Little White Lies
A year ago we reported on the celebrity chef Raymond Blanc's apparent attempts to rewrite human nutrition theory (see Blanc Sour). We noted his novel idea that sugar acts like "sandpaper on our artery walls . the bits of artery that have been abrasively rubbed with sugar make the perfect site for saturated fats and cholesterol to attach themselves to." We have yet to find any nutritional scientist who thinks that this makes any kind of sense at all.
At the end of Blanc's diatribe against sugar, published in the Manchester Evening News on 17 September 2002 and conveniently still posted on the press pages of his website at www.manoir.com, he made a promise:
"Within the next year all my recipes both at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and Le Petit Blanc will ban sugar and replace it with natural alternatives."
Never mind the issue that sugar is, of course, itself 'natural', and that any natural alternative would also be a sugar – what has happened since he made this solemn vow?
Seeking an answer we first, we turned to the recipes posted on his Manoir and Petit Blanc websites, assuming that all references to sugar would now have been replaced by his mystery 'natural alternative.' After all, if sugar really is the 'killer' that Blanc claims, he would hardly want to encourage his foodie followers to hasten the demise of their dinner party guests by feeding them this artery-abrading ingredient.
Unsurprisingly, the recipes are still full of sugar – and not just those for puddings. Even 'veal kidneys roasted in their jackets', 'oxtail and calves' tongues braised in red wine', 'tender vegetables and thyme flowers soused in lemon vinaigrette', etc. include a good pinch of sugar to enhance the flavours. The real surprise, however, is the new recipe for the infamous 'Illes flottantes – façon Maman Blanc', now less pretentiously titled 'Floating islands – my mother's way.'
Last year we noted that Blanc's floating islands, as detailed in his book Cooking for Friends, required a whole pound of sugar for four portions – 4 ounces for each person – and this at a time when Blanc was bleating to anyone who would listen that the British consumed far too much sugar and were going to die prematurely as a result. The latest recipe for floating islands, however, now contains a staggering 19 ½ ounces of sugar – an addition of 3 ½ oz or 100 g, and still just for four people. At a time when we could reasonably expect Blanc to have honoured his pledge to 'ban sugar' we find that he is actually encouraging us to eat more of the stuff!
Floating islands have always featured prominently on the menus of all of the Petit Blanc restaurants. This small chain, however, went into receivership earlier this year (see the Oxford Mail). In the opinion of many of us who once frequented the Oxford restaurant this was due in no small part to a manifest decline in the standards of cooking, and distinctly fewer patrons as a result. Perhaps M. Blanc had removed his toque and taken his eye off the ball too often in his relentless pursuit of publicity for his weird theories. The restaurants, however, were rescued by the Loch Fyne operation, who have retained the Blanc name and, indeed, Blanc himself, who keeps a 25% stake and is still in control of the menus. So, with the Blanc name still over the door, and his signature still on the menus, is sugar now banned from the tables as promised? Are the floating islands consigned to history as a dangerous, gastronomic mistake? Of course not.
The point about Blanc's floating islands (or rather his mother's) is that they are delicious – light and sweet, the perfect pudding. And no, you can't make them without using lots of sugar. Nor does he expect his guests to use anything but the sugar lumps in the picture above in their pure Arabica coffee.
There was a further ironic element to our lunch at Petit Blanc – the food was really quite salty – and one of the most frequent, but not necessarily justified, complaints in the restaurant has always been about the levels of seasoning. The irony arises from the fact that not only has M. Blanc engaged in a tirade against sugar, but continues to use gargantuan amounts of it in his puddings, despite promising not to, he has also been waging a similar war against salt. He has even teamed up with Graham MacGregor, the professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at St Georges hospital and a fanatically anti-salt campaigner, and with the Food Standards Agency. The FSA, of course, has been running campaigns to reduce salt in processed foods for the last year and have been successful in persuading manufacturers to reduce 'unnecessary' salt in, for example, bread (see, for example, 'Health initiative worth its salt, says Agency'). Their suggested daily intake, based more on whim rather than solid evidence, is 6gms per day.
So why is Blanc's food still so evidently well-salted? And why, when manufacturers are being cajoled into reducing salt in bread and other processed foods, does his recipe for a single loaf of rye bread contains a massive 20 grams of salt – over three days' worth of the total recommended intake? His pain de campagne would also keep you going in salt for two and a half days, even if you ate nothing else. And as for his confit of duck …
The point here, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with these levels of salt, unless you suffer from hypertension – in which case you should avoid it. For the rest of us, whether we eat lots of salt or not has very little impact on our health, as crisply illustrated in the review by Lee Hooper et al in the BMJ last year and by many other studies. So why the fuss?
Interestingly, M. Blanc is less keen on other proposed FSA initiatives, such as those that would require restaurateurs to provide detailed information about the nutritional content of their meals. For him that would be "totally trivialising, and deflects attention from the real food problems." Rather, he suggests, the FSA should devote its time "to ensuring the quality and correct labelling of food that is eaten at home" (see Telegraph). So, no way of us knowing just how much sugar and salt there is in a lunch at Le Manoir or Le Petit Blanc just yet then if the celeb chef has his way.
For Blanc, salt and sugar scaremongering provides a convenient opportunity for him to continue his elitist attacks on the food choices of his country of adoption, believing that the British truly hate food so much that they "kill it by … attacking it with salt and pepper." It is this same elitism that enables him to say, without a trace of irony, that the British should be prepared to pay more for locally grown produce while, at the same time, serving up caviar salads at £635 a throw (see BBC). But perhaps the British are not quite to stupid as Blanc thinks when it comes to comes to food, nor when it comes to choosing restaurants. Perhaps that is why they have abandoned the Petit Blancs in their droves.
Peter Marsh, September 29, 2003