This book is written for people who love food, enjoy cooking and wish to continue those pleasures despite a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. It is also for those people who love them - because the Mediterranean way of eating is healthy for everyone.
In terms of food, though I live in France, my heart is in Italy. (It has all to do with fresh ingredients prepared simply.) One of my favourite places to eat in Florence is Mario's - a small family-run café near the wonderful St. Lorenzo food market. A modest place - only open for lunch - but always packed with marketers and those in the know. Often complete strangers are wedged together at the same tiny table. Last visit, I ordered their grilled veal chop with herbs and a plate of white beans with olive oil. Simple - yet sublime! That is how I like to eat and to cook. This book is an anthology of recipes I have collected over the years that I have found reliable - not fussy or difficult. The dishes have a Mediterranean flavour - favouring olive oil, garlic and tomatoes as basic ingredients. This is not a diet cookbook; rather it's a "way of eating and cooking" cookbook. There is something temporary implied about following a diet - like "taking the medicine"; it'll be over soon and one can get back to normal life. The way of eating in this book is normal life!
Though I had no symptoms, a routine blood test in 1999 turned up an elevated level of glucose. Shortly after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a friend recommended Michel Montignac’s book, Dine Out and Lose Weight, now re-titled Eat Yourself Slim and Stay Slim! I found it very helpful. He too emphasized the importance of changing one’s “way of eating” rather than dieting. Montignac was from south-western France – coincidently where I too live – which has a culture where eating well is central to a good life. One of the attractions of his eating plan is that it allows drinking wine (in moderation) as well as eating a couple of small squares of high cacao dark chocolate. Oh happy day!
As a young man, Montignac struggled with his weight. After working as a manager in the pharmaceutical industry, he left to develop his theory of why people put on weight and how to prevent it. He was a pioneer in using the glycemic index of foods, which measures the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels (how quickly carbohydrates turn to glucose in the blood) to help people lose weight. Controlling one’s weight is a primary concern for people with diabetes.
Montignac believed that increases in weight are caused by the high sugar content in some carbohydrate foods which encourages the body to store unwanted fat, rather than a high calorie intake. My mother died of a heart attack, linked to her long struggle with Type 1 diabetes, aged 67, so I took my condition seriously from the start. Inspired by Michel Montignac’s books and those of others, I adjusted my way of eating.
Out went white bread, white pasta and rice. Some root vegetables like potatoes, parsnips and beets also had to be avoided.
Rather than feeling deprived, this opened up new culinary paths – the discovery of the sweet potato, for instance. There are no excluded foods that I miss, though I don’t have a sweet tooth, and I confess to looking for wholewheat pizzas on menus occasionally!
This adjustment, combined with regular walks and gentle yoga, reduced my blood sugar levels significantly. For years I avoided taking medicine for diabetes, simply by improving my diet and increasing my level of exercise.
Though Type 2 diabetes is not curable, it can be controlled without too much sacrifice. Of course, it helped that I liked to cook and in fact had been a keen cook for years. That too goes back to my mother.
I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in post-war austerity Britain. Food rationing only came to an end in 1954, when I was 12 years old. (In America rationing ended eight years earlier in 1946!)
My father worked for British Railways and had a modest income, with a wife and three young boys to support, so Ma had to be a goodmanager of the food budget. I remember queuing with her at the Sainsbury’s grocery store in Golders Green in north London for what seemed like hours. We would wait at one counter to buy half a pound of butter, then queue on the other side of the aisle for a pound of tomatoes and stand in yet another line for bacon. Perhaps waiting resentfully in all those lines unconsciously instilled in me an appreciation of quality and the importance of spending time searching it out.
I do the same thing now, visiting our local French open-air market at least three times a week, standing in queues at the cheese stall, the fishmonger, the organic vegetable grower. Buying local produce from the vendors I have come to know over 20 years is one of the great pleasures of life in rural France, where our nearest town, Castres, has four open-air market days a week, plus another evening market for organic produce.
As well as a good manager, my mother, Molly, was a good cook. She collected recipes from newspapers and magazines and pasted them into a large, blue foolscap notebook. She would also write out recipes and pass them on. I have her recipe for Smoked Mackerel Pâté, written in her clear flowing hand, pasted into my large, red foolscap notebook. I collect recipes now and enjoy passing them on.
Molly loved to cook and to entertain. Thanks to her I grew up enjoying well-prepared simple food, eaten with family and friends around the kitchen table. She made her own marmalade with Seville oranges in February and started the traditional English Christmas pudding in September. We had individual Yorkshire puddings with roast beef on special Sundays with bread soaked in the “goodness” – the natural juices from the joint.
Often on a Sunday night, I’d give her a break and cook my “Special” – Macaroni Cheese with sliced tomato, grilled on top. I’d bring everything into the living room on a tray table. Brother Peter was just six in 1954 and would be in bed; brother Jack (also now an actor) wasn’t on the scene until June the following year, so Ma, Pa and I would sit in front of the fire and listen to Mary Martin in South Pacific singing I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair on 78s on Pa’s top-of-the-range gramophone. Those convivial meals with my parents were the start of my love affair with food – and eating with others, in an agreeable social setting. In that same year, 1954, when rationing ended in Britain, Dad took advantage of concessionary rail travel for British Rail employees in Europe and took us all to the Costa Brava on Spain’s Mediterranean coast for a two-week holiday.
It was a bold destination for that era, long before British package tours hit the scene. I ate garlic for the first time, eggs cooked in olive oil, sun-ripened peaches and tomatoes unlike any we ever bought at Sainsbury’s. This exposure to a completely different cuisine made a deep impression on me – and, of course, my mother. We spent two weeks in Lloret del Mar, rather bizarrely sharing the beach and sun with Franco’s military police who wore strange helmets and carried menacing machine guns; very different from the beaches at Woolacombe Sands or in Cornwall. As an impressionable 12-year-old English schoolboy, I concluded that there was an interesting world elsewhere...
That year, 1954, also saw the publication of Elizabeth David’s seminal cookbook, Italian Food – a follow up to her first book, Mediterranean Cooking. Her books were to underwrite a cooking revolution in Britain and have inspired me for years. The Reluctant Cookbook Writer Friends and family have been urging me to “write a cookbook” for as long as I can remember. I never felt comfortable with the idea. I would feel a fraud claiming that such-and-such a recipe is mine, because I added an extra two tablespoons of thyme to the recipe instead of parsley, for example! Many people (especially my wife!) thought this was just an excuse not to attempt a book. Then one day two summers ago, the English playwright and friend, Timberlake Wertenbaker emailed from her holiday home in the Basque country, asking for recipe ideas. She had people coming to dinner and was temporarily stumped. I had written out certain oft-requested recipes by this time and stored them on the computer, so it was no trouble to email them. I started to write up recipes as I cooked them, and discovered that I enjoyed the experience. Lo and behold, soon I had more than one hundred.
So when the opportunity came up to collect them altogether in this book to be aimed at fellow “Type Two-ers” I felt ready and eager to accept.
Most are from books, magazines and newspapers (collected just as my mother did). A few recipes come from friends (some of whom have written their own cookbooks!). Collecting them is a passion. I make no claims to being an inventive chef, creating new dishes. I’m an actor after all. I’ve always been more comfortable working from scripts than improvising. I’m an interpreter rather than a creator. But I do have a compulsive urge to search out workable dishes that also fit into my “way of eating” needs. They have also had to pass the ultimate test – Meredith [my wife] Approved!