The obesity epidemic and the victimisation of children

Melbourne newspaper, The Age, today had a good piece by paediatrician Zoe McCallum, talking about the problems of dealing with children’s weight in a constructive way. The rhetoric of the believers in the obesity epidemic is strident and frequently demeaning, and initiatives to improve child health run the risk of damaging children.

I’ve written elsewhere (at I eat I drink I work — Article: A lightweight epidemic?) about obesity and the poor evidence for a global epidemic, dubious causes and suitable treatments. Zoe McCallum of course follows the standard ‘wisdom’ that treats the obesity ‘crisis’ as fact, but that notwithstanding, I liked her main point.

Going Iberian (plus Paris)… eating tips sought

Hello my lovely gastronauts. Guess what? I’m off to Iberia (and Paris). Quite soon, actually. Impending, so to speak. So bring on the tips. But wait! Read where I’m off to first…

So, this is the itinerary:

an evening in Madrid (it’s a transity thing, so no, I’m not on a Contiki tour or something)
2.5 days in Córdoba
2 days in Granada
3 days in Sevilla (and possibly Ronda)
1.5 days in Elvas (Portugal, Alto Alentejo)
4 days in Évora (Portugal, Alto Alentejo)
5 days in Lisbon — I know Lisbon well, so only super-hot new things or personal secrets, please
5 days in Paris — I know Paris well, so again, only super-hot new things or personal secrets, please

And remember that yours truly is mostly obsessed with savoury or sweet traditional cooking, plus chocolate, cakes and pastries. Plus the occasionally glitzy-glam novelty.

Pointless alcoholic drinks now taxed more highly

Now, I’d love to think that my little voice had some influence, but I have no delusions of grandeur: The Australian Commonwealth Government raised taxes on RTDs this week by 70%. I’m having trouble finding a press release about it, so here are links to two media reports [1], [2].

No social initiatives to change broader social behaviour, just channelling of the extra income to preventative health measures.

Gânache Chocolate (Melbourne), and a hangover

I awoke to a hangover. A dull pain knocked at the back of my skull. Had I been an alcoholic hypocrite? Heavens, no! This was a very special hangover.


The preceding evening had seen me attending my first ever PR event. That’s right, a night of schmoozing and freebies. It was chocolate. We all have our peccadilloes.

The event was the formal launch of a new brand and venue for chocolate in Melbourne. Gânache Chocolate, in South Yarra. A new venture for Arno Backes, once known for his involvement in Melbourne chocolate shop and now-chain Koko Black.

Gânache (ok, should be Gânache Chocolate, but I doubt anyone will call it that for long) is billed as a chocolate lounge, with a teaching-space-to-be upstairs. This could be very interesting. The pralines (individual chocolates) are stunning, even if I didn’t feel every single one was successful or perhaps equally impressive.

Backes is using a range of couvertures, whereas Callebaut dominates among the chocolatiers who aren’t conching their own chocolate. Certainly, Backes has Callebaut on display and sale in the shop, but when asked about his chocolates, he reeled off a long list of respected couvertures, including Felchlin (not one I’ve seen mentioned in Australia before).

The pralines generally have very thin shells — some of the thinnest I’ve seen — which makes them both beautifully delicate and also a little fragile in warm hands. I couldn’t fault any of them on texture, whether ganache, caramel, butter cream or something else. The range of flavours is interesting, though not testing many boundaries. Novelty is primarily in the execution of familiar categories, with the exception of the very good geranium ganache (think pungent rose with a hint of citrus), and perhaps the ‘oriental spice’ ganache (delightful, strong with clove, and perhaps more reminiscent of southern German Lebkuchen rather than anything ‘oriental’). Gânache certainly gives Koko Black, Haighs, [EDITED due to spam from the shop mentioned, name now deleted] and others a run for their money, and probably wins on most counts. Monsieur Truffe is probably the strongest competitor in quality.

So, no disappointment and a lot of enjoyment in the pralines cabinet. Unfortunately, a block of dark chocolate with whole hazelnuts didn’t match the rest of the experience. The chocolate tasted very much like Callebaut Select, with cocoa content around 55%. It’s a fairly hard, slightly waxy dark chocolate with a slow melt and very noticeable vanilla aroma. Strangely neutral, it works fine as an enrobing chocolate, but I’m not a fan of it as an eating chocolate. There is quite a range of blocks available so I can’t comment on the others.

