May 30, 2014
If ever I were to be invited on Mastermind (unlikely, I know) my specialist subject would be ‘leading cake shops of the world’.
From the kings of French patisserie, Pierre Hermes and Christophe Michalak – world champion pastry chef and resident cake king at the Plaza Athenée – to the 'red velvet' cake at the Magnolia Bakery in New York, over the years I’ve done more research into the subject than is strictly required in my line of work.
But there is one pastry shop that had, until a couple of weeks ago, slipped below my radar: Pasticceria Marchesi.
I don’t know how, despite many visits to Milan for the fashion shows, I’d failed to notice this elegant, 19th-century pastry shop on Corso Magenta.
But just before going to Milan for a work meeting, I discovered that the Italian fashion label Prada had bought an 80 per cent slice of Marchesi.
Since Miuccia Prada was always my favourite designer when I worked in fashion, I figured that any pastries with the Prada stamp of approval had to be pretty good.
And so I made a special trip to Corso Magenta to investigate 'the Prada patisserie'.
And what can I say, other than that these colourful cakes, almond biscuits [left] and pastries are the last word in gateaux fabulous.
Marchesi is also said to do a marvelous panettone and the best cappuccino in Milan.
But It is the mini-pastries (€1 a piece) that are the star of the show – the bite-sized choux buns filled with zablagione and a little kick of alcohol particularly so.
And as might be expected of anything with which Prada is associated, the packaging [left] is super-elegant. The little pastries are placed on a tray, wrapped in white paper and ribbons and handed to you in a stiff white carrier bag.
Just last year the Prada Group lost out to LVMH, owners of Luis Vutton, on the purchase of another luxe patisserie in Milan – Cova café on Via Montenapoleone.
Cake, in fashionable circles, is a hot commodity.
The message from top fashion labels is: Let them eat panetone! And choux buns! And mini-meringues!
A Marchesi café has just opened in Harrods, London and it can only be a matter of time before Marchesi cake shops are rolled out around the world.
So forget macaroons from Ladurée. A beautifully wrapped package of Prada cakes or a pink box of Marchesi chocolates [shown left] will soon be the most desirable thing to take to a dinner party.
In the meantime, if you want to know the secret of eating cake without turning into an obesity statistic, I’ve written a book on the subject: The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eake Cake and Still Lose Weight. You can see the Amazon reviews here.
Marchesi Angelo, Via S. Maria alla Porta, 20123 Milan.
May 27, 2014
I can't believe that it is two years since Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in France was published. It seems like another lifetime ago.
In it's first year Tout Soul sold 3183 print and 3460 ebook copies – a total of 6643.
In its second year – sales from 31st March 2013 to 31st March 2014 – it has sold 682 print copies and 990 ebook copies, a total of 1672 copies.
The figure is down on last year partly because book sales tend to tail off after the first year; but also because a certain e-retailer increased the price of the print book (and it's profit margin) by £4 from £6.49 to £10.49, which noticeably depressed sales.
I can't do anything about that, but the good news is that the lack of on-line discount means that many people have bought Tout Soul from bookshops instead. Hurrah!
At a donation of 50p for each and every (English language) version sold, this means that £836 has been raised in the second year of publication; to which I'm also adding 25 per cent of the £1887 advance on royalties from my Polish publisher, bringing the total of this year's donation to £1308.
Rather than splitting this between two charities, this year I have decided to give the full amount to the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at King's College, London, which carries out pioneering academic research into stem cell therapies for repairing damaged brains.
I've made this decision because King's has sent me regular updates on its work, so that I have an idea of progress that is being made and how the money is being spent.
The research team works closely with King's College hospital, which is one of only four major trauma centres in the UK, dealing on a daily basis with patients who have sustained life-changing spinal and brain trauma injuries.
Together with the £3322 donated last year, the total amount raised for brain research via sales of Tout Soul so far is £4630.
I'd like to thank my readers for making this possible.
And I'd also like to thank Waterstone's and its wonderful staff, in particular certain booksellers in the Kensington High Street and Lancaster branches (you know who you are!) for all they have done for my books, in particular the wonderful handwritten recommendations, which are like a sprinkling of fairy dust for a book.
I'll post the letter of acknowledgement from King's – and a little update on their latest advances in brain injury research – here in due course.
February 2, 2014
A quick note to say that I will be giving a talk at the Entente Internationale du Pays Civraisin at Les Terres Rouge, Civray (on the road to Ruffec) this Thursday at 8 pm, on the health benefits of the 18th-century French diet and the slimming secrets of Marie Antoinette (including the recipe for her magical soup).
I'll also be signing book afterwards, if there is anyone left in the Poitou who doesn't already own a signed copy of one of my books.
Members and non members welcome, as I think, you can join the Entente on the night.
Photograph by Chris Tubbs.
A large banner outside the local Intermarché declares a ‘pigs’ hearts promotion’.
Inside, between the soft drinks and the pet food aisle, a large fridge is bursting with them: dark, bloody and quivering, like they’ve just been plucked from a porcine chest cavity.
