Monday, 8 October 2012

You might just possibly be able to catch a cold from being cold...

I’m suffering from a stinking, lingering cold at the moment, and beginning to get tired of being told that I caught it because I don’t dress warmly enough or that I must have received a blast of cold air (un coup de froid) due to the changeable seasons. I have had this debate so many times with my French husband or during dinner parties (after lots of wine) and even at the school gates.  ‘You simply can’t catch a cold from being cold.  A cold is caused by a virus...’ and so on and so on.  I have responded  politely when little old ladies have scolded me for my children running around half naked in 10 degrees - “Avant nous habitions au Pole Nord, donc mes enfants ont l’habitude du froid!”. I have smirked when my doctor told me off for coming to his surgery with wet hair “Vous allez attraper froid, Madame Debeugny”.  Priding myself on being a woman of science I have always been quick to state that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to prove that ‘being cold’ lowers one’s immune system.....!  

But, I am now possibly prepared to admit that I might be wrong.  Is there something to this old wives' tale after all?   Is there a link between cold exposure and developing a cold?  Why do some of us get colds and not others despite being exposed to a cold virus?  How?  Study after study has failed to find a link between cold exposure and immune system function. I then came across this little gem of a paper which I think could explain quite effectively the hows and whys.  The theory goes like this:
  1. A population might be exposed to a cold virus, but not everyone will display cold symptoms (in this case it is known as a sub clinical infection)
  2. Up to about 60% of this population will develop clinical cold symptoms (ie obvious cold symptoms)
  3. The conversion from having no symptoms to developing symptoms could be caused by being exposed to sudden blasts of cold as:
  4. Chilling of the body surface causes constriction (narrowing) of the blood vessels in the nose and upper airways
  5. This then lowers the local immune response in the nasal passage as the narrowing of the vessels reduces the blood flow/nutrient supply to the cells lining the respiratory tract.  (Previous studies have focused on testing the systemic or ‘total’ immune system reaction rather than investigating a local immune response.) 
  6. The nasty (!) rhinovirus which flourishes in colder temperatures then replicates and spreads throughout the respiratory tract and the individual develops the clinical symptoms of a cold.
So, there you go.  It’s a theory only and has not been tested, but I think it’s an interesting one.  I humbly promise that I will stop trying to be a smug know it all and will check my facts carefully in the future.  It does not quite explain why my three children are able to run around barefoot in the garden in all temperatures and not have permanent colds.  Possibly because their super nutritionist mother stuffs them full of good healthy food....?! 

(The reference for the paper, if you want to have a look is Eccles R (2002) Acute cooling of the body surface and the common cold Rhinology 40 109 - 114)

A little gem of a recipe, baked almond custards which I served with a plum compote.  Just perfect comfort food when you are feeling under the weather..!!

Almond Creams

600 ml almond milk
30g brown sugar
50g flaked almonds
2 large eggs
20g soft brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour
1 vanilla pod
1 good glug of amaretti liqueur (and a glug for you!)

Heat oven to 150 degrees.  Place 4 greased ramekins in a deep baking tray which is filled with water, so the water level reaches half way up the ramekins. Dry fry the almond flakes and the soft brown sugar in a frying pan until just turning golden and caramelised   Take off the heat and place in a dish (if you leave them in the pan they'll carry on cooking).

Heat almond milk with the vanilla pod and leave to infuse for 10 minutes.  Beat the eggs, cornflour, liqueur and brown sugar together.  Remove the vanilla pod from the milk (let it dry and then you can reuse it).  Pour the warm milk onto the egg mixture, beat throughly to mix and then pour into the ramekins.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Serve warm and decorated with the caramelised almonds.  

Monday, 24 September 2012

The rise of the 'Pseudo' family meal

Question - what do you call a family meal where all of the family members are sitting around a table but not talking or communicating or even enjoying the meal together?  Answer - A pseudo family meal!

You’d never see this in France (quelle horreur!), but on my tour of the UK in the summer I was shocked to see families (in restaurants) all sitting taping away at screens:  Nintendo DS, Kindle or Ipads each in their own solitary bubble for (I kid you not) the duration of the meal.

Whilst family life has got increasingly busy surely it’s possible to make the time to sit down and eat at least one daily meal together? To switch off mobiles and electronic devices and focus on some good quality family time?  From a nutritional perspective this is such a good chance to talk to children about what they are eating - where it’s from, how it’s been cooked, whether they like the taste (or not!), the balance of nutrient it contains etc etc.  This is precious information which they simply do not learn at school and therefore we, as parents and roles models need to provide them with these essentials.  Nutrition aside, meal times are also the perfect time to talk to your children about their day at school, their friends and how they are feeling in general.  I’d be the first to say that mealtimes are not always easy - there can be drama, tears, tantrums, arguments and fights, but this is all part and parcel of being a family.  Some of the best memories I have when growing up are all based around the kitchen table, the laughter, the jokes, the delicious food and the huge amounts of wine....

The pseudo family meal is a horrible invention as it is pretending to be something it is not.  A meal where everyone is looking at a screen is not proper family time.  Can you imagine our children hosting dinner parties in 20 years time with a) food ordered in as they have not learnt how to cook b) everyone taping away on their Ipads 30 as they have not learnt the art of good conversation.  It’s bleak, it’s horrible...! 

