6 years old and fat!

The Times 23 February 2012

There’s been a panic at our primary school: somebody has been putting the F word about. And so the girls — just 6 and 7 — have been asking us if we think they’re fat. Some have refused to eat sausages on health grounds.

Who can have started it, we’re wondering? A mum moaning about her new year diet? Some lunatic show on CBBC? Or is this a by-product of the education system’s daft dithering over how to teach a healthy diet? The inquest is ongoing. Needless to say, none of the children worrying is fat.

There are a few in the school who look a bit chubby, but what do you expect? This is an inner-city primary: if you believe the statistics, a third of children leave them unhealthily overweight, 25 per cent of them technically obese.

Worrying about our children being fat, or that they’re worrying about being fat, is the head-clutching parental paradox of our times. I’m amazed that more of our kids aren’t obese. They eat an unbelievable amount of sugar, three times as much as their grandparents did. It sneaks in everywhere, because it is the cheapest way to make manufactured food addictive.

And added sugar is becoming unavoidable. It’s in things that you wouldn’t expect. On Shrove Tuesday we tested some pre-cooked frozen pancakes: “You’ll prefer them to home-made”, the company said. We didn’t, of course, though my 7-year-old daughter said she would eat them if stuck, pancake-less, on a desert island.

I had a look at the ingredients — each of Aunt Bessie’s Perfect Pancakes, made from “the simplest ingredients”, had half a teaspoon of sugar in it. Why?

No home pancake recipe puts sugar in the mix. Aunt Bessie’s adds the sugar to capture the kids. Grand old corporations such as Kellogg’s have been peddling excessive sugar to our children for decades. Frosties, Honey Cheerios (from Nestlé) and Coco Pops have three to four teaspoons of sugar in one small serving.

Last time I wrote about this, the Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers informed me that “no proven link” had ever been found between sugar consumption and obesity. But there is an interesting link between cereal manufacturers under pressure over sugar content and empty promises. Kellogg’s made a lot of noise 18 months ago with a promise to lower the sugar content of Coco Pops by 15 per cent. They haven’t — they are still 35 per cent sugar. The reduced-sugar Frosties the company trumpeted a few years back have disappeared from the shelves.

Of course, a parent like me wouldn’t let their children eat such things. Instead we’ll dish up healthy, middle-class stuff: fruit yoghurt (20g of sugar), a glass of orange or apple juice (17g), a fruit smoothie (30g), and a low-fat snack bar (as much as 20g). Add a sweet biscuit or a banana and the child will have eaten more than an adult woman’s guideline daily amount of sugar. You’d have thought all of this is obvious. But people are shockingly ignorant about sugar.

We think, for a start, that “natural” or fruit sugar is better. But fructose may be more fattening than glucose. And we’ve been seduced by “five a day” as a cure-all. Of course we should eat fruit and veg, but it’s bonkers that fruit juice can count as part of it. Growing children need animal fats just as much as they need fruit. What a confusion. To tackle the problem, I’d start with taxing manufacturers per gram of sugar they use.

In love with Lebanese again

The Times, March 8 2012

A few days in Beirut and I’ve successfully revived a love for Lebanese cuisine. It starts at breakfast: dipping a “croissant au thym” into labneh yoghurt laced with the salty, herby spice mix called za’atar. Then a gorgeous omelette made of some Alpine cheese and parsley. Sitting in a café in Hamra Street enjoying this, I bowed my head to the French colonialists. They left a big mess in a lot of countries: but from Vietnam to North Africa their former servants can put great bread and a decent cup of coffee on the table.

The breakfast finished with a tangerine from the South Lebanon hills, just in season, sweet and piquant. I smoked a cigarette — that’s pretty much required here — and watched the people on this street notorious for intrigue and trouble.

Paunchy businessmen with grand moustaches, shoe-shine boys and hawkers, beautiful, confident women, dodgy blokes in wraparound shades. Good fun, a breakfast with a view. Some times you need to get up and go to a country to de-jade your love of its food.

Lebanese cooking in Britain has become generic and tedious. Factory hoummos, slimy baba ghanoush, nasty vine leaves and indifferent meats flame-grilled and dumped into pitta bread. But just a few hours in the war-battered, hungry city and I’d got Lebanese cuisine again. And I came home clutching ideas, ingredients — including an amazing new risotto grain, frekeh, that I’d never heard of.

Za’atar is a seasoning used this end of the Mediterranean. It is much subtler than harissa, the fiery spice-mix from the other end of the middle of the earth. Made from pounding together thyme, oregano, sesame and salt, I’ve eaten it dry with bread in Gaza, but in Lebanon it comes packed in a jar filled with olive oil. You can just eat the oil.

At breakfast, the Lebanese like to serve their thick, yoghurty cheese, labneh, with a crater in the top filled with oil-za’atar, and dip in fresh bread.

You can eat very badly in Beirut, of course. With some Lebanese friends I ended by mistake in a pompous tourist place in one of the great empty edifices built, amid scandal, in the centre of the city where the worst destruction happened. Gruesome bread in a plastic packet, chicken kebabs painted with some bottled sauce and acidic hoummos — we could have been in London. One well-travelled Lebanese told me that when she’s in Beirut she pines for the nutty hoummos they sell at Sainsbury’s.

I searched the city without success for convincint evidence of the the “Lebanese fusion” the in-flight magazine promised. But there is an exciting genre of modern Lebanese, twisting traditional recipes, using the herbs and fruits such as pomegranate and cherry, and championing good, local produce. The guru of this is Walid Ataya, who has enlarged his famous Hamra bakery into a bar and restaurant with a wine cellar. Walid also has a pizzeria doing Lebanese flatbreads adorned with, variously, pine nuts, feta, watercress pesto and almond paste: “The Italians stole this from us Phoenicians and called it pizza,” he growls.

I enjoyed his beef and walnut sausages in cherry sauce, but the finest thing at Bread Republic was a frekeh risotto — smoked green wheatgrains, usually served with chicken or vegetables. But at Bread Republic this came with exquisite grilled baby octopus — it was delicious, nutty and full of caramelised flavour. Along with a sack of za’atar, I brought a bag of frekeh home (it split in-flight): when I’ve recovered the grains from the bottom of my suitcase I’ll cook a risotto with it according to Walid’s recipe and report back.

Bread Republic is at Nehme Yafet Street, Hamra, Beirut, open 7.30am–11pm or later. There’s a great breakfast to be found under the orange trees at nearby Café Younes, round the corner from the Commodore Hotel