The lovely Donna Le Page (PR wiz) enjoying the chocolate. And my sister going in for the kill.

I had dragged my sister along as my guest and she buzzed around the praline cabinet like an earnest researcher, returning to me regularly with updates of ‘you must try X’ and ‘best to leave Y’. She had sampled fully two-thirds of the cabinet while I had become slightly poorly after my first ten pralines. Ten points for devotion to duty, sis!

At speech time, plates of teency cakes came out, plus a lovely truffle on a chocolate spoon. All were impressive and delicious, though it was noticeable how many people were queasy after so much pre-speech chocolate. I soldiered on, though the richness of the cakes quickly brought me to a halt. They’re good, perhaps a little sweet for some people. Well crafted.

The space is attractive and the lounge concept could work. It’ll be interesting to see it with normal clientele. I hope they can keep the atmosphere enjoyable, as Malvern dames and hordes of chocolate-loving international students (presumably) descend on the place. Backes will be acutely aware of the comparison with Koko Black, which seems to me to be in danger of becoming a chocolate Starbucks.

Gânache Chocolate deserves to be a wild success, based on what I experienced on Tuesday. I’m not sure just how much better than some of the competition it is, but it is certainly no laggard and if Arno Backes and his co-conspirator, Sian Mackenzie (his partner), can stay true to their concept then there’s much to look forward to.

Gânache Chocolate, 250 Toorak Road, South Yarra VIC 3141, 03 9804 7485

A personal perspective on binge-drinking and social policy on alcohol


The New Prohibition. Australia’s battle against alcoholism, especially under-age and binge drinking, has been in the spotlight over the last weeks. The main targets have been (1) high-alcohol prepackaged drinks which are popular with younger drinkers, and (2) adults giving children alcohol. Proposed solutions have been stronger penalties for supplying alcohol to children, graphic warnings on packaging and even the idea of raising the legal drinking age to 21. In the NSW city of Newcastle, a recent administrative ruling has imposed suprisingly tight controls on licensed venues, including entry curfews and serving restrictions. The concerns are valid, but the message and solutions are often strong on control and weak on social initiative.

The frequency of teenagers drinking alcohol to excess, typically in concentrated sessions (binge drinking), has apparently reached at least 10% in 12-17 year olds, with 20% of 15-17 year olds binge drinking at least once a week. Certainly, the number of kids visibly drunk on late night public transport or leaving private parties seems higher than I can remember.

Advocates of a healthy approach to alcohol consumption in Australia speak of ‘European-style drinking culture’ or the ‘Mediterranean model’, where alcohol is often served as part of a meal and even relatively young family members are exposed to this ‘wholesome’ context for consuming alcohol. Critics of this approach claim that Australian mainstream (subtext: Anglo) culture is not predisposed to this pattern of drinking (due to different cultural uses and social behaviours) and some attention has been given to a report in 2007 that indicated a link between early exposure to alcohol and later binge drinking. The claim is that well intentioned parents wanting to socialise children to the presence of alcohol are in fact endangering their children, and responsible Australian parents should instead stigmatise alcohol so as to discourage any positive associations.

Stigmatising anything which forms part of normal adult activity is rarely successful. The same applies to traditional cultural behaviours. Providing a good example is surely a far better approach. I spent five years in a country which excels at stigmatising alcohol consumption whilst having a culture of severe, obsessive binge-drinking: Sweden. My time there changed my view of drinking fundamentally.

When I moved to Sweden in 1992, I had never seen drinking in such a ritualised, unmoderated form. I read frequent news stories of illegal stills being found by police. I saw friends of mine turn violent when they drank. I watched alcoholised fights break out on the cheap catamarans that plied the Malmö-Copenhagen route (a trip of just 45 minutes). I sat on the bus to work in the morning with well dressed business people stinking of stale or fresh spirit.