So, mums and dads, kids and kiddies, let’s all try to make an effort for the all so important traditional family meal.  Dads - surely you can put your blackberry down for 20 minutes even if you are expecting important emails.  Mums - putting your current status on facebook as ‘enjoying a lovely family meal’ is a bit of a contradiction in terms if you are spending the whole mealtime FBing and tweeting.  Kids - the DSs will still work if you put them down for 20 minutes!  Let’s aim for quality family time based around sharing tasty family meals.

On that note, a family meal menu for you, which is also seasonal.

Chicken breasts with creamy mushroom sauce
Roasted pumpkin
Steamed Broccoli


Coconut Rice pudding pots
Apple and blackberry compotes


Chicken Breasts with Creamy Mushroom Sauce

You need 1/2 - 1 chicken breast per person depending on appetite.  I flattened the chicken breasts with a rolling pin and then left them marinating in white wine and fresh chopped tarragon for 30 minutes.

For the sauce

500g or so mixed chopped mushrooms ( I used girolles and cepes)
3 crushed cloves of garlic
Chicken stock (about 300 ml)
Sherry ( about 30 ml)
Creme fraiche (about 2 large spoons)
Chopped parsley

Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and pat dry and dust with flour.  Fry in a mix of butter and olive oil until cooked.  Place in a baking dish and keep warm in a low oven.

Fry the mushrooms in the same pan used for the chicken.  Once cooked add crushed garlic and the stock.  Let the stock reduce down a little bit then add the sherry and creme fraiche.  Season and scatter with the parsley.  Pour over the chicken and serve with a smile! 

Coconut rice pudding

Very easy!  100g pudding rice ( I used a brown short grain rice), 400ml coconut milk, 200ml water.  Note that you could a) also use normal milk and that b) the coconut milk depending on the type you use can be slightly grey in colour.  This is also nice for breakfast. 

Place all ingredients in a saucepan, bring to boil and then let it cook gently until rice is cooked (about 15-40 minutes depending on whether you use white or brown rice).  Sweeten to taste with honey, brown sugar or xylitol.  Serve with the compote.  

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The insider’s guide to getting good customer service in France!

And no, this is so not a French bashing article.  I’ve lived here for 10 years, my husband is French and my children are 99.9% French ( the 0.1% is a nod to me, their sole English beacon).  There are so many things I love about this country of liberté, fraternité and égalité - the food, the family focused life style, the attitude to aging and the fantastic health service,  But, there are a few teensy, weensy things that still now can drive me to rage or tears or both, such as the administration, the rigidity and the infamous customer service.......

Why is it so difficult to find good customer service?  I’m still trying to understand this.  My husband explains that it dates back to the revolution where following the beheading of the aristocracy, the concept of being a servant and having to serve anyone was not meant to exist any more. He also explains that France produces fantastic engineers and scientists, but still does not really understand commerce or trade.  I also think that culturally the idea of selling products and making money is vaguely distasteful to many of the French with socialist leanings.

I’ve tried storming out of shops before saying very loudly in my thickly accented french ‘ C’est la derniere fois que je fais mes achats ici, le service est tres tres mauvais’ (It’s the last time I’m shopping here, the service is terrible) which only makes the shop assistants snigger - ‘Comme vous voulez Madame’ (As you wish).

So, if threats and losing your temper don’t work, what does?  From bitter, bitter, experience I’ve found the following useful:

 1) Always start your query with ‘Bonjour’

Do take the time to ‘meet and greet’ or ‘butter up’ the shop assistant/service desk. Starting off the conversation with a direct ‘I’m looking for’ or ‘Do you have....’ never seems to work very well and I’m usually ignored.

 2) Have the right attitude

Be positive and polite.  Firm but not pushy. Confident, but not arrogant (you’ll irritate them ) and not too deprecating (they’ll ignore you). Speak slowly and as clearly as possible (particularly if you have a strong accent).   I always carry a notebook in my handbag so if a shop assistant does not seem to understand what I am asking for I can write it down instead.  You could also try drawing it.  Do not at any cost try and mime what you are looking for ( a la Marcel Marceau) as they will then think that you are a complete idiot and try and run away.

 3) Allow them to educate you

And yes, there is a thin line between educating and patronising, but for a shop assistant it is  psychologically better to ‘educate’ you than serve you.  So, milk this for all it is worth and take it as an opportunity to find out as much as you can about French products.  Feel free to ask them what wine is best with a particular meat,  which cheeses to use in a cheese board, and which melon is ready to eat straight away.  You will be pleasantly surprised at how willing they are to share this information with you.

 4) Put the slap on

The French are in general much better dressed than their anglo saxon counterparts and appearances do count.   Make up and tidy hair are essential even for grocery shopping and if you try to approach them in your Uggs, greasy hair and track suit bottoms you will be ignored. Therefore, try to factor in a 30 minute grooming session before going shopping in order in maximise the level of customer service you will receive.

 5) Control your children

French shops expect you to be able to discipline and control your children.  If your children are running up and down the aisles and/or screaming their faces off you will be lucky to receive any level of service and will receive instead a lot of black looks and mutterings about a good fessé (a smack).

So, control your children on a shopping trip ( a little bit of blackmail such as promising them a comic or some money usually works for me!)

A final point is that the same rules about grooming apply to your children.  If they look a bit mangy you are more likely to be ignored, so spend a bit of time smartening them up before going shopping.

Good Luck!

As always a quick recipe - a delicious cauliflower salad which comes straight from the fantastic Ottolenghi cookbook.

Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, sprouts and cabbage and this group of vegetables contain isothiocyanates, plant chemicals which help to protect against cancer.   It is also a good source of vitamin C, folate and Vitamin K (which helps to regulate blood clotting).

I served this with warm Moroccan style chicken.

Chargrilled Cauliflower with tomato, dill and peppers.


Blend (ideally in a food processor):

2 tbsp capers, drained and chopped
1 tbsp French wholegrain mustard
2 crushed garlic cloves
2 tbsp cider vinegar
60 ml olive oil.

Season to taste

Salad Vegetables

1 small cauliflower, divided into florets
1 tbsp chopped dill
50g baby spinach
20 cherry tomatoes, halved

Blanch cauliflower florets for 3 minutes in a pan of salted water.  Drain and run under cold water to stop them cooking further.   Leave in colander to dry.  Once dry place in mixing bowl with 60 ml olive oil and salt and pepper.

Heat a griddle pan until very hot.  Grill cauliflower in batches until charred and transfer to a bowl. While still hot add dressing, dill, spinach and tomatoes.  Stir gently, season and serve.


Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Summer time and 5 a day should be easy.......!

The fruit and vegetable aisles are groaning with melons, tomatoes, raspberries and strawberries and I’m thinking rosé, BBQs and roasted vegetable salads (in that order!).  While it can be harder to eat our five a day in the winter when cabbage and apples start to feel a little bit boring, we have actually no excuse in the summer as there is so much variety and colour.

I’m on a mission to fill my children (and husband) with as many fruit and vegetables as possible at the moment in the hope that this, plus the vitamin D they'll make from the action of sunlight on their skin (and here's hoping that we actually got some decent sunlight very soon!) will keep the Debeugny household  ‘a sick-free zone’ over the summer months.  

So, I though it might be useful to share a day’s worth of menus.  My criteria is that the family menu needs to be healthy, colourful, tasty, interesting.  I’m aiming for easy home cooked foods, ideally low (ish) in refined carbs and sugars, with quality protein and natural (as opposed to trans/hydrogenated/processed) fats.  The meals need to be suitable for adults and children as I get very grumpy at the thought of having to cook separate meals for different family members.  I also have a intense dislike of ‘faddiness’. My children don’t have to finish all the food on their plates and I tend to serve them small portions so they can always ask for more, but, and this is a big but, I do expect them to try everything (and not to be too rude about it!).

So, on the daily menu....

1 cup American style Pancakes with Greek Yoghurt and Fresh Fruit
* Lunch
Crudités and Green Salad 
Bolognese Bake - made with left over bolognese sauce, wholemeal pasta spirals and mozarella cheese 
Easy Peasy Banana Icecream with grated chocolate
Apple Slices
Rice cakes
Potato and Courgette oven baked Frittata
Red cabbage, radish, carrot and tahini salad
Fruit/compotes/cheese/yoghurt - borrrrr-ring as my children would say!

Total fruit and veg intake for the day 6-7ish - Yes! 

*My top tip here is when you have hungry children waiting to be fed always put salad/crudités on the table first, so that they have the chance to eat these before the main dish arrivves.  You might also be surprised how many cucumber and carrot sticks they can munch on when they are really hungry!

**Douter (Do-té) is a fantastic invention by a friend of mine which gets round the problem of children having both a sugary dessert and a gouter.  You basically fob the kids off after lunch with a ‘you can’t possibly still be hungry so let’s wait a bit before dessert’ and then you do ‘you’ve just had a late dessert so you don’t need a gouter’! The douter  is served around English ‘teatime’ - 3pm ish

1 cup American style Pancakes with Greek Yoghurt and Fresh Fruit
Makes about 12-16
Whisk together:  2 eggs, 1 large teacup of flour ( I fill 75% of the tea cup with wholemeal flour and 25% porridge oats.) 1 large teacup of milk, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp cinnamon, handful of fresh blueberries.
Fry spoonfuls in a frying pan for about 2 minutes each side (flip them over onto the other side when they start to bubble).  You are aiming for small round thick pancakes rather than thin delicate crepes! 
Serve with greek yoghurt, a drizzle of honey and chopped fresh fruit 
Easy Peasy Banana Ice Cream
You need 1 frozen peeled banana, 1 tsp peanut butter and 1tsp honey per person.  Place ingredients in food processor add a good dollop of mascarpone/creme fraiche and blend until soft and creamy (this can take a while).  Serve immediately.
Finely chop and fry 1/2 onion in a small amount of olive oil/butter for 2-3 minutes. Add 1 finely chopped courgette (chopped finely enough that the kids do not complain!) and fry for a further 5 minutes.  
In a bowl whisk 8 eggs, 100ml of milk and some fresh herbs/seasoning.  Slice up left over boiled potatoes( about 300-400g) and add to eggs.  Mix in the cooked onion and courgette mixture.  Add 100g of grated cheese (comté/parmesan).
Pour into greased baking dish and bake in 180 degree oven for 20-25 minutes.  
Red cabbage/radish/carrot and tahini salad
I love coleslaw but find the combination of raw onions and raw cabbage slightly over powering which is why I prefer to fry the onion before adding to the salad.  This gives the salad a gorgeous crispy roasted taste.
Finely chop or grate red cabbage and carrots.  Mix in some chopped radish.  Fry 2 thinly sliced shallots in olive oil until crispy, then throw in a handful of flaked almonds and cook for a further minute (don’t let the almonds burn!). Mix vegetables, shallots and almonds together in a dish. 
Dress with a mixture of :  1 large tablespoon tahini (sesame seed paste), lemon juice (to taste), olive oil (to taste) , pinch of sugar and pinch of salt

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Quacks, alternative medicine and open minds!!

I’ve just been reading the comments on the article by Edward Ernest in the Guardian ‘Alternative medicines can't escape the long arm of the law’ and I am once again dismayed (though not surprised) at the vitriol displayed by the promoters of alternative medicine and the sceptics who are quick to dismiss complementary theories as ‘quackary’

The term alternative or complementary medicine covers a wide range of practices and products claiming to support/heal/treat illnesses and symptoms and which are not considered part of conventional medicine.  Osteopathy, chiropractise, massage, yoga, hypnotherapy, chinese medicine and vitamin supplements all come under the mantal of complementary therapies.

Sceptics are quick to dismiss these therapies on the grounds that:
  1. There is no scientific ‘evidence base’ behind these practices - ie it is difficult/impossible to demonstrate scientifically how these therapies work and that their efficacy is therefore questionable.

  2. Many of the therapies are unregulated (oesteopathy and chiropractic are self-regulated) and the titles are not protected.  For example anyone can call themselves a naturopath or a nutritional therapist.  Therapists do not necessarily have to follow the strict codes of professional conduct and standards which conventional medical practitioners have to follow.
  3. Lack of regulation puts the public at risk of  a)  inexperienced/unqualified practitioners giving ineffective/possibly dangerous treatments/advice b) being 'conned' into paying for these ineffective/possibly dangerous treatments/products c) seeking an alternative practitioner when they should really be seeing a doctor for an urgent medical issue.
The 'quacks' are quick to argue back that:
  1. Just because we can’t scientifically explain how something works, does not necessary mean that it does not work. 

  2. Big Pharma (the pharmaceutical companies) are out to make a fortune from selling medications to us that we either don’t really need/could actually harm us and making us all into pill popping dependent, unhealthy zombies!
    (The Mediator case is often cited.  It is currently ongoing here in France. Mediator was a diabetes drug which was banned last year due to links to heart valve damage.)
  3. That based on 'clinical practice' many of the alternative therapies can be effective and that these therapies provide support and comfort to many patients. 
Many alternative practitioners are keen to push for regulation.  In the UK there is the ‘Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council’ which was established to regulate a range of alternative therapies.  Practitioners have to demonstrate professional standards and qualifications and the key aim is to  protect the public from ‘quacks’.  The sceptics though argue that regulating ‘alternative rubbish’ just makes it ‘regulated alternative rubbish’ and so the heated debate continues.........

The people who are drawn to alternative therapies are often the ones who have found that conventional medicine does not necessarily have all the answers, such as chronic fatigue, back problems, autoimmune diseases, depression and infertility.  Alternative therapies usually take a holistic approach and often involve long consultations focused on getting to know the patient and their medical history (in contrast to time pressed medical GPs).  It could be argued that an hour of talking about oneself to a nice smiley therapist in a calm, relaxed environment over a herbal tea would would be beneficial for almost everyone!   More importantly, many therapies possibly play a role in helping people to have a sense of control over difficult and sometimes heart breaking situations as well as providing an additional source of support.

Conventional medicine is fantastic at addressing so many causes and symptoms.  If I have a broken arm, I need to get to a surgeon rather than have my auras read.  If I’ve got a raging bacterial infection, I need a doctor to prescribe antibiotics rather than relying on mega doses of vitamin C.  Feeling blue, tired, weak or in pain, then possibly (and ideally after having been checked out by your doctor) you might be drawn to alternative therapies to see if they can help you feel better.

Sceptics argue that the placebo effect is the only possible explanation of why alternative theories work - ie, because you believe it’s going to make you better it does!  Is this anything wrong with this?  Well yes and no.  If you think it’s going to work and it means that you don’t need to resort to drugs or pills then this might be a good thing.  But, if it also means that you pay a small fortune for your alternative treatment and that it stops you seeking appropriate conventional medical advice when you need it, this is not ideal. 

As an aside, it’s interesting that in France there are many General Practitioners who also practise homeopathy which I do feel is an absolute contradiction in terms.  There is absolutely no evidence base to support homeopathy and of the small trials that have been performed, the results indicate that it is absolutely no more effective than placebo.  So why oh why are some medical doctors promoting it and why are so many pharmacies selling expensive homeopathic products?!  

My personal opinion is that some alternative therapies can be both helpful and useful alongside conventional medicine.  To complement it, rather than replace it. Conventional medicine for the body and complementary therapies for the mind, or something like that! Some therapies however are an absolute load of rubbish (sorry!) and no, I’m not going to list them because I’ve probably already upset enough homeopaths!  I would caution anyone to be careful when selecting alternative practitioners.  Do ask them about their training, qualification, possible side effects (just because it’s ‘natural’ does not mean that it is always ‘safe’) and be highly sceptical of anyone who promises to cure or treat you or tries to sell you expensive products.

The two quotes which are always used by both sides of this debate are:
‘To work, your mind needs to be open like a parachute’ in contrast to ‘Your mind should not be so open that your brains fall out’.  The answer as always lies somewhere in the middle.  In a world which can be cruel, unpredictable and changeable, complementary theories or indeed anything which you feel might comfort, support or make you feel better is always worth exploring alongside of conventional medicine care.

