Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Trouble with....'Clean Eating'

What are your thoughts on 'clean eating'? Perhaps you're one of the thousands of people with a copy of the Deliciously Ella cookbook, maybe you've quit sugar and wholeheartedly embraced a way of life where chia seeds, coconut flour and quinoa are the staples of your kitchen cupboards. Or perhaps you don't really give two figs about clean eating and are getting a tad bored with everyone else that you know evangelising about its benefits every two minutes.

Wherever you stand, one thing I doubt you will be is unfamiliar with a movement which seems to have dominated culinary trends for the past few years. Clean eating - and everything that goes with it (organic food, yoga, mindfulness, etc.) - has become big business, commanding massive marketing budgets that make unawareness of the movement akin to not knowing that Trump is the President Elect. It's a way of living that has captivated millions and spawned the rise of the 'lifestyle blogger', shiny, beautiful people who, via blogs, vlogs and social media, have found a far-reaching - and extremely lucrative - platform to promote this idealistic way of life. Trouble is, after trying it out for myself, it's a lifestyle that just isn't that healthy for your mental health or achievable for about 99% of the population. 

A few years back, I was feeling pretty crappy about myself. I'd turned 40 and instantaneously became ill with a mysterious virus (just like Deliciously Ella, right? Actually the parallels end there...) that manifested itself with strange pains and debilitating headaches. But there appeared to be nothing wrong with me from a physiological point of view. I decided to cut out sugar and, within a few weeks, I started to feel better. Interestingly, the getting better coincided with my finding a fantastic new job and a degree of security entering my life after a long period of unreliable and stressful freelancing. Suddenly the headaches disappeared - "It's the giving up sugar, it worked!" I told myself, absolutely convinced that my diet prior to this had made me feel unwell.

But looking back, I can view the situation with a little more clarity, and see that a few factors were, in fact, at play. Firstly, I hadn't been eating huge amounts of sugar anyway. Yes, I had one teaspoon in my coffee and the odd biscuit but I was not by any means a big consumer of sugar; I was not putting away a Cadbury's Flake with my coffee, or loading up on Krispy Kremes. More generally, my diet was good and I followed the ethos I'd grown up with in my part Italian family: that healthy food is freshly made, colourful, comforting and life-affirming. Cutting down on sugar most certainly has its benefits, and many of us eat much more than we should. But I think a combination of lifestyle factors contribute to wellbeing, and in my case I believe the alleviation of work stress and anxiety through getting a new job was equally as useful in making me feel better as cutting down on sugar was.

So, what I'm saying is that I was generally a fit and healthy person; I was just going through some middle-aged anxieties and suffering from stress when I became poorly. And one of the worst things you can do when you have an anxious mind or are going through life challenges is to fixate on your health...

While there is without doubt some useful advice to be gleaned from the raft of clean living cookbooks out there - we should all probably be eating more veg, eliminating processed foods and being careful with sugar - there are too many flaws in them to be ignored. Firstly, and perhaps most dangerous of all, few of the authors behind these 'bibles' has the academic background to back-up their claims; in short, the books perpetuate myths that aren't cemented in clinically sound, scientifically proven advice....it would be hard not to read most without deciding to eliminate gluten from you diet, for example. Yet there's simply no reason for most of us to do so. 

My own diet - based on a Mediterranean culture of eating home-cooked, fresh food wherever possible - was not unhealthy prior to reading up about clean eating. But after digesting the advice of these purported 'experts' (despite their lack of professional accreditation) I began to closely examine my diet and demonise the things I loved - pasta, bread and builders tea, for example. I spent hours examining labels in the supermarket and even longer agonising about how on earth I was going to get my children to eat quinoa.

I swapped making one family meal for special, 'nutritionally rich' foods for the adults and more palatable options for the kids. I started to spend a small fortune on coconut flour, buckwheat and clean alternatives to sugar. Some were fine and I continue to use them (coconut oil, for example) but there were many more times when I'd spend hours labouring over an expensive recipe to find the results simply inedible. I started to resent the fact that food was becoming an immense cause of stress in our household. 