In a country where all forms of booze except low-alcohol beer (<3.5%) were only sold in sparsely distributed government shops (Systembolaget), all displayed behind glass and ordered at a counter, the volume of smashed glass and the stench of urine on a Sunday morning left you in no doubt as to how many people had queued at the local Systembolaget before closing time on Friday. Despite this, Sweden has relatively low per capita alcohol consumption (7 litres pure alcohol). Australians drink over 8 litres. Drinkers in France, Russia or Luxemburg consume considerably more. The discrepancy between, say, Sweden and Australia would appear to be that a smaller proportion of Swedes drink, but those who do really do!

Sweden has a long tradition of controlling alcohol consumption, aware of the social ills it causes. A strong temperance movement has existed for centuries, often closely affiliated with more conservative Christian groups (of which there are many). For a long period citizens needed to use alcohol ‘ration books’ as permits to buy some types of alcohol. Blacklists were maintained. An enduring memory of an early Swedish lesson was a story involving an elderly man being refused the right to buy vodka. His ration book had been annulled because he’d been charged with drunkenness. The social stigma surrounding alcohol was enormous and remains so.

None of this seemed to improve the psychology of alcohol consumption. Nordic taxes on alcohol are so high that alcohol tourism is common. Before Sweden and Finland joined the EU, cross-Baltic ferries were famous for the males and females who would drink themselves to a stupor on tax-free liquor before buying their maximum import quota and stumbling down the gangway to notionally dry (but rather dizzy) land.

On that dry land in the mid-90s, a modest pub might charge A$12 for an average draught beer. Many people would hastily drink two or three beers at a friend’s place before heading out for a night on the town, for fear of the prices once inside a venue.

Prior to moving to Sweden I had no particular opinion about drinking. I had been a mild drinker as a student in Australia, occasionally getting drunk socially and otherwise having a normal relationship with drink. In the early 90s, I developed a physical intolerance for alcohol (in essence, hangover-like symptoms within half an hour of a sip of beer or wine) and that made it impossible for me to imbibe any liquor. It was very bad timing. Life in Sweden meant constantly parrying suspicious or pressing questions about booze: ‘are you sure you don’t want a drink?’, ‘are you a prohibitionist?’, ‘what about a light beer?’. I never worked out which was worse there – not drinking or not eating seafood!

Many years have passed, and my body now tolerates alcohol fine in careful moderation. My attitude to drinking, however, has changed. I’m exceedingly uneasy around even moderately drunk people. I detest enthusiastic heavy drinking, and I rarely have any desire to step foot inside a bar or pub.

On the other hand, I don’t oppose drinking. I dislike the curiously fatalist view of some health industry commentators who believe the Mediterranean model can’t work here because we have the wrong drinking culture. That seems a neat way of promoting prohibition over behavioural modification. When responsible parents tell journalists that they promote healthy attitudes to alcohol by permitting moderate consumption on special occasions, their motives are worthy but the approach fits the vodka-belt mode of drinking quite well. If you associate alcohol primarily with celebration (a particularly common setting for excessive drinking) then you just perpetuate the unusual role of drinking.

I certainly feel that alcopops and ready-to-drink (RTD) mixes have absolutely no place on the market as they facilitate casual, effortless alcohol consumption, especially in young drinkers or people with drinking problems. I believe that adults who supply kids with certain forms of alcohol should face severe penalties, especially if they then leave the kids unsupervised.

However, the battle against binge-drinking won’t be won through blind restriction and lecturing. So why not try behaviour modification in the home and in restaurants – the two places where ‘normalised’ drinking needs to find a place. Moderate consumption needs to be dull and normal. Make limited consumption of wine or beer the norm at everyday meals. Encourage restaurants to offer house wines in small carafes. Our wine-drinking-as-connoisseur behaviour perhaps even undermines the hope for normalising mild drinking because it makes wine too special. The mixed bag of wines that serve as house wines in France and southern Europe moves the emphasis away from vineyards, vintages and restaurant markups and just makes wine another incidental drink with a simple meal. Something tells me Australia’s restaurateurs would baulk at a loss of income from their winelist margins.