Guardian article link: 

On a lighter note, a nifty recipe which I’ve taken straight from the BBC Good Food Magazine.  It’s a kind of vegetarian goulash - healthy, low in fat and bursting with goodness.  It was perfect at the start of this week when it was rainy and cold.  I served it with cooked spinach and a cucumber and radish raita (chopped red onion, lime juice, chopped radish, chopped cucumber, fresh coriander and black onion seeds).

Squash, Lentil and Bean Goulash
500g peeled and chopped butternut squash
1 sliced onion
1 Tbs olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp chilli flakes ( I used 1 tsp as I like my food spicy)
400g can of chopped tomatoes
2 tsp brown sugar
2 tsp vinegar
400g can rinsed and drained kidney beans
fresh parsley
Fry squash and onion in oil for 5-10 minutes until softened.  Stir in cumin and chilli and cook for a further minute.  Add tomatoes plus 400 ml of water, lentils, sugar and vinegar.  (I also added a vegetable stock cube!).  Bring to simmer and cook for 20 minutes.  Add kidney beans and cook for a further 10 minutes.  Season and add fresh chopped parsley. Enjoy! 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Are the french too obsessed with weight? !

The results of a large study by L'Inserm (Institute national de la santé et de la recherche medicale) looking into the relationship between nutrition, health and diet found that nearly 7 out of 10 women and 1 in 2 men (!) in France wanted to lose weight, even if their BMI was in the normal reference range (19-25).

The study found that some women begin dieting from 10 years of age and that 30% of woman have already tried 5 different diets. A further 9% will have tried at least 10 diets.

On closer analysis of the different diets which were tried, such as high protein and calorie restriction, the research found (and no surprises here!) that the best long term results were achieved by following a varied and balanced diet, watching the portion sizes and avoiding snacks.

The study highlighted that the risk of excessive dieting includes nutrition deficiencies, distorted body image and eating disorders.

France has one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe, along with the Italians and the Swiss.  It is also the first European country to notice its childhood obesity rates levelling off, which is linked to a fantastic initiative dating from 2004 where, amongst other changes, soft drinks and snack machines were removed from over 50% of colleges and lycees.

These initiatives are good ones and it is so important from a public health perspective to provide an environment that encourages people to make healthy food choices and be as physically active as possible.

Yet, as always there is a balance and as an expat living in the ile de france region, I do feel that the French (in general) are overly obsessed with weight.  People here can be very judgemental, direct and quick to pass critical comments on other people’s weight and I have spent some time wondering why!  Is it because being overweight is seen as a loss of control (mon dieu!) or because it is seen as a sign that France is becoming ‘anglicised’ and closer to the relaxed, corrupt English/American style of living (double mon dieu!).

My lovely elderly neighbour was very quick to tell an acquaintance of mine that her teenage daughter was being a bit ‘grosse’.  My equally lovely mother-in-law weighs herself every day without fail and monitors very gram gained or lost with eagle like precision.

Here’s an example:

You go out for a girly night with anglo saxon friends and mention over dinner that you are worried you might have gained a few kilos recently.  These friends will usually rush to tell you that you look lovely/don’t appear to have gained any weight/encourage you to have another glass or wine or dessert.

The same scenario with your french girl friends?  As soon as you mention you might have gained some weight, they will look you up and down checking for wobbly thighs and jelly bellies.  They will then either tell you that you don’t need to worry or that yes, you’ve gained some weight, are getting a bit fat and should stop drinking so much wine and skip the dessert.

The social pressure is on!  It’s also incredibly difficult to find sizes above a 42 (size 14) in most of the clothes shops and asking one of the immaculately dressed, super slender assistants for a larger size is terrifying experience......

With this additional social pressure, does France possibly have a higher percentage of eating disorders?? Statistics show that France has an estimated 1-3% of young women estimated to be anorexic, 5% bulimic and 11% with compulsive eating disorders.  This is not necessarily higher than other countries, but does support the theory that French women may not necessarily have the balanced attitude to food that we might think they have.

There are at least 5 ‘lollipop’ ladies in my village - emaciated, way too skinny and a huge head sitting on a stick like frame, who make me shudder whenever I pass them.  I wonder a) if they really understand just how much damage they are doing to themselves and b) the potential damage they might be doing to their children.  The statistics show that children are more at risk of developing eating disorders if their parents themselves are over preoccupied with their own weight and appearance.

Ultimately (and unfortunately) we are all judged to some extent on our appearance and in France there is a lot of social pressure to be ‘slim’. However, what is more important is developing a healthy attitude to food and nutrition.  Yes, it is unhealthy to  be too overweight, but it is equally unhealthy to be whippet thin and weight obsessed.  Harsh criticism and unkind words are more likely to make the sobbing recipient reach for a comforting slice of ‘tarte aux pommes’! Honesty tempered with gentleness and sensitivity might be more effective. Research demonstrates time and time again that education, support and motivation are the best tools in the battle against obesity.

As always a nifty little recipe and this tuna recipe is taken from the fantastic Ottolenghi cookbook.  I served it with:

Spicy tomato salsa (4-5 large chopped tomatoes, 1 finely chopped red onion, 1/2 fresh chopped and deseeded chili, grated zest and juice of 1 lime, chopped coriander and sea salt)

Green bean, chick pea and feta salad (steam beans till just tender.   Dress with olive oil and raspberry vinegar.  Mix in drained tin of chickpeas and some chopped feta.  Scatter over chopped fresh mint and parsley)

Seared Tuna with pistachio crust

Serves 4

4 tuna steaks
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp dijon mustard
120g shelled pistachio nuts
grated zest of 1 lemon

Heat oven as high as possible.  Brush tuna steaks with olive oil and quickly sear for 30 seconds each side in a frying or griddle pan.  Allow to cool slightly then brush all over generously with mustard.

Put pistachio nuts in a blender and blend until you have a fine breadcrumb like texture.  Add lemon zest and seasoning.

Cover tuna steaks with the nut mixture.

Roast in the oven for 4-5 minutes.  (Timing is variable depending on how you like your tuna, so feel free to reduce/increase cooking time as necessary).


Tuesday, 3 April 2012

It’s official calories do count! The comeback of carbs

I’ve just finished the latest Marion Nestle book ‘ Why Calories Count:  From Science to Politics’ and wanted to cheer when I finished it. She is one of my ‘must read’ authors on food, nutrition and politics and always gives an expertly researched and unbiased account of food and nutrition, delivered without fanfare or pseudo science - just clear, evidence based advice and guidelines (think Nigel Slater of nutrition!).
Is this another nail in the coffin for the low carb diet advocates following on from the recent research linking red meat consumption to increased mortality (  Possibly....
Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim argue that calories (either too few or too many) are the source of the world’s health problems.  The book explains what calories are, how they work and discusses food politics and the different dietary regimes.  Reducing calorie intake regardless of the proportion of fats, carbs and proteins in your diet will result in weight loss.  In the long term, individuals will lose weight regardless of the type of diet they follow as long as overall calories are reduced.  
They also suggest and explain simple and effective ways to manage weight including:
Get Organised
Get Motivated
Monitor your weight
Eat Less
Be aware of calories, but don’t count them excessively
Insist on smaller portions
Keep snacks to a minimum
Eat what you like (in moderation, and if you can’t do this set limits!)
Eat better
Don’t drink your calories (alcohol (!) or fizzy drinks)
Stay out of supermarket centre aisles
Move more
Turn off the TV 
My thoughts?  They are spot on.  While in the short term excluding carbohydrates can give very quick results in terms of weight loss, this is not particularly effective as a long term health strategy.  While it makes complete sense to reduce and avoid huge amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugars, surely whole grains, beans and lentils should be valuable additions to a daily diet.   They are excellent sources of B vitamins, fibre and other nutrients and it just does not make sense to exclude them on a long term basis.  
While the Paleo and Dukkan high protein/high meat diets may work for raging carnivores, surely there has to be a question mark around the quality of the red meat we consume today which bears very little resemblance to the wild, lean and omega 3 rich meat our ancestors hunted.   
As always the key is balance, and a healthy dietary approach is not not complicated.  Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, watch your portion sizes, limit refined carbohydrates, sugary and processed foods.  Move more!!
In celebration of carbs, here is my recipe for Spaghetti Puttanesca
Delicious with nutty wholemeal spaghetti and a grating of parmesan.  The sauce is also lovely with roasted fennel (which make a nice accompaniment to baked fish).  
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and add a chopped chili and 2 cloves of chopped garlic (be careful not to let it burn).  Cook for 1 minute then add 1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, 4 tinned anchovies, 2 tablespoons tomato paste  and let it cook down to a pulpy sauce for 15-20 minutes.  Add 100g of chopped black olives and 2 large tablespoons of drained capers, let it cook for 5 minutes than add plenty of chopped fresh basil.  Season and serve with wholemeal spaghetti.  Enjoy with a glass of good italian red and a green leafy salad! 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Ageing Gracefully.....!

I’m doing some research on nutrition and ageing at the moment which is giving me plenty of ‘food’ for thought.  I don’t think I have a problem with ageing but I am keen to age ‘well’. I have no intention of starting a battle which I’m not going to be able to win, so not planning on any silicon, suction or botox, though I would like to still feel attractive, capable and feminine going into my ripe old age (Audrey Hepburn and Fanny Ardant are my absolute icons).  I saw a 60 year old something the other day in St Germain, dressed in Seven kick flare jeans, a fab Antik Batik top and ethnic necklace, with her gorgeous snow white hair in a razor sharp bob and thought admiringly ‘that’s the way to do it’! 

So what do we mean by ‘ageing well’?  Let’s start with cosmetics.  The skin. Ideally charming wrinkles as opposed to a crocodile skin!  I love seeing laughter and expression lines on people’s faces as an echo to their life experiences.  Isn’t an unlined, smooth, expressionless face on older people curiously unattractive?  The lovely thing about ageing is that it allows your character and personality to come through.  Strong noses, chins etc which might have been the bane of your existence in your youth, can add personality and strength to faces as they age. Equally ‘chocolate box’ prettiness which might have seen you through a charmed childhood and adolescence, can often fade with age.   

The best ways to look after your skin?  Avoid excessive direct sunlight (though we need some to make the all important Vitamin D) which can damage the skin.  A diet rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals (think fruits and vegetables) helps to protect skin cells.  Keep hydrated (water) and avoid excessive alcohol (!) and stress.

