How delicious does this sound? A creamy avocado dip with crunchy crudités to start, then Nobu-style tempura with a rich, salty sauce, followed by wild mushroom risotto served with roasted fennel and spinach. For dessert: dark chocolate mousse with a sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts. Are you licking your lips yet? Mouth-watering it may be, but I'd bet two raw carrots it didn't cross your mind that it was "macrobiotic".
Macrobiotic food has an image problem. If, like me, the first thing that pops into your head is Gwyneth Paltrow munching her way through a bean salad in the nude (apparently to stop herself from eating too much) you'll understand why. Even a beautiful, blonde – naked – Hollywood actress can't make rice and lentils sexy.
Admittedly she isn't the most exciting beautiful, blonde Hollywood actress around. She and the equally wholesome Chris Martin have, occasionally, been tagged "boring" themselves. But now even Gwynnie, it seems, is bored with macrobiotics. On her (yawn) lifestyle website goop.com she admits (are you sitting down?) that she's been dabbling with dairy. It turns out she has a weakness for cheese. Bring on the Brie!
Madonna is another famous fan, and once upon a time her endorsement would have spelt immediate sex appeal-by-proxy for macrobiotics; but now she's all scary six-pack, biceps and Kabbalah.
The name doesn't help: macrobiotic. It sounds clinical and scientific. The thought of food should make your tastebuds tingle, not conjure up images of a shiny laboratory. And then there's the food itself: whole-grain brown rice, vegetables, seaweed, fermented soy products, fruit, fish, nuts and seeds. Mmmm... Off-limits are things such as red meat, dairy, caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Or, to put it simply, no more melt-in-the-mouth fillet steaks, smoky Pinot Noir or creamy cappuccinos.
The word comes from the Greek: macro means big or long, and bios life. It was first coined by Hippocrates to describe a group of people living long, healthy lives. A long life spent nibbling on a piece of tofu doesn't seem that appealing, however. So can anyone do what a Hollywood actress and international pop star failed to do between them and make macrobiotic cuisine exciting – and convince the world that it's a gastronomic, as well as healthy, option?
Marie Butler is a glamorous Swede who ran a string of restaurants in London, Italy and her native Sweden, but gave it all up to open a wellness retreat in a bucolic corner of south-west Scotland with her British property developer husband, Ray. And she aims to do just that with a new cookbook and a series of food and lifestyle courses.
A quick trawl through Amazon before setting off for the wilds of Galloway to meet her reveals that there are a handful of macrobiotic tomes out there such as Macrobiotics for Dummies by Verne Verona (sounds like the one I need), but nothing that drawls "buy me" in a velvety, Nigella, blowsy-bosomed temptress kind of way.
Crawling along the sweeping driveway lined with century-old gnarled trees and giant rhododendrons, I pull up outside granite-turreted Penninghame House. A grand Scottish estate, it's surrounded by rolling hills, a river (stocked with salmon) runs through it, and the windswept coast is just a pebble's throw away.
Marie opens the door; petite, pretty and blonde in black jodhpurs, knee-high boots, and with the obligatory country-house black Labrador, Broccoli, by her side. She ushers me through the wood- panelled hall to the drawing room and we collapse in front of a roaring fire.
The couple moved up here from London 10 years ago to run self-development courses. "But food," Marie tells me as we sip a cup of bancha twig tea (surprisingly delicious) and nibble on chestnut balls dusted with cocoa (macrobiotic chocolates! – things are looking up) "always follows me."
Marie turned to macrobiotic cuisine to try to cure her eczema. It worked, she says, and she's been clear now for 20 years. The health benefits of a macrobiotic lifestyle have been well documented – there are even claims that it can cure cancer. The actor Dirk Benedict (remember The A Team?) wrote a book, Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, about how macrobiotics helped him beat prostate cancer.
But it's macrobiotics' gourmet credentials I'm here to explore. Maybe, I'm starting to think, it just needs a Trinny and Susannah-style makeover. We're constantly bombarded with information about which foods we're supposed to eat and which to avoid, but to become more mainstream macrobiotic food has got to look – and taste – moreish. A fact that hasn't escaped Marie.
"Everyone who came to Penninghame raved about the food, which is why we decided to add a series of courses that run throughout the year," she explains. Each day there is a mix of lectures (in which you learn about the effects of different foods on the body), home-remedy sessions and cookery classes – creating new recipes as well as learning how to make your favourite recipes healthier – with Penninghame's chef, Angela Agrati-Prange.
Angela is Italian. With a mass of red curls and gorgeous figure she is a great advert for a macrobiotic lifestyle. She started out in a pizzeria when she was just 17, but became interested in macrobiotics so travelled to the US to study with Japanese chefs there. She spent the next 20 years training macrobiotic chefs in Europe, and working at the Macrobiotic Study Centre in Berlin, before opening her own wholefood restaurant back home in Italy.
In Penninghame's shiny kitchen she shows me how to make a handful of dishes, including cream of cauliflower soup and poached pears with a creamy hazelnut sauce. "I want to show you that you can create something creamy without dairy. The soup is white, so you immediately think of cream, and you can spice it up with warming nutmeg and cardamon. Macrobiotic food is not a punishment. The name can be a hindrance. It's just good food prepared well."
"Friends would come round to dinner and not even realise that the food they were eating was macrobiotic," Marie laughs later as we sit down to a cosy candlelit supper in their apartment in the house – less stately home, more Scandinavian chic.
The ginger and vegetable miso broth is delicious. "It's also rich in minerals and good for the digestion," Marie adds. "The shitake mushrooms break down fats in the body close to your organs, as do the spring onions." Every dish has a purpose.
The tofu tempura with a spicy shoyu sauce reminds Marie of one of her favourite restaurants, Nobu. The tempura is made the Japanese way, with very finely ground white-rice flour and cold sparkling water, and is fried in a compressed sunflower oil to make it much lighter than a traditional tempura batter.
Another macrobiotic-but-you-wouldn't-know-it favourite? "Millet salad with watercress and walnuts is delicious, with a hint of orange and the crunch of toasted walnuts (much lighter, more nutritious and not only easier to digest than a white pasta or white-rice salad but the millet actually has a calming effect on the stomach)."
And how about tips for party food? "Try lightly spiced mixed vegetable fritters with a coriander dipping sauce. There's a high ratio of vegetables to batter and the batter itself is made with wholemeal flour, making them a healthy option. Pan-frying the fritters also means that they absorb very little of the olive oil. The coriander dipping sauce helps to break down the fat in the fritters and adds additional nutrients."
For our main course we have a pumpkin and wild mushroom risotto which is melt-in-the-mouth. But it's when the desserts arrive that the biggest surprise comes.
First we try a cheesecake which has a wheat-free granola base and a silken tofu topping. The tofu is blended and flavoured with vanilla. The mini chocolate pot is orgasmic. You can make delicious lemon or raspberry pots in the same way. "They taste as naughty as desserts full of double cream and eggs but are actually made with rice milk and sweetened with agave or maple syrup," Marie explains.
So am I now convinced? Yes – and full, too. Modern macrobiotic cuisine turns out to be more Carluccio's than Cranks. I'll be buying the book when it comes out. But until then I have a few new recipes to keep me going. And one parting shot from Marie before I stagger off to bed: "If you only do one thing, add miso soup to your diet. It's the new super-food."
Penninghame Foundation (01671 401414; www.penninghame.org)
Pure indulgence: Go macrobiotic with style
600ml soya milk (or 300ml rice milk and 300ml soya milk)
Pinch of salt
1 heaped tablespoon agar flakes
3 heaped tablespoons cocoa powder
1 heaped tablespoon arrowroot (or cornflour or kuzu)
2 teaspoons hazelnut butter (optional)
70ml agave syrup
cup crushed roasted hazelnuts (optional)
Put the cocoa powder into a bowl and mix with some of the soya milk to make a smooth paste. Heat the remaining milk in a pan with a pinch of salt, sprinkling in the agar flakes before it reaches boiling point. Simmer for 3-4 minutes or until all the flakes have dissolved, then add the cocoa paste and simmer for a further 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly.
Make another paste – this time with the arrowroot and a tablespoon of water – and add this to the pan, stirring constantly. Add the agave syrup and hazelnut butter as you stir. Remove from the heat, transfer to a flat dish and leave to cool for 1-2 hours. Once set, blend in a food processor until smooth and creamy, adding more agave syrup if needed. Serve topped with crushed, roasted hazelnut.
250g cooked and peeled chestnuts
100g roasted and finely chopped hazelnuts
Pinch of salt
2-3 tablespoons agave syrup
1 tablespoon hazelnut butter
teaspoon of natural vanilla essence
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
Blend the hazelnuts until very fine in a blender. Add the chestnuts and blend together until they start to combine into a paste. Add 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder,
1 tablespoon hazelnut butter and a pinch of salt and mix in. Gradually add 2-3 tablespoons of agave syrup and the vanilla essence, adjusting to taste. Fill a bowl of cold water and wet your hands. Take a small amount of the paste and roll into a walnut-sized ball.
Pour the remaining cocoa powder onto a plate. Roll the small balls in the cocoa until they are completely covered. Leave to set for a couple of hours before serving.
Avocado Cream (for dips)
2 ripe avocados
Juice of one lemon
teaspoon umeboshi paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Peel and slice the avocado. Put all ingredients in a jug and blend to a cream with the hand-mixer. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with oatcakes or crudités.
Tofu Tempura with a spicy Shoyu sauce
3 thick slices of natural or smoked tofu
2 tablespoons Shoyu sauce
Juice of 2 limes
2-3 tablespoons Shoyu Sauce
1 teaspoon maple syrup
2 tablespoons fresh ginger juice
Cold-pressed deodorised sunflower oil for deep-frying
200g rice flower
500ml cold sparkling water
Long cocktail stick
Put the flour in a metal bowl and whisk the water into the flour until you have a runny mixture. Leave it in the fridge to stay cold.
Marinade the tofu by sprinkling the Shoyu over the top of it. Set aside for at least 30 minutes, turning the slices at least once during this time. In a bowl, mix the lime juice with the Shoyu and maple syrup. If the mixture is too salty add some more lime juice or a little water. The sauce should be tangy to taste. Take a small saucepan and half fill with the sunflower oil. Heat oil until a drop of batter immediately rises to the surface but doesn't burn.
Cut the tofu into lengths 1cm thick. Insert a long cocktail stick carefully into the end of the strip leaving sufficient sticking out to hold. Dip the tofu stick into the batter and transfer it to the saucepan, leaving the stick sticking out of the oil. Deep fry until golden brown.
Set the tempura onto kitchen paper to drain excess fat. Pour the sauce into four martini glasses and arrange two pieces of tofu on top.