I even visualize the crème! For today’s mission, I want to explore some health aspects of dining out, for like many of you, I long to visit restaurants again when the pandemic allows. As Matt Monro’s theme song proclaims:
“From Russia with love, I fly to you
Much wiser since my goodbye to you”
It has been a year of lockdowns and disappointments, changing the way we interact for business meetings, friendly chats or even parties, and as we hopefully return to our prior lives, let’s do so wiser, since we last bid goodbye. For this culinary journey, I am going to reference trips to Russia for reasons which will, I hope, become apparent at least to some of you. And keep an eye open for the Bondian references!
As a doctor, I will form an image of a patient’s situation to help characterize the disease process and route to treatment, and we medics use various devices to decipher the symptoms and signs, coded messages if you will, that we receive from the patient. So, frankly, having a device to decode the nuances of dining, and the metabolic implications of our food, is as necessary as having a CAT scan for medical use or a translator when visiting our eastern cousins. Please consider me to be your Lektor. In Russia, many restaurants help foreign visitors by including photographs of each dish, but it is not just the language that needs decoding – what is escarole or frisée, for instance – but how the food gets to your table and what it will do to you when you eat it.
Like many pilots, when traveling, I like to immerse myself in the culture, stay at an atmospheric boutique hotel, dine off the beaten path and retrace steps from famous movies, books or art. Much about Russia fascinates me, their history, the rather mournful writing of Dostoevsky, Chekov, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, scientific contributions by Pavlov and great memories of messing around in a Yak-52, a most capable and utterly satisfying airplane. And as a heads-up, I am talking about the history, culture, architecture and people that I love – they are separate and distinct from the politics. Two quotes from Mark Twain resonate for me:
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
So, for those of you who have not visited, please consider going!
As for cities, St. Petersburg has won a place in my heart with its breathtaking sights and other delights; the photos I have in my mental piggy bank sustain me in darker moments. To Russia with love, one might say. Navigating the city is a challenge, however, and I recommend retaining an English-speaking professional driver, preferably piloting a robust vehicle like a Range Rover – or tank!
Now this is for your eyes only, but Russian food can be a challenge to those who wish to retain or obtain a slim waist; from the delights of the Napolyeon Tort, a sinfully delicious combination of fine layers of pastry and sweet custard, to the baffling and rib-sticking solyanka – potatoes, sour cream, various forms of meat and mushrooms. Eat a lot of this and a journey around your waist will be lengthy. A quantum of solace is offered by caviar, which is much more affordable there, as well as smoked fish washed down by chilled vodka. When in Russia… So, first, consider portion control. Smaller-sized plates help – maybe think Greece instead of Russia and throw the larger ones against the wall. One other Russian-themed dessert is named for ballerina Anna Pavlova, a daughter of St. Petersburg and whose London house is near my home, but that sugar-rich delectable treat of meringue, cream and fruit was actually invented in New Zealand. For dessert, maybe a small piece of Napolyeon Tort or Pavlova, but go easy on the cream and meringue.
So, back to Russia where I channel my inner 007 and order a martini – how complicated could that be? Ice-cold vodka, a hint of extra dry vermouth and some olives – apparently way too complex. I did not encounter a single quaffable cocktail in all my travels, disappointment enough to make the sky fall. I switched to Aperol spritzers, a drink favored in northeast Italy, Padua and Venice, areas I also adore with marvelous and equally calorie-rich cuisine. The occasional cocktail and appropriate wine enhance a meal, but please keep an eye on how many and how often so you can die another day, because today is no time to die. Mixed drinks are fun, but mixing Pipers and Piper Heidsieck, bourbon and Beechcraft, Martinis and Mooneys should provoke a pronounced “nyet!”
In the movie, Blofeld states of Bond, “Let his death be a particularly humiliating and unpleasant one,” but given our hero is a bon vivant, at least let him dine well first! So maybe my dining and imbibing habits would have been more successful if I had been accompanied by someone with local knowledge and Russian language skills. Finding the right guide and translator is key, and I imagine an interpreter who would be straight out of central casting, a lady in a fur hat and coat who tells me while shrugging her shoulder that she is really a little spy. But in reality, I would probably be granted someone who resembled the Trezzini hotel porter, a six-foot-six-inch-tall mesomorphic, humorless, ex-professional wrestler and KGB assassin named Sergei.
In addition to photos of Russian dishes, restaurants have recently added dietary characteristics to each course. With the growing number of vegetarians, vegans and pescatarians, identifying those items suitable for such diners is just the start. Warnings about shellfish, peanut or other allergies abound. In Britain, servers are now obliged to ask diners if they have any allergies, amid a growing awareness that other nuts, sesame and so on can also be problematic. A slim neck is to be admired; a neck swollen due to obesity or allergy? Not so much!
We must also identify if food contains gluten or lactose, a topic I have broached before in these pages, even though many of the people who claim to have issues are truly not susceptible. There are also a whole range of food additives in the sulfite/sulphate group that in those susceptible, can induce asthmatic, gastrointestinal or skin issues. And a recent “newbie” food additive (check the Russian translation!) has even more profound effects. A good general rule for pilot diners is never eat something you are not used to or are sure about before clambering into the cockpit; breathing difficulties, itchy skin or, heaven forbid, explosive diarrhea in a confined space would be no fun. Remember that Ronald Reagan, while negotiating nuclear disarmament inspections with Mikhail Gorbachev, quoted a Russian proverb back at the architect of perestroika, doveryai no proveryai – “trust but verify.” If you think you have food allergies, please see a doctor and get verification so that you can avoid potential harm from an abreaction or avoid missing out on great food!
The haunting theme song to You Only Live Twice suggests that we have one life for ourselves and one for our dreams. Sorry to disappoint, but that is an inflationary statement. Understanding how food is prepared has an impact on your longevity. Wanting to stay healthy and strong is admirable, but enjoying life is essential – otherwise why stay healthy and strong? Think about how food is prepared – grilling leads to caramelization which adds taste and texture, similar to the effects of frying, but a lot healthier. Cream and butter provide that satisfying mouth fullness sensation – but olive oil and other substitutes provide fewer calories or fat grams. Be smart about what you eat.
During one trip to Sankt-Peterburg, as it is also known, I accepted that the hordes of tourists would preