Martine Bosque-Oliva, a 30-year-old French macrobiot, recently completed a "spring cleaning" of her body. For 10 days, she ate only brown rice and buckwheat.
Last year when visiting the United States, she carried a container of buckwheat with her. At a catered Washington dinner party, she carefully sorted out the meat. Martine is among the growing number of health food faddists and vegetarians who are no longer timid about condemning traditional French cuisine as "simply bad for you."
"People think they are healthy just because they aren't sick," says her friend Giles Poulain in a rush of Gallic logic as he poured soy sauce on his sauteed turnips.
Although no one has been able to put a count on the French health food population, there are some distinct indicators of its increasing ranks.
In Paris, more than two dozen vegetarian restaurants have become havens of the true-believers and the trendy. "We have the pure and the true, the curious and those motivated by snobbism," said Jeannette Berson, owner of the vegetarian restaurant, "La Jardin." "Celebrities, government workers, businessmen and secretaries come here. It's a spot where people want to be seen."
Paris vegetarian restaurants are cozy, if not tiny, rustic -- and busy. At night, Benson lights candles while a violinist or pianist plays softly in the background of fountains, balustrades and terraces of greenery. Ten dollars buys three courses, often ending with a sherbet or a mousse. No alchol is served and customers are forbidden to smoke.
According to a recent catalogue published by Natur at Progres, a better-living organization, more than 250 health food stores and open-air markets, 10 food cooperatives, 40 bakeries and a few butcher shops are located within Paris. Another 500 such businesses operate in the rest of the region. They are linked by their opposition to chemical additives, such as fertilizers, pesticides, hormones or colorants, in the production of their foods.
Some of these establishments enjoyed a gourmet reputation long before the health food craze. The Boucheries Bernard, for example, in an oft-mentioned butcher chain of "high quality" in the trendy Gault Millau gastronomic magazine. Poilane, the bakery of the late president De Gaulle and Pompidou, lost business after World War II because its brown bread reminded Parisians unhappily of the black bread of the Occupation years. Now there is nearly always a queue of devotees outside the tiny Poilane outlet on Rue Cherche Midi.
Some of these businesses started in the past year, and they say they are thriving. The unlikely partners of environmentalism and nouvelle cuisine with its penchant for raw foods and natural-tasting concoctions have helped lead the health food movement out of the closet.
In March, the fifth annual "Marjolaine" better-living exposition in Paris drew about 48,000 people to displays on nutrition, solar energy, organic gardening and dozens of other ecologically current subjects. The exposition takes its name from the French word for the herb marjoram.
Not long ago an association of farmers in the Loire Valley, otherwise known as "the garden of France," announced the opening of a large, exclusively organic farm at Blois. They said they wanted to remove organic farming from its "clandestine" position and prove that such production can be commercially successful in France.
A recent study by a consumer organization showed there is a growing distrust of products appearing less and less "natural." Consumers now also want more information included on product labels, which are woefully inadequate by American standards.
Vegetarianism and health-conscious diets have old footholds in French cuisine, and organic farming is traditional in agriculture. Teas, cosmetics and medicines fabricated from the wealth of herbs and flowers have enjoyed widespread popularity for decades. The latest herbals, which include lavender herb blend for the body's circulation, thyme for the common cold and sunflower oil for the face, are just the beginning of the intriguing remedies now giving the neighborhood herbalist and tea room a resurgence of business.
Strict vegetarianism, however, was always scorned in France where la bouffe, which roughly means "feeding your face", is the top national sport. Health food adherents have had to struggle against the butter and animal fats, white bread and hormone-fed meats that are the mainstays of the popular cuisine. Vegetarian cuisine is not highly lauded from the point of view gastronomy," said Bernadette Ragot, national secretary of Natur et Progres, an organization founded 15 years ago to promote organic farming. "On the other hand, the French are very attached to high-quality nourishment, and that is what we are providing."
Skeptics and critics contend that these products, often more expensive because of the costlier means of labor, are simply enjoying a steak of snob appeal. "Natural" wines, for example, supposedly cultivated without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and lacking artificial additives, are a fairly controversial addition to the commercial market. A wine negociant who does not deal in them said there is "nothing about them that is different . . . It's simply a means of raising prices."
Other critics suspect that the lenient system of product labeling tolerates dishonesty; the chemical additives often necessary for a product's finishing simply aren't mentioned.
In a more dire warning last fall, the Ministry of Agriculture cautioned, without citing specific examples, against possible botulism in so-called "natural" versions of canned meat pates and stews. The ministry went on to attack the "exploitation of the nostalgia for the idealized old days."
Yet, as nutritionally careful as the health food devotees may claim to be, they have not necessarily given up their sweet tooth. The health-food chocolate Pere Louis is as rich a candy bar as you can imagine. According to the label the difference is in the contents -- primarily the use of unrefined sugar. Supersweet praline candies, almond cakes and bonbons -- all of unrefined sugar -- fill the shelves of health food stores.
Pain au chocolat, a chocolate-filled breakfast roll, is served warm at super-chic natural food stores off the Champs Elysee. The difference, explains the sign below the brass candelabras in La Petite Marquise, is that the bread is "made without chemical additives." Further, say the store's clerks, the bakery goods are made from wheat flour that is ground in a special mill without the use of vitamin-destroying heat.
At Paris vegetarian restaurants, specialties parrot the tantalizing plats de resistance of the "grande cuisine."
Le Jardin serves a galette de ble et pot au feu en sauce brune -- which is a vegetarian stew with a wheat cake. Mary's Restaurant, located in a quarter that resembles Soho, offers a roti de millet, a cereal based "roast." The tarte au fromage blanc at Aquarius is a common farm cheesecake. At Bol en Bois, the apple tart on a whole wheat crust is heaped with apples and almonds.
When Berson, the daughter of a traditional chef in Lorraine, opened Le Jardin three years ago, she had to train chefs in vegetarian cooking.
Today, however, Berson is producing experimental dishes as often as possible. "I hear there are some extraordinary herb wines made of sage and strawberries," she said while sampling a new tomato sauce blend. To satisfy the clientele, "You always have to be trying out new things."