The body.  As women hit the menopause, the ovaries stop producing oestrogen and oestrogen levels drop dramatically.  As oestrogen plays a role in fat distribution, this is often is the cause of women becoming ‘barrel shaped’ and beginning to store fat around their stomachs.  Interestingly, women who have higher fat stores going into the menopause tend to have an easier menopause because adipose (fatty) tissue produces oestrogen which helps to buffer the fall in oestrogen production from the ovaries.  Fat cells also help to plump up and smoothen the skin.  However, as always there’s a balance - if we carry too much weight this will put pressure on our cardiovascular systems and our joints.   Ideally we should try and maintain a  healthy body weight - neither too thin (think prune  - like!) or too large.

The brain. The thought of losing my mental function as I age probably scares me more than anything. And, if I had to make a choice, I would rather be a ‘barrel shaped crocodile skinned’ 60 year old with fully functioning mental capabilities than lose any part of my mental function.   Research increasingly links the importance of antioxidants and photochemicals (fruits and vegetables of all colours, as many servings as possible) together with omega 3s  (oily fish, nuts and seeds) in optimising brain function.  Research also links the importance of a strong social network and doing activities which ‘use’ the brain (crosswords etc) as playing a protective role in preserving mental function.

Interested in more anti-ageing tips?  Come and join Janelle and myself at a 'Anti-Ageing' workshop in Villennes on Saturday 31st March from 15h00 - 17h30!

Useful addresses:

Janelle’s fantastic dynamic yoga classes at Villennes and Paris will help keep you flexible and mobile (and her Sun Salutations will work wonders on any bingo wings!)
Pilates Ouest Studio - Outstanding pilates classes in an oasis of calm at St Germain en Laye which helps work on  ‘core strength’ and firm, flat abdominals.

As always a recipe.   

Roasted vegetables with lentils and baked salmon.  
I tend to make lots of the veggies and lentils and have them as a salad the following day with goat or feta cheese.  You can also use leftovers to make a roasted vegetable and lentil soup by simply adding more stock, a slug of sherry, fresh herbs and blending it all up.

Good ‘anti - ageing’ recipe as salmon provides omega 3 while the vegetables are bursting with antioxidants.  Serve as a family meal and encourage lots of talking/interaction around the table (all good for ‘brain function’) or in silence with a mini crossword for each family member to complete! 

Roasted vegetables:

Chop up a selection of vegetables for roasting - fennel, courgettes, aubergine, pepper, sweet potatoes, squash, red onions and mushrooms.  Put in shallow baking tray and pour over a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Roast in hot oven (200 degrees) for about 45 minutes.  

Prepare salmon:

Put salmon filets in baking dish ( 1 per person), season to taste, add fresh herbs, squeeze of lemon juice and bake with veg for the last 20 mins.


Finely chop 1 onion, 2 sticks celery and 1 carrot.  Fry in 1 tablespoon olive oil for 5 mins.  Add 2 cups of brown/puy lentils (wash first) and 4 cups of veg stock.  Add 2 bay leaves and 2 crushed cloves of garlic.  Cover and cook for 40 minutes or so until lentils are tender.  Season.

To serve:

Put lentils in serving dish, add roasted vegetables on top.  Strew over some rocket (roquette)  or serve rocket and avocado salad on the side.  Serve with the salmon.  Enjoy! 

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Dr Dukan's proposals to tackle obesity

This week France has been scandalised by Dr Dukan’s proposals defined in his new book ‘"Lettre ouverte au futur président de la République".  In his book he suggests (as part of a public health policy to tackle obesity) that students in their final 2 years of school receive additional points for their Baccalaureat  if they maintain their weight within a reasonable range.  Mon Dieu! 

I suspect/hope that these remarks might have been taken out of context (and plan to read the book myself) though, I must admit I am not a fan of the Dukan regime.  The regime works (initially) but consuming vast amounts of animal protein is (I feel) unethical, environmentally unfriendly, unhealthy (China study anyone?) and expensive.  As for the oat pancakes (galettes d’avoine) he recommends on his regime and which you can buy for a small fortune in shops, I would rather stick my head in a box and eat the cardboard....

To penalize students for being overweight smacks of discrimination (to penalize anyone for being overweight also smacks of discrimination!). The “BAC’ is oh so important at determining future universities and ‘grandes ecoles’, so gaining/not gaining additional points could actually have an impact on students future careers.  This is also an incredibly stressful time for students who absolutely do not need the additional pressure of a bi annual weigh-in, which could end up by demotivating and upsetting them.  There’s also a question mark in my mind around the use of BMI, as this is not always the best measure of assessing health.

A successful public health policy aimed at tackling obesity, should focus on education, support, inspiration and motivation.  Punishment is never particularly successful in any form.  One of the recent positive moves in primary schools has included increasing the nutrient content of lunches by reducing the salt, sugar and fat content and this is the type of direction that public health policies should follow.

Enjoy your weekend!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

10 Healthy Steps to optimise your health and wellbeing

A quick blog to wish everyone a happy and healthy 2012, and also to outline the 10 easy (?!) steps that you could think about adopting in order to optimise your nutritional health and wellbeing in 2012.  I’m happy to say that some of the steps involve eating ‘more of’!! 
  1. Eat more vegetables and fruit

    While it might be a struggle to get our little cherubs to eat their 5 a day, we have absolutely NO excuse and should be aiming for 7-8 servings a day.  They are bursting with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals and research consistently links fruit and vegetable consumption to improved health and a lower risk of cardiovascular and other diseases.  A portion is 80g/or a palm sized serving, and the aim should be to eat as wide a variety as possible.  Potatoes do not count, in any form, as they as deemed a starchy food!