I doubt there’s the will to take constructive action on alcohol in Australia. There are too many parties whose profits depend on current consumption patterns. It’s probably too hard to convince generations of celebratory-drinking Australians that things can be done differently. And policy-makers aren’t so keen on nuance at the moment. It’s easier to tut-tut, blindly castigate parents, and ban a nice Cointreau on the rocks after 10pm.

Wild rice, apricot, lemon and almond salad


I’m not a great salad eater, probably because leafy ones tend to splash and I can’t stand splashy food! (I adore laksa, for instance, but oh how annoyed I get while eating a bowl of the stuff… And a nice bowl of Vietnamese pho just isn’t my idea of a fun night out.) The salad featured in this post is a Duncan original, splash free, and conceived late last year when apricots had come into season. I made it again recently with dried apricots and it was still pretty damn good, if you ask me. Of course, it’s in the grain-salad category, so probably won’t satisfy the hordes of lettuce-loving saladinos and saladitas.

Wild rice is an expensive and simultaneously over- and under-rated ingredient. On the one hand, I don’t see any benefit in those white-rice-plus-a-dash-of-wild-rice mixes which come and go in supermarkets. Eating wild rice straight isn’t necessarily a special enough experience to warrant the price either. It costs about A$35/kg at my Vietnamese supermarket, and much more almost anywhere else. On the other hand, the chewy texture and tea-like fragrance can be used with some success in combination with other ingredients to create something out of the ordinary and delicious.

In this salad I’ve combined wild rice with roasted almonds, oven-dried apricots, preserved lemon, mint and olive oil. It makes a delightful dish of textural contrasts with sour, sweet and herbal all coming through. It’s also rather pretty, with the creamy almonds and the deep orange apricots set against the dark grains.

Note: wild rice is in fact a North American grass seed. There are a few different varieties and it’s best to follow the instructions on the packet or, failing that, wash and then simmer the wild rice gently, covered in four times its weight in water until the grains start to split but aren’t mushy. This is essentially the absorption method for cooking normal rice, but with more liquid. Cooking can take anywhere between 30 and 60 mins.


Wild rice, apricot, lemon and almond salad

  Source: Duncan Markham  
Yield: 3-4 modest serves
150 g wild rice
4 apricots – halved and pitted
100 g almonds – blanched and lightly roasted
3-4 leaves fresh common mint/spearmint – chopped
3-9 teaspoons preserved lemon or lime – chopped fairly finely
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper


  1. Place the apricot halves cut side up on a baking tray and bake for 1-2 hours at 60C. The apricots will shrivel and soften a little. How semi-dried you want them is entirely your choice. The cooking process brings out the flavour of the apricot and accentuates both the sweet and sour aspects.
  2. Cook the wild rice. If there is still some liquid in the pot, drain the rice well. Place in a large bowl. Fluff with a fork to prevent clumping.
  3. Slice the apricots into fairly thin strips. Add these to the wild rice. Add the almonds.
  4. Sprinkle with salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Add the mint and some preserved lemon/lime. Pour a good dash of olive oil over the top and combine well.
  5. Taste and then add more preserved lemon/lime and more salt and pepper as you wish. It’s easy to be scared by the lemon/lime, but if you’re feeling cautious it is worth adding more than you at first think sensible.



A solution to the cake batter in my laptop?

In 1996 I felt terribly modern. My Apple Powerbook Duo was running software called Mangia!, one of the best recipe programs around at the time (alas, now dead). I had begun reading my recipes straight off the Powerbook’s screen as I cooked. That was fine until a lapse of concentration saw me pour chocolate cake batter straight onto the Powerbook’s keyboard! Quick as a flash I dropped the bowl of batter on the kitchen table and inverted the laptop. Thank goodness I was making a thick cake batter and not something really runny!

I’ve not come across a good solution for viewing recipes electronically in the kitchen and nowadays I scribble everything down on paper before embarking on a recipe. But for some people this product concept (KitchenSync) by a guy called Noah Balmer seems quite nifty. Better than an LCD screen mounted on your fridge, it’s a foldable display which can sit on your bookshelf when not in use. It’s actually a device which stores info for display, so is independent of a PC (once you’ve downloaded the information). More pics at The Kitchn.

[This is not a product endorsement. It is simply something discovered on the internet which I think is interesting.]