I also became cross with myself for being drawn into an illusory, glossy take on reality that had virtually no bearing on my everyday life. Seems ridiculous now but those shiny blogs and books do have a habit of making you (a 40-something, normal mum with an average income) compare yourself to a 20-something, long-legged, raw eating advocate with a big book advance and a mum who's part of the Sainsbury's empire. I'm not questioning Ella Woodward's illness, but I can't help but ponder how she just happened to start coming up with raw food recipes during her convalescence, and that her blog just happened to be picked up by a publishing house. I can't help but feel there might have been a bigger plan in place from the outset, mobilised by a privileged background and a fat Rolodex of contacts in the food industry.

Anyway, the point is that - on a practical level - living the clean lifestyle is wholly unachievable for most of us. Sure, you can take some ideas from it and they'll possibly have some benefits for your health, but trying to embrace this way of life wholeheartedly will set most people - normal people with jobs, families, bills to pay - up for a fall. And you may find yourself swapping one type of toxicity for another - it's all well and good being sugar-free but if your mind is a toxic zone weighed down with stress because you accidentally ate some Heinz Tomato soup for lunch then that surely defeats the point.

It's an unfashionable view, but my brief foray into clean living has made me see one thing with clarity - that no foods should be forbidden and that life is really too short to ferment your own sauerkraut. A restrictive, puritanical diet might look good on Instagram but if you can't take joy in food in its many forms, you'll become bored, boring and isolated. By all means find healthy alternatives and explore some aspects of clean living (raw cocoa and homemade granola won't be disappearing from my cupboards any time soon) but follow your own path to wellness.

I've found that while cutting down on sugar has helped me manage my blood sugar, mood swings and skin problems, pasta, red wine and Dairy Milk are, in fact, equally essential for my wellbeing and happiness...

For a more in-depth and excellent read on Clean Eating, read Ruby Tandoh's article 'The Unhealthy Truth Behind Wellness & Clean Eating'.


Sunday, 13 November 2016

Eating Out in Bath: Comptoir Libanais

Bath and Bristol really seem to be having a moment when it comes to exciting new restaurant openings. What with the varied offerings down at Cargo, a boxpark development by the docks in Bristol, and new places popping up in Bath's attractive Southgate shopping quarter, there's a lot of choice for foodies in this neck of the woods. And if you're big on Middle Eastern cuisine there's even more cause of celebration - a new branch of Comptoir Libanais has opened its doors within Bath's Little Southgate Quarter.

Given that I am indeed VERY big on Middle Eastern food (you can read my review of one of my favourite Bristol restaraunts, Soukitchen, here) I was next level excited to get the opportunity to sample its menu last week. When it comes to listing the food I'd want to eat for my last supper on earth, a proper, freshly made houmous and a stack of flatbreads are up there with Spaghetti alle Vongole and salted caramel ice cream. There's something so life-affirming about food from the region - I love its simplicity, colour and exotic combinations. Plus there are the pomegranates - pomegranates just make me happy.

So, being fond of this sort of stuff, I'd already visited a Comptoir Libanais in London some years back - there are several branches in the capital, as well as restaurants in Exeter and Manchester, with a branch opening in Leeds soon. But my last trip to the Marylebone branch was a mere pitstop during a busy dash around the West End, so I was excited about enjoying a more leisurely lunch this time around. 

Firstly, I must seriously big up whoever did the interior design for this place - it's just beautiful. I can see its flooring turning up in countless #ihavethisthingwithfloors posts on Instagram (guilty as charged - yes, I know how irritating those floor 'n' feet posts can be but sometimes the tiling is just too pretty.) On a grey day in November, entering the restaurant was a tonic for the soul, with its kitsch take on the souk aesthetic - think colourful fez hats pinned to walls, shelves adorned with silver tea pots and fretwork panels fitted with jewel-coloured glass.

Vibrant and warm, the surroundings made me feel more like I was drinking mint tea in a sun soaked Levantine square than dining just a stone's throw from a train station in Northern Europe. Any restaurant that has the ability to give you that holiday feeling on a Tuesday lunchtime is doing something right in my book. 

The prices are good, too - a mezze platter starter is £9.50, with individual mezze hovering around the £4, while a filling mixed grill is £13.25, with lots of other mains priced at around the £9 mark. Drinks and desserts are also reasonably priced. 

