/7 (wake up -> gym -> work -> networking/social stuff/study/extra schooling/”getting ahead” in some other way -> sleep and do it all over again), but I noticed the prevalence of shared meals and eating as a way to spend time together in Chamonix.  During my last few days I spent time in a French chalet being rented by a number of folks my age from England and elsewhere.  I noticed that while they didn’t necessarily cook together, most of time, housemates would make meals, and then sit down at the same table together in the kitchen to eat and talk.  This instead of carrying their meal to their room or eating it in front of their computer, or scarfing it down in front of the TV.

This seems to be another cultural trend we are now rediscovering as a country, but is well-established in Europe. Amazingly, this is starting to become true even in the conventional medicine space.  My brother recently interviewed John Principe, who was a practicing full-time physician who relinquished some of his time to see patients to teach them how to cook and to share meals with them.  So cool!

Lesson 4: Everything in moderation

Finally, as everyone has been to Western Europe will likely have noticed at some point, portions are just smaller!  Even in a mountain town where everyone is burning through calories like wild, it was hard to find “big” meals.  It was also hard to find  big coffees, large bulk food items, etc. Desserts seemed to be particularly small, as were many of the processed food items that are readily accessible in the United States like potato chips.

I’ll admit that none of the above observations is without contradiction. My general take away seems to be: be mindful about the food you are eating, and make it a cultural experience, not a scientific one (news for me…). Now that I am back in Seattle, I’m quickly reverting back to larger, healthy grocery stores for sustenance.  I am excited, however, to try to visit the farmers markets here during the course of the summer, and while Jimmy and I are on the road later on!

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