Eating in: Perfectly balanced

Is it possible to lose weight without denying yourself rice pudding and chocolate mousse? Adam Palmer, chef of Champneys, thinks so. He explains to Michael Bateman how healthy living doesn't mean taking all the fun out of your diet
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The Independent Culture
IT'S AN IRRESISTIBLE proposition. Lose weight while eating as much delicious food as you like. Even more promisingly, the man who made this boast is Adam Palmer, who has worked as the chef of Champneys health resort for the past 11 years.

"Calorie-counting is no longer a regime placed upon our guests," he writes in the introduction to his new book, Champneys Cookbook, a statement so tantalising that I decided to go and have a look for myself.

The name Champneys may well come from the French for field (it sits in 180 Buckinghamshire acres) but it might as well have come from the English word "to champ", as in "to chew by vigorous and noisy action of the jaw", since champing is what several dozen guests were engaged in when I arrived.

Rather surreal they looked too, these residents garbed in Persil-white towelling bathrobes seated alongside a buffet table, champing and chomping on mounds of nourishing staples.

Closer inspection revealed that the food is studiously designed to tease and titillate. Lunch and dinner menus included a wealth of exotic choices: grilled lobster tails with ratatouille; salmon with leek fondue or salmon with sun-dried tomato rosti; piri piri John Dory (searingly hot).

True, soups and starters are light and herby (no cream or butter) but main courses promise the full gastronomic monty: rabbit with Parma ham; fillet of beef with Thai green risotto; Szechuan orange chicken; braised pheasant with redcurrants, shallots and apricots.

The desserts contain no cream yet seem to offer inappropriate self-indulgence; iced pineapple and aniseed mousse; caramelised marsala pears; chilled rice pudding with roasted peaches and even chocolate and Cointreau mousse (surely chocolate and alcohol are forbidden in health farms?).

But if the groaning buffet table gives the impression of gross indulgence, in practice, Adam explains, there are certain restraints. The chocolate mousse is made without cream - just cocoa powder and a tablespoon of Cointreau each. Dishes are coded like traffic lights with red hearts and green apples.

The heart is used as a warning sign and refers to saturated fats which are bad for the heart. Three hearts, representing maximum saturated fat, do not appear often. One heart is OK. Hearts ringed with a black circle symbolise the "good" fats, ie unsaturated oils such as sunflower or olive oil.

Apples have been chosen as a symbol because they are high in fibre, so the more you eat of those foods marked with apples, the more you fill your- self and satisfy your appetite without resorting to fatty foods. So in effect you can feast as much as you like - providing you choose carefully.

Studying the symbols during their stay enables guests to learn the vocabulary of healthy eating. The "grammar" is set out in a novel way on the plates which the clients eat off. They have been divided into three segments, and you are expected to confine food choices within the lines, for example one third protein (meat or pulses), one third fruit and vegetables, and one-third "complex carbohydrates" (high-fibre grains, rice etc).

Reducing saturated fat is the main plank in Champneys' thinking, so no butter or cream is used. "Our diet is based on a balance of low-fat and high fibre foods," says Adam Palmer, "but we say that no one food is bad in itself, as long as it's used in moderation." That even goes for sugar. "Too much sugar will make you fat, but it is a natural product. Use it in moderation. I don't endorse sugar substitutes - some of them have health warnings now."

The same goes for salt. "We need to reduce the amount of salt in our diet but a little is OK. You can make up for lack of flavour with lemon and lime juice, spices and herbs, and fat-free dressings."

Adam Palmer embraced organic food some time ago. "To maintain a reputation for healthy eating I can't offer foods with additives or treated with pesticides. It costs 30 per cent more but it's worth it. And I try to only use food that's in season."

The large kitchen garden produces an abundance of vegetables, salad and herbs, not to mention 100 metres of rhubarb. Sundry flowers are grown to provide blossoms to decorate many of the salads, such as sky-blue borage petals and fire-bright nasturtium blooms. "People think of healthy food as brown and dull," says Adam Palmer. "Good presentation is half the battle."

Proof of the (low-fat) pudding is in the eating, and what better proof than the managing director himself, who has been eating them for three years. A self-proclaimed foodie,Viscount Thurso has lost three-and-a-half stone since starting the job. "Meeting Adam has been a godsend," he says, "I have discovered that with a little knowledge and planning, the best things in life are not only good for you but also delicious."