  2. Eat more unrefined grains

    Try to replace white bread, pasta and rice with wholemeal varieties when you can as unrefined grains contain more nutrients and fibre (which is needed for digestive health and helps to promote satiety - ie it keeps you feeling full longer).  Do also try to experiment with other grains, such as millet (no, it’s not just for birds!) and quinoa.

  3. Eat more omega 3 fats

    There is increasing evidence suggesting that our modern day diet is deficient in these fats which are so incredibly important for our health.  These fats are known for their ‘anti inflammatory’ effect on the body and are also essential for optimising brain function. Omega 3 fats are found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines) nuts and seeds, so try to eat 2 servings a week of oily fish as well as munching on seeds and nuts as a healthy snack.

  4. Limit sugar, refined and processed foods

    Sugary foods are a source of ‘empty’ calories and play havoc with your energy levels.  They are digested quickly and initially flood the bloodstream with sugar, only to then cause crashing ‘lows’ in energy a couple of hours later as the body tries to control its blood sugar levels.  Limit cakes, desserts and biscuits to once or twice a week and try to ‘ home-bake’ when you can, so you can add healthier ingredients such as dried fruit, seeds and wholegrains, rather than buying processed goods.  Try to avoid processed foods which can be high in fat, sugar and salt and when this is not possible, select processed foods which a)  resemble something you could make yourself and b) have a shorter ingredients list such as pizza and ready made pasta sauces!!

  5. Drink more water

    Easy.  Cheap.  So why do we not drink enough of it?!  Next time you think you are hungry, try having a glass of water as we often mistake ‘thirst’ signals for ‘hunger’.  Try to have a glass of water with meals and a glass in between meals and note that is is better to drink small regular glasses of water than to gulp a large volume of water in one go.

  6. Drink less alcohol

    Yes, I know there is the ‘French Paradox’ and yes I know that red wine contains a substance called
    resveratrol, a phytochemical which helps to protect cells from damage and is associated with being cardioprotective.  However, the amount of wine that might actually be beneficial to us is really just a small (50-60 ml) glass a couple of times a week, and not huge quantities that we tend to drink!  Excessive alcohol is linked to a higher risk of diseases such as liver disease and cancer.  Interestingly enough, one of the reasons why alcohol could increase cancer risk is because it depletes the vitamin folic acid ( found in leafy green vegetables for example).  Folic acid helps to prevent damage to cellular DNA. While this does not necessarily mean you can down your bottle of wine accompanied by a large salad, it is another good reason to keep eating your vegetables!  Try to have 2-3 non alcohol days (NADs!) every week and when you do drink limit your consumption to 1-2 drinks a day.

  7. Respect your food

    In a world where there are huge discrepancies in the amount and quality of food available to people, shop carefully, select foods in as natural a state as possible and do not waste food.  If  you have the time and budget, try to select the environmental/humane alternatives.  I’d also add here (and I don’t mean to sound ‘new agey’!) that if an animal has suffered or died in order to be part of your meal, than at the very least you can cook it as well as you can, savour the meal (rather than gulping it down!) and have a silent few seconds where you mentally say ‘thank you’ to the animal on your plate.

  8. Respect yourself in relation to food

    One of the first steps in long term weight management, is making sure that you eat when you are hungry.  So many of us eat when we are stressed, tired, angry or miserable for example and this is a starting point for a bad relationship with food.  Food is neither a 'treat' or a tool for denial, it is there to nourish us.  Food obsessions/or eating problems should be tackled as quickly as possible, because, unlike other addictions, it is impossible to avoid food, and we absolutely have to eat.

  9. Watch your stress levels

    Some stress is good, as it can ‘spur’ us on to achieve incredible things, however constant every day chronic stress (dealing with children, finances and relationships) can drag us down, leaving us exhausted and miserable.  It can be difficult to reduce stress levels, but what we can learn to do is to change the way in which we respond to stress, managing stress through gentle exercise, relaxation time and learning that for some situations we just have to ‘let go’.

  10. Exercise regularly

    A minimum of 3 sessions of at least 30 minutes a week.  Find something you enjoy doing ( I love walking!) and make sure you schedule exercise time into your week.  Try to keep moving - gardening, running around in the garden with the children, dancing in the kitchen etc etc.  For more detail on exercise ideas, you can contact Alison Laborderie at
As always a recipe:

Moules Marnieres a la Charlotte
So easy and so good for you.  Mussels are a good and relatively cheap source of omega 3, zinc, iron selenium and folic acid.  In the spirit of a healthy and lean January, I have not added creme fraiche to the sauce (though you can do!).  Serve with a bowl of brown rice to soak up the juices and a large green salad.

For 4 people
- 4 litres of mussels
- 30 g butter
- 2 shallots
- 1 glass of dry white wine
- 1 glass of fish stock 
- parsley
- salt and pepper

Prepare the mussels:
Clean them in a sink full of water.  Scrape off any ‘beards’ and discard any which are open.

In a large saucepan ( Le Cruset is ideal!), melt the butter and fry the shallots for 5 minutes until golden.  Add wine, stock and mussels and cover and cook for 5-10 minutes until the shells open.  Sprinkle with parsley.
Serve with a 1 very, very small glass of dry white wine!