She is considered the grande dame of bio cooking in France due to her tireless efforts to spread the word about it for more than 20 years. The publication of her cookbook about essential oils and floral waters brought her recognition the world over. Currently, she lives the quiet life in a small country house in Provence, where she spends a large part of her time writing books about bio cooking –over 35 have been published already–, updating her blog and answering questions and queries from readers (one or two whole evenings per week and she still has a 6-month waiting list). What’s more, she also writes articles and recipes for three important magazines in France –La Vie Claire, Bio contact and Top nature–, all about bio topics, and is a consultant for various restaurants in Provence and Paris; she creates bio menus based on seasonal produce, which are enjoyed by 5,000 loyal patrons every day.
Valérie is warm, uncomplicated and very friendly; we connected with her quickly. It was fascinating listening to her explain the secrets of her life project, visiting places she found most interesting in Provence.
How did you get started?
I cooked with my mum and my grandmothers when I was young; one was Spanish and the other French. At 10 I could cook myself easily and they just let me get on with it. For me, cooking was a game, an enjoyable passion as I could just invent things. The thing I liked most was creating recipes my family liked, recipes that I had dreamt up. I’ve never had any professional training for cooking, I’ve always taught myself and experience has trained me well.
We found out that you spent your childhood in the Indian Ocean. Did that influence you at all?
Yes, when I was young I spent a long time in Madagascar, Réunion and Mauritius. It influenced me as I have very good memories from those times, especially about fruit, colours and pure flavours. The cooking was very simple, based on rice, and local fruit and vegetables. The food wasn’t cooked much or very elaborate, something I loved; that’s what I took from there: simple food with regional products.
And how did you get into bio cooking?
When I was around 20. Emmanuel, my husband, started to grow his own organic produce and I started cooking with them. We immediately saw the huge difference in quality, but what’s more, growing our own produce made us more aware of seasonal food, the kinds available and the quantity.
Then we wanted all the produce we ate to be coherent with organic values and respect, so we started using wholemeal flour, plant milks and so on until we changed everything in the larder.
NOT TO BE MISSED
- ORGANIC FARMERS’ MARKET: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the Place des Pecheurs.
- FERME DAGATTI. Biodynamic farm you can visit and buy from directly. Very close to Aix.
- BIOFRINGALE. Organic fast-food restaurant in the heart of Aix-en-Provence. Valérie works as their consultant.
- BIO&CO. Organic cooperative store in the heart of Aix.
- MARCEL ET FILS. Family-owned organic hypermarket in the outskirts of Aix.
- CHATEAU LACOSTE. Medieval castle where biodynamic wine is made, and it’s a contemporary art centre too.
You've published more than 35 books!
As we grew our own produce, we found that we had a large amount of specific vegetables at different seasons, such as tomatoes and courgettes in summer, cabbages and potatoes in winter, so every time I created a recipe, I wrote it down and saved it so I could find it when we had a glut of a particular vegetable. I started to do it for myself and my friends, but then the students at my courses got wind of it and seeing how successful it was, I decided to go to an editor of vegetarian cookbooks to ask him to edit Mes assietes végétariennes, a collection of seasonal recipes.
This was my first book and it was a success. After a little while, I was asked to write a collection of small basic bio vegetarian cookbooks (Petits déjeuners, Quinoa, Pâtés végétaux, Huiles, Soupes).
As it was going so well, I was able to suggest books on topics I was especially interested in such as Graines germées and Cuisiner avec les huiles essentielles, a very special personal project which has been very successful throughout the world.
Which project of yours has got people talking the most?
The Grand Hotel of Mauritius hired me to create 7 menus with 7 different colours. The dishes, created by the chef at the restaurant, had to combine essential oils and floral waters to come up with surprising combinations that roused great sensations, transporting the patrons to different locations and times. The project required exceptionally interesting research.
What have you been working on recently?
Most of the time I’ve been working on writing books that respond to the requests made by all the people who support me. In the past few years, the amount of people living with gluten intolerance and allergies has increased a great deal, so I did a lot of research to create all kinds of gluten-free recipes from everyday dishes to bread and pastries. The last book I published was about cooking without gluten, eggs or dairy products to respond to the growing number of people with these intolerances, or people who just don’t want to eat these products. I love giving people ideas for easy everyday recipes to make not using these foods part of a normal lifestyle.
Why do you think the number of people with gluten intolerance is growing?
Previously we only ate gluten in bread: real bread as part of a fully varied diet, and it was eaten in moderation. That’s not an issue, but now gluten can be found everywhere: pasta, pastries, prepared meats, biscuits; therefore the problem is about quantity and accumulation. This makes the digestive system very weak and in turn the immune system; this has given rise to a lot of allergies and intolerances in the past few years. What’s needed is variety, so I suggest and show other options to have a more varied diet. For example, we can make couscous dishes with quinoa or millet, or make a tabbouleh with buckwheat. So then you would only eat gluten in bread, which is difficult to make without gluten.
C O O K I N G
How would you define your style of cooking?
Organic, as natural as possible and seasonal. Everyday family cooking that’s full of colour and fun. Inspired by the Seignalet diet and pure, simple flavours.
What is the purpose of your project?
I’ve always wanted to make organic cooking colourful and fun. Think about it: just 20 years ago there was only macrobiotics or strict vegetarian restaurants and they were all very hidden and not very attractive. I wanted to create simple, uncomplicated recipes for our modern, fast lifestyle. As I’m no chef, I don’t make things complicated. As I start off with good produce, often I don’t have to do much to them: if strawberries are good on their own, they don’t need many flourishes.
And, into the bargain, I want my dishes to be healthy as well as delicious; I’ve always tried hard so that they contain the right nutrients for our planet to be healthy, as well as ourselves.
What is the Seignalet diet?
Doctor Seignalet treated autoimmune diseases and defended a hypotoxic diet, by that I mean no mutated cereals, no dairy products, lots of raw food, gentle cooking under 110ºC, first cold pressed oils, no saturated fats …
Even though I’ve studied naturopathy and Chinese energy cooking to understand the digestive system and health in general, I always try to work with naturopaths or doctors who can give me more information, giving the books more value.
Among my readers, there was a group of mothers who were looking for dairy and gluten-free recipes. Doctor Seignalet was very interested in this issue, but he had only tried out his “diet” with ill people, so it was interesting to try it with healthy people for prevention purposes; that’s why we worked together on the book Sans gluten, naturellement.
Do you have any creative tricks?
A trick or criteria that always works for me is cooking with seasonal food. Produce from one season go well together, so it’s easy to find combinations as a source of inspiration. For example, we know that pumpkin goes well with chestnuts, hazelnuts and almonds, but oranges and tomatoes don’t go well together. Then you can think about colour associations: if we use products that have the same colour, we’ll probably be on the right track. So, apricot juice goes well with orange flower water, strawberries go well with rose or geranium water, and pea purée is good with mint or basil water. In short, make combinations based on season, colour or time of harvesting.
What ingredients are must-haves for you?
Almond cream, walnut cream, rice milk, olive oil, walnut oil, canola oil, gomashio, brown rice flour and all vegetable fats in powder, oil or cream form. Dried fruit pastes can be used to make many things, such as vegetable milk or a sauce for asparagus for example, or they can replace butter in a cake.
Have you discovered any new ingredients recently?
Almond cream, which may seem expensive, but it lasts a long time as you only use a little at a time. I, for example, use almond cream to make crème pâtissière, pastries, pancake batter and vegetable milk, I thicken sauces with it, it can be used like butter for cakes, or even when making homemade chocolate filling for sponges. It was really a great discovery.
We're especially curious about the book Tout cru. What was your inspiration?
The Seignalet diet, which recommends eating a lot of raw products. The book completes Sans gluten, naturellement to get more raw food into your diet using more imagination than usual: different kinds of crudités, courgette carpaccio, learning about soaking dried fruits and the texture they give to sauces, vegetable or fruit soups, tabboulehs and vegetable pâtés.…
And what about sprouts?
The great chefs in France only use them to decorate plates. I want to reveal flavour combinations between sprouts and vegetables. I like to use them due to the large amount of nutrients and energy they contain; their flavour is also explosive!
There are lots to choose from and they all taste different; they give little bursts of flavour without even having to cook, and we can create spectacular combinations with fruit and vegetables.
F R E N C H C U L T U R E
Is French cuisine healthy?
In the south of France people eat a Mediterranean diet with olive oil and lots of fruit and vegetables. I find this diet very interesting for bio cooking. On the other hand, I also know about the cuisine of the north of France, where Emmanuel comes from [her husband]. There are lots of forests and mountains there and traditionally lots of dairy produce, cheese, meat and butter are used; I don’t feel at all comfortable using these. I think that the cuisine from Provence has a good, healthy foundation which I find interesting.
Do you cook traditional recipes? How do you do it?
Well, clearly I have been influenced by traditional cooking, but I always make versions using bio products which I consider to be healthy. For example, I have very nice memories of my grandmother’s clafoutis and I make them, but in an adapted version; and my mother’s apricot tart, which I make by using almond cream instead of the butter.
Is bio culture big in France?
There are renowned figures in natural and conventional medicine, and they are very clear about the topic. They are trying to make people aware of it and people are talking.
Two outstanding examples are Professor Henri Joyeux, and oncologist at Montpellier, and David Servan Schreiber, a psychiatrist. The latter had a brain tumour at 25, very young, and conventional medicine didn’t give him any alternatives as it was in a very tricky position. However, he didn’t give up hope and he carried out a lot of research on diets, and thanks to this he cured himself. He was very influential in Canada and the US. They both work in conventional medicine, but they are entirely convinced about the essential role our diet plays in being healthy. That’s why they have worked hard to get people talking about it.
Everyone here knows about natural therapies and they are seen as normal. There are lots of magazines that talk about them. Quite often, this is the starting point for many people to a bio diet, the start of being aware and taking care of one’s health.
What do you think is the main problem with our diet?
Today’s conventional diet is a far cry from the original way of eating. Currently, it seems that most products from supermarkets have been made by chemists instead of chefs. Most products in supermarkets have an extremely long list of ingredients and we hardly know what half of them are. We can find out what is normal just by spending a little time in the kitchen. For example, a recipe for homemade biscuits only needs 4 or 5 basic ingredients, and everyone knows what they are.
L I F E S T Y L E
You always talk about a "personal diet". How can we find our own diet?
Apart from eating local, seasonal produce, you need to take notice of how you react personally to each product and each cooking method.
We have to take notice of how we feel after eating. Some people, just after eating, can have slight headaches, stomach aches, need to go to the toilet … there are thousands of different symptoms. So, you have to look at what you’re eating and if we have too much of the same food during the day or the week. That’s how we can spot the foods we have to vary: look at whether you always have the same for breakfast or for dinner for example; try to spot your habits and see how you feel physically after eating.
What do you think are the founding principles of a healthy lifestyle?
You have to be connected with nature, its cycles and seasons. I think having your own vegetable garden is the best way, as you see what produce is harvested at every season and region, and these are, in short, what our body needs at any given time.
I would recommend everyone to go plant something. If you have the space, a simple vegetable garden, and if not, you could start off with aromatic herbs.
As I always used to say at my classes: cooking isn’t a waste of time, it’s about making time for yourself. Making time to grow food is a real pleasure and gives meaning to life. It puts you back in touch with nature and is a good basis for a healthy lifestyle.