Champneys Cookbook, Ward Lock pounds 18.99

DUCK WITH GINGER AND BLACKCURRANTS

Serves 4

4 duck breasts (200g/7oz each),

skin and fat removed

100ml/312fl oz dry sherry

2 tablespoons blackcurrant jam

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

3 tablespoons tomato passata

2 tablespoons blackcurrants

4 sprigs thyme, dried out in a cool oven for 10 minutes

Parsnip crisps (optional)

1 large parsnip

Parsnip and mustard puree

500g/1lb 2oz parsnips

1 teaspoon wholegrain mustard

1 tablespoon fromage frais

Honey-roast parsnip chips

500g/1lb 2oz parsnips

1 teaspoon clear honey

1 teaspoon English mustard

Cut duck breasts diagonally into three pieces. Liquidise the sherry, jam, ginger, garlic and passata and pour over the duck. Refrigerate for at least four hours. For parsnip crisps, shave off thin strips with a peeler, place on a baking sheet, spray with sunflower oil and bake in a cool oven until crisp (two to three hours). For the puree, boil parsnips in salted water for 25 minutes. Drain, then blend in food processor with the mustard and fromage frais until smooth. Season to taste and keep warm. Heat the oven to 200C/ 400F/Gas 6. Cut the parsnips into batons, coat with a mixture of honey and mustard and roast for 20 minutes. Strain the marinade from the duck, add half the blackcurrants and boil until reduced by one-third. Sieve, and add remaining black-currants. Cook the duck in a pan over a high heat until cooked pink (about two mins each side). Add blackcurrant sauce and cook for a further minute. Divide the puree between plates, add the chips, the duck and finish with parsnip crisps. Spoon a little sauce around puree.

FRESH HERB SOUP (WITH GREEN AND BROAD BEANS)

Serves 4

750ml/114 pints semi-skimmed milk

2 bay leaves

2 cloves

1 leek (white part only), sliced

2 onions, sliced

2 potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 sticks celery, sliced

2 garlic cloves

1 bunch basil

2 tablespoons low-fat fromage frais

20 green beans, blanched and finely sliced

60 broad beans, blanched and peeled

6 tablespoons very finely chopped chives, chervil and parsley

Put the milk, bay leaves and cloves in a thick-bottomed saucepan and warm over a low heat, without boiling, for about 20 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves and cloves and add the leek, onions, potatoes, celery and garlic. Bring to simmering point, cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until the vegetables are very soft.

Add the basil leaves and liquidise the soup, then pass through a sieve. Whisk in the fromage frais and then stir in the green beans, broad beans and herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. To serve, reheat gently, without boiling.

ICED PRUNE AND ALMOND TERRINE

Serves 10

300g/11oz prunes, stones removed

150ml/6fl oz amaretto liqueur

grated zest and juice of 4 oranges

25g/1oz sugar

100g/312oz whole almonds

600ml/18fl oz low-fat fromage frais

2 vanilla pods

3 egg whites

200g/7oz blackcurrants

25g/1oz caster sugar

whole almonds and candied orange zest to garnish

Soak the prunes in the amaretto, preferably overnight. You must eat the terrine on the day you make it, as it will set too hard if frozen too far in advance. Line a 1 litre (134 pint) terrine or loaf tin with greaseproof paper. In a thick-bottomed pan, boil the orange juice and sugar until caramelised. Remove from heat, stir in almonds and leave to cool. Put the soaked prunes and amaretto, almonds, fromage frais and half the orange zest in a food processor. Scrape in the seeds from the vanilla pods and blend until smooth. Pour into a large bowl. Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form, then fold into the prune mixture. Spoon mixture into the terrine and freeze for at least four hours. For the sauce, boil half the blackcurrants with the remaining orange zest. Add the caster sugar and cook for three to four minutes until the fruit has collapsed to a puree. Sieve, add to remaining blackcurrants and leave to cool. To serve, dip the terrine base into warm water, then turn out on to a board. Slice thickly and drizzle sauce around the outside. Garnish with almonds and candied zest.

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