For a vegetarian, which fortunately I’m not, the pre-packed meat section of my local French supermarket is a veritable cornucopia of horrors.
Displayed in the chill cabinets you can find everything from whole cow tongues – disturbingly enormous coils of flesh – to lambs’ kidneys, pigs’ trotters and assorted brains, feet and cheeks.
Even the unashamedly carnivorous might find themselves having to avert their eyes and march quickly past the piles of coiled organs.
There are items in a French supermarket that you won’t find in Walmart or Waitrose.
While UK supermarkets offer a carefully edited selection of chicken breasts, steaks and other prime cuts of carcass meat, here in France it is organs-a-go-go – every bit of a beast from its cheeks to its feet.
Recently, I stood behind a woman in the checkout queue, who was buying a pair of cow hooves, pre-packed on a polystyrene tray.
When I asked what she was planning to do with them, she replied, tout simplement, ‘Make soup’.
Offal may have fallen out of favour in the western diet but in rural France, it is still very much on the menu.
After an unexpected encounter with tete de veau (veal’s head) shortly after my arrival in France – it was the only dish available in the rural restaurant that I’d been taken to by a local mayor – there are few things on a French menu that can shock me.
Since that memorable day – ‘Eat it before it goes cold and the brain turns to jelly,’ warned my friend – I’ve encountered such delicacies as a bovine thyroid, an ox tail, pig trotters, cheeks and ears on restaurant menus.
The French even have a saying: tout est bon dans le cochon, or ‘everything is good in the pig’.
Even the lard is sold off in big chunks in the supermarket. Nothing, apart from the nails, goes to waste.
Offal, as my French neighbours know, is not only an economical source of protein, it also contains more nutritional bounty than prime cuts of carcass meat.
While researching 18th-century cuisine for my latest book, based on the eating habits of Marie Antoinette, I discovered that in 18th-century France, organ meat was highly prized.
The bits of the animal that are now thrown away meanwhile, where considered delicacies. Calves’ hooves with whipped cream. Stuffed lamb’s testicles. Gratin of stuffed cow eyeballs. I could go on, but I won’t, in case you are reading this over breakfast.
But it’s one thing to eat offal in a restaurant; a whole new rung on the ladder of French rustification to take livers, kidneys or hearts home and cook them yourself.
Unpacking a tub of chicken livers recently to make my own chicken liver paté, I realized that I’d really gone native as far as the cuisine is concerned.
Boiling up bones for several hours to make my own stock or bouillon – something I would no more have attempted when I lived in London than open heart surgery – is another habit that I’ve picked up since moving to France, where no part of the animal goes to waste.
It’s all so eighteenth-century.
But this it seems is very of-the-moment.
A recent edition of US Vogue ran a three-page feature on the art of making the perfect bouillon. The writer even went to Las Vegas to consult the French chef Alain Ducasse in his new(ish) restaurant there, on the precise ingredients that go into the perfect stock.
It is a sign that the old culinary ways are suddenly fashionable again.
It helps if you have a lot of time on your hands, but if you live in the French countryside, you probably do.
But there seems to be a growing recognition in the wider world, that when it comes to cuisine, the old French ways are the best – that old-fashioned, slow-cooked food is better for your health and your hips than the fast, microwaved, additive-packed kind.
I haven't tried hoof soup, but the spring vegetable soup photographed above features chicken bone stock as its base. Pepped up with mint and basil, it is one of many delicious soup recipes in my new book, The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight.
January 12, 2014
So my little diet book, The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight, is now available as a paperback, expanded with new recipes.
The reason that I took a year-long detour to research and write this book – which is not just about weight loss but eating for better health – is that the subject matter is something I feel very passionately about.
Modern food production has become something of a dark art, with manufacturers using cheap and questionable ingredients in order to cut down their production costs.
One of the controversial ingredients that I flagged up when The Marie Antoinette Diet was launched as an e-book in June last year, was high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or glucose-fructose syrup.
It's increasingly difficult to find a manufactured food or drink product that isn't pumped full of this cheap sugary gloop, which has been linked with dangerous weight gain in rats.
In one experiment, at Princeton University in 2010, rats that were fed high-fructose corn syrup, gained fat 300 per cent more quickly than those fed an equal dose of table sugar or sucrose.
To put it bluntly: once you start eating something containing this syrup, it's difficult to stop.
Yet, you'll find this ingredient in everything from confectionery to ketchup, pizzas to breakfast cereals.
So I am delighted to see that sugar, and in particular HFCS, has suddenly become a hot news topic.
What I'm not so sure about is the rush to suggest that sugar should be eradicated from the diet completely, as suggested by a number of books that have just been published on the subject.
The alternative view – and the one that I subscribe to – is that not only is this unrealistic for most people, but also that sugar per se is not the problem.
It has, after all, been around for over two centuries without causing the tsunami of obesity and health problems that are now being attributed to it.