On to the food, which, like the ambiance, made me and my dining companion feel warm and happy inside. A meal that starts with a freshly poured mint tea always gets things off to a good start. I love the mint tea you get in Morocco, but it can be a little cloying. The tea at Comptoir Libanais hits the right level of sweetness, and I liked it this way - it's nice to sip on a drink safe in the knowledge that a trip to the dentist isn't a very real, imminent possibility. 

We then swiftly moved on to the cocktails - yes, how very indulgent on a Tuesday lunchtime, but when the cocktails involve exotic ingredients such as rose syrup, orange blossom and harissa, they simply have to be sampled. On the recommendation of our informed and friendly waitress, I went for the Rose and Rum Daiquiri, a sort of adult slush puppy and a frozen blend of rum, lemon juice and rose syrup.

It was a very pleasing accompaniment to our mezze starters - a deliciously thick olive oil-topped houmous, a zingy fattoush (enter the pomegranate), marinated chicken wings with a side dip of harissa and some delicious 'Batata Harra', Lebanese spiced fries with red pepper, fresh coriander, garlic & chilli - I found it hard to share these delicious morsels of starchy heaven with my dining companion but I think she was pretty happy with the portion of fresh-out-the-oven pitta breads we ordered to help mop up the houmous.

For mains, we both opted for meats from the grill - a Chicken Kofta for my friend and a Mixed Grill for me. We both enjoyed the interesting side of Vermicelli Rice that comes with all the Kofta and Shish grills. If you're not in a meaty mood, there are some delicious-sounding salads and tagines on offer, featuring the staples of this region's cuisine - aubergine, halloumi and falafel, for example. I'd like to give the Halloumi Cheese & Zaatar Man’ousha a try next time; I mean, how delicious does oven baked flat bread with halloumi cheese, wild thyme and fresh mint sound?

You'd think we couldn't possibly have had room for a dessert after our mezze and mains, but somehow we managed to accommodate a bowl of thick yoghurt, topped with honey and roasted mixed nuts, and a couple of scoops of pomegranate and orange blossom frozen yoghurt. Personally, I like the Middle Eastern approach to desserts - they're either light and refreshing, like the aforementioned yoghurts and milk puddings, or wonderfully rich and indulgent confections, like a buttery baklawa, oozing with nuts and honey. You can get both varieties at Comptoir Libanais, as well as a selection of cakes - I took home an additional treat in the shape of a pretty-as-a-picture rose and pistachio bun - it was divine.

Talking of treats to take away, you can purchase everything from traditional woven baskets to fresh pastries, and colourful tagines to gift-wrapped pistachio-studded nougat, from the on-site store. More general Middle Eastern cooking essentials can also be bought here, allowing you to explore this cuisine in your own kitchen.

There's also a children's menu, a great way to get your little ones accustomed to something a little more adventurous than pizza and chicken nuggets. A take away option is available, too.

So, if you've ever had a longing to eat your own weight in flatbread (or is that just me?!), love the fresh, summer-holiday flavours of the eastern Mediterranean or simply just like the idea of trying something a bit different, this friendly, vibrant canteen won't disappoint. Despite being only recently opened, service was swift, calm and efficient, with happy and informed staff who seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the Comptoir Libanais ethos. If you're feeling that mid-autumn 'meh-ness' creeping in, I can't think of a better place to while away a lunchtime...now, where did I put those flatbreads? 

With many thanks to Comptoir Libanais Bath and Roche Communications, who kindly offered me a complimentary lunch. I have not been paid for writing this post and all opinions are my own.


Monday, 7 November 2016

A Weekend in Cambridge

In a bid to sometimes look a little closer to home for travel inspiration, I've been ticking off lots of locations in the UK on my travel bucket list. Cambridge has been languishing on the list for a while, but being somewhat awkward to get to from Bristol, it kind of got shunted down the list in favour of other, more accessible places to visit on a weekend. But we finally committed to the four hour drive and booked a break in the city for half term, spurred on by the temptation of a visit to the mythical Gloucester Services en route and the romantic notion of punting on the river Cam in the autumn sunshine.

There's a lot to be said for hauling your tired ass out of bed early on a Saturday to get a head start on the traffic and choosing your route carefully; we were on the road by 8am and opted for a traverse through the Midlands and down the other side which worked out pretty well. After a breakfast pit-stop at the aforementioned services - seriously, you HAVE to visit this place; it really is very special - we pulled up at our hotel just in time for lunch.

When it comes to budget friendly, totally adequate accommodation for a short break, I don't think you can fault a Premier Inn or Travelodge. Yes, the quality can vary and we've stayed at good ones and not so great ones over the years but when you get a good 'un they can't really be beaten for providing spacious, comfortable and convenient city break accommodation.

We stayed at the Cambridge Leisure Park hotel, located within a pleasant complex comprising shops, chain restaurants, a cinema and the Cambridge Junction music venue - I'll admit that I had a middle aged moment on realising our hotel's proximity to said establishment, but we didn't hear any noisy disturbances during our stay. But it's worth bearing in mind that due to the central location of many Travelodge/Premier Inn sites, noise can be a factor - we found this particularly true of the Travelodge in Windsor; great location but there is definitely a 'noisy' side. It's always worth requesting a quiet room when you book. 

Located about 15 minutes walk from the centre of town and with parking available across the road at discounted rates, we were able to offload our luggage and hot foot it into town with ease; there's also a frequent bus service that stops outside the hotel, taking in the train station before dropping you off in the heart of the city. 

Compact and easy to get around, we started our exploration with a wander through some of the main colleges, soaking up the inimitable vibe of this historic university town. You can certainly feel the weight of all the big brains that have found a home in the town's beautiful and atmospheric colleges. I have to say I was harbouring a hope that being immersed in academia for the weekend might up my IQ level by some form of osmosis, but I came away feeling like I really should read all those classic books I've been meaning to read one day, and finally get someone to explain the theory of relativity to me.

You can wander into many of the colleges free of charge, but be aware that on graduation days not all of the colleges are open to the public. We took a stroll through several, including Christ's, Emmanuel, Magdalene and Queen's. Some of the bigger ones, such as Trinity and Corpus Christi, charge entrance fees, plus you'll have to pay to take a look around King's College Chapel.

We also enjoyed just following our nose a bit, stumbling upon pretty Georgian terraces and picturesque squares. The area around Bridge Street makes for a pleasant wander, and we enjoyed admiring the quirky buildings around the Backs. 

No one goes to Cambridge without taking to the water at some point during their visit, but be prepared to shell out a few quid to experience the institution that is punting. We were quite shocked by the price for a 45 minute escorted tour along the river - yes, you do get to hear the history of the colleges as you glide by and you don't run the very real risk of falling in the water as you do if you're the one punting, but the price for a family of four was prohibitive for us. 

So, deftly handing the mantle of punt operator to the other half, we took on the challenge of an hour's self-guided voyage up the river. It was half the price of a tour and hugely enjoyable (well, I enjoyed it, reclining in the boat, taking in the glorious scenery; the other half's experience was perhaps not quite so relaxing.)

It's the quintessential Cambridge experience and a lovely thing to do in the sunshine, taking in highlights such as the stunning King's College, Wren Library and Bridge of Sighs...not to be missed.

Cambridge has great shops too, but we didn't really explore that side of the city, save for visits to some of the city's bookshops - don't miss Heffers if you like nothing better than spending an afternoon inhaling that lovely new book smell and generally gazing at floor to ceiling book shelves. Heffers has that particularly special vibe you get at independent-style book stores and also sells some wonderful gifts, games and other nice stuff.

As you'd expect from a university town, there are myriad options when it comes to eating out. Keeping to our budget requirements, we had brought our handy Tesco Clubcard tokens to give us two free meals out during out stay, so we were confined to the perfectly satisfactory but rather pedestrian options of Pizza Express and Cafe Rouge. You'll find all the other big restaurant chains too, as well as plenty of cute cafes and the must-visit Fitzbillies, a Cambridge institution with queues out the door and legendary Chelsea buns - we took a box away to enjoy on our drive home.

So, that's Cambridge, Hay on Wye, Harrogate and Edinburgh crossed off the UK bucket list now...but where to next? I'd love to hear your suggestions for must-see places to visit in the UK - feel free to leave me a recommendation in the comments box. 

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