Maud Zilnyk

3rd September 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

3rd September 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Our breakfast with Maud Zilnyk took place on the final day of an eventful Paris trip, during which we did seven interviews in the space of 72 hours. All the other interviews happened north of the Seine – in Montmartre, Belleville, the 11th arrondissement… To visit Maud we headed south to Saint-Germain, a Left Bank neighbourhood which was once a magnet for writers and intellectuals but has since grown soft around the edges and become genteel. Maud, who co-owns (with Lucio Hornero) a local food shop called Épicerie Générale, didn’t gravitate towards this area – she got a good deal on an apartment – but we can appreciate why she’s stuck around.

She lets us in from the street through a large set of double doors and we follow her through a leafy courtyard, up a wide flight of stairs and into a gorgeous apartment filled with pale winter light. She lives here with her boyfriend, who works in the jewellery industry and is heading off to work as we arrive. Maud takes us through to the kitchen. After a series of generous lunches and long boozy dinners, it’s almost a relief when she proposes a healthy breakfast which involves very good ingredients and very little cooking.

Over bread and cheese – and ham, eggs, granola and yoghurt, fresh fruit, black tea and hot lemon – Maud tells us about growing up in Marseille and how she got into organic food. As well as being 100% organic, her shops (a second Epicerie Generale opened in the 9th in late 2014) focus almost entirely on French producers: everything but coffee, tea and chocolate is sourced in France, which doesn’t have a great record when it comes to supporting its own organic farmers.

After breakfast, we head out to see the original Épicerie, pausing en route as Maud retrieves a cutlery holder from a pile of rubbish, and again to inspect the murals outside the house where Serge Gainsbourg used to live. The shop isn’t open yet but Maud shows us around as her staff are setting up. We admire the selection and buy a few things – organic wine, Chinese tea, a tin of anchovies which comes in handy later on – before heading off to our next appointment. It’s a wonderful shop. There isn’t much going on in this area in terms of food, according to Maud, so the residents of Saint-Germain are doubly lucky to have Épicerie Générale on their doorstep.

Continued below...

Is breakfast your favourite meal of the day?

Yes. I don’t really spend time over lunch or dinner, so this is a nice moment to myself before I get going.

Do you always have the same thing?

Not always. I eat seasonally so the fruit changes. So do the cereals and the yoghurt – it could be sheep or goat. But I always have eggs and ham, fruit and bread. And tea of course.

What sort of tea?

Usually smoked. I have one in my shop that’s called Aiguilles d’Or by Les Thés de Constance. It’s really special and it smells like leather – I love it. So black tea or smoked tea, and in the afternoon green tea. I drink coffee too but never in the morning.

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You also have a glass of hot lemon here. Is that good for you?

I don’t know but I feel like I really need it in the morning, to clean my body. Sometimes I have half, sometimes a full lemon – it depends on how much I need to purify myself [laughs].

Do you get most of your ingredients from the shop?

No, not any more. I love what I have in my store – I spent a year travelling around France looking for the best producers – but right now I just want to eat something else.

I usually drink smoked tea in the morning. I have one in my shop called Aiguilles d’Or. It’s really special and it smells like leather – I love it

Is everything on the breakfast table organic?

Yes. The bread is from a Sunday organic market near here [see Address Book]. The eggs too. The granola and tea are from my shop…

Do you eat 100% organic food?

Almost. You never know when you go out to restaurants, but at home it’s very close to 100%.

Why do you eat organic food? Why spend the extra money?

Because it’s good for the earth. Really we can’t really make any claims now about [the effect of organic food on] health. But for the earth, it’s clear that spraying chemicals is bad. I love Marseille where I grew up, but now, whenever I swim in the sea, I get red rashes. The Mediterranean is really sick. You can’t see any fish. There’s lots of pollution. So for this I eat organic: to protect the earth and for the future.

Do you cook much at home?

I’m not really a cook. I just like to take simple things and put them together on a plate. It’s the same in the store: we have nice things but we don’t really cook.

Does your boyfriend cook?

Yes, much more, he’s really good. He’s half-Italian and he’s really good at making Italian food. But when we’re together we don’t really cook, except when we have friends around for dinner.

I see there isn’t a lot of food in your kitchen. If you’re having people around, will you do the shopping on the day?

Yes. I hate to have too many things in the kitchen.

What’s in your fridge?

Camera film [laughs] – my boyfriend is into photography. And a Kit-Kat. I always have yoghurt. Two eggs. One Coke Zero. Ham, mozzarella, cheese. And a beer. We have pasta, because we eat a lot of pasta…

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Is there anything you don’t eat?

I can’t eat oysters because they make me sick. But otherwise I eat everything.

What’s your comfort food?

Cheese, for sure. I always have a few different kinds in my fridge.

Do you go to restaurants often?

Yes a lot. Around here you don’t have many nice restaurants so we go all around the city to eat.

So you grew up in Marseille. When did you move to Paris?

In 1998. The year of the World Cup.

How long ago did you start Épicerie Générale?

I opened the first store in 2011. Before that I worked in fashion – I was in the marketing department at Galeries Lafayette. I was travelling a lot, looking for what other department stores around the world were doing. That was nice.

But you were more interested in food?

I always wanted to work in the food industry but as I’m not a good cook, opening a restaurant was going to be difficult. I had eaten organic for a long time and I felt it was weird that the organic food in the supermarkets wasn’t French – it was just products from Spain, Germany and Italy. So I was like, okay I need to go see the producers and see what’s happening.

What did you find out?

I spent a year visiting French producers and I saw that they were not being helped by the government. Distribution was very hard: they can sell locally but not nationally. They can’t afford to employ people so most of them are working by themselves or with their wife and children, but using really old ways of working in agriculture.

It sounds weird but in Paris we don’t eat French organic produce. So I decided to open a grocery store with just organic produce from France and promote what’s going on here

So they couldn’t compete with organic produce from abroad.

Yes. It sounds weird but in Paris we don’t eat French organic produce, and if you do organic stuff it’s better if you eat things from your own country. So I decided to open a grocery store with just organic produce from France and promote what’s going on here.

It must take a lot of effort if you’re working against the system.

Yes, a lot. It’s very difficult because the farmers are very small and not organised at all. They don’t know how to ship things. We found one farmer who was very well organised and we asked the others around him to send their produce to him and he gathered everything and sent it to Paris. We try to organise a little platform like this in each region we work with so it’s easier for us.

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And are you still in the process of doing that?

Oh yes! [laughs] So far we have just four platforms – one in Normandy, one in the southwest, one in the southeast, one in the Alps.

Is there a regulatory body for organic food in France?

Yes, but sometimes they allow farmers to put things in the soil that aren’t good so…

It could be more strict.

Yes. For sure. Travelling around France has helped me see that the country is in a very bad position. In Europe, we are the one of the worst countries in terms of helping organic producers. A lot of them told me that they are going to quit in 10 years: they are maybe 50, but they look 70, and their children don’t want to do the same thing because it is really hard work. If they are not helped, they will disappear for sure.

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But isn’t there an appetite for organic food in France?

People are very concerned, but mostly they consume organic for themselves, not for the earth or for their children. They feel like if they eat organic, they’re going to be more healthy. I think it’s true. But they don’t really care if it comes from Spain, Italy, Germany. So it doesn’t really help the French producers.

On The Menu

Breakfast with Maud Zilnyk
Paris, October 2014

To eat:

Seasonal fruit (green grapes, physalis)
A boiled egg
Organic ham
Granola with physalis and sheep-milk yoghurt
Fruit and nut bread by Patibio
Six types of cheese (including Fourme d’Ambert, Tomme Brebis-Chèvre, Cantal and a goat’s cheese with sarriette)

To drink:

Hot lemon water
Earl Grey tea

What persuaded you to start eating organic food?

It came from my family. My grandfather on my dad’s side, who was Ukrainian, was a potato farm labourer, working in the field. So farming is in my family. My parents prefer to eat things that grow in our garden. Then my sister went to Austria for a year, about 20 years ago, and when she came back she started putting crazy things into our heads about ecology and organic food and so on. It really started from there.

Was food important in your family?

Yes my dad loves restaurants – we would eat out in Marseilles and Paris – and my mum is a really good cook. She cooks a lot.

But you haven’t inherited her talent?

No. I do try sometimes, but as I’m really not good at it maybe it’s better if I do something else [laughs].

For more information on Maud’s shop, visit the Epicerie Generale website or follow them on Instagram

Posted 3rd September 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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