Rather it is the quantity that we are eating, and the aforementioned HFCS, that are cause for concern.
Sugar is now routinely shovelled into foods that just don't need it – including, as I recently discovered, organic stock cubes, canned tomatoes and tinned crabmeat.
Yes, we definitely should be eating less of it, not least because it contains lots of calories and it's not great for your teeth. But banning it completely?
Good luck to those who are prepared to try, but for most of us, this is just not do-able as a long-term strategy – not least because life without sugar would be so joyless.
Never baking a cake again? No chocolate or wine? No almond croissant with your coffee in the morning. Once again, good luck with that.
The better strategy in my view, is to have it in moderation and in a way that causes least harm. (For example, one of the worst things you can do is drink your sugar, either by adding it to tea or coffee, or as a fruit juice or worse, carbonated drink.)
Despite its frivolous title, The Marie Antoinette Diet draws together a lot of nutritional science and research in, what I hope, is a readable way.
It also contains some delicious recipes for soups and cakes, for my argument is that, if you are going to eat cake, you should:
a) bake it yourself as that way you will know what is in it;
b) make it count nutritionally, rather than just scarfing empty, additive-packed calories.
But should you be eating cake at all if you want to lose weight?
As registered dietician and nutritionist Dr Mabel Blades, who acted as the consultant for The Marie Antoinette Diet says: 'One of the reasons why diets fail is that people start to feel deprived and the biscuit tin starts to sing even more loudly.'
'Allowing a small portion [50-75g] of deliciousness each day, will help to keep people on their diet.'
Mabel has more to say on the subject of sugar, on her own blog.
For this reason, my book contains recipes for lovely, homemade cakes, along with delicious soups; and lots of advice on the benefits of old-fashioned foods and cooking methods.
In the meantime – and apologies if I'm preaching to the converted – if you care about your health, scrutinize labels and do not buy anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, glucose-fructose syrup or high-fructose corn syrup.
As Mabel says, 'everything in balance'.
And now I'm going to climb down off my soap box and get on with Tout 4, aka (appropriately) Sweet Encore.
October 3, 2013
WOOFS. Ever since a little doglet of our acquaintance went to the vet’s on the journey-of-no-return, my (human) pet has been super-nice to me, saying things, like ‘Biff, you’re the best dog in the world’ and ‘I’m so lucky to have you’.
I haven’t exploited this (much) as I know that there are lots of dogs out there who aren’t so lucky and who are languishing in rescue homes, waiting for a human to love them.
Some are even thrown onto the streets – something which, sadly, happens a lot in France when their owners decide to move back to the UK without them.
The Hope Association is a charity which helps animals who've fallen on hard times.
On the 18,19 and 20th October, 10–4.00 pm, it will be holding its autumn book sale at the salle des fetes in Clussais La Pommeraie, 79190 (on the D45 between Sauzé-Vaussais and Lezay.)
There will be thousands of books, both French and English, for €1 as well as homemade cakes and other delicious things, and a jumble sale.
The last sale raised over €8,000, so if you live in the Poitou, please do come along and support it.
If you have books to donate, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have clothes to donate, please email: email@example.com
August 8, 2013
Charlotte and Glyn have asked me to post a reminder for those living in the Poitou: this weekend (Friday August 9 and Saturday 10th) is The Mad Hatter's annual music festival with a great line up of bands. It starts at 4.30 pm Friday. You can pitch your tent and stay for two nights or book in for the evening feast and music on Friday or Saturday night. More information on their new website www.madhattersfrance.eu.
July 27, 2013
WOOFS everyone and happy summer Saturday morning!
Last night was very dramatic here in the Poitou: loud bangs, shutters rattling (along with my teeth) and big bolts of blue in the sky. I was, as one of our French friend says, 'very perturbated'.
But as you can see, I'm back blogging this morning. Or maybe I should call it 'dogging'? (KW: No, you definitely shouldn't.)
In addition to asking for more of me, many readers over the past few years have asked for pictures of the house where I live, but my human never got round to doing it.
(Honestly, if you want something doing, ask a doglet! There is a reason why we are considered reliable.)
So I thought I would start off with a picture of le petit jardin.
Last summer it looked like this:
A man came to knock down the building in the right hand corner and remove a flower bed.
When he had finished, he asked my human, 'Have you thought of having the wall repointed?'
She hadn't, mainly because she didn't know what 'repointing' meant. (Even I know that it means cleaning up the stones, chipping away the old cement and replacing it with a new sandy filling.)
I really enjoyed rolling around in the rubble and having more space to play in.
Unfortunately, as you can see from the top picture, the situation did not last.
I now have to share my space with some very tall flowers (although I'm sure they won't last) and all the clutter that humans bring.
July 15, 2013
And this is my summer, apres-swim look!
July 13, 2013
WOOFS AND BARKS. While my human is distracted (see below) I have decided that I will be responsible for updating this blog.
I think it could be a marvellous opportunity to show you some of my favourite pictures....of ME!
Now, if only I could find the password to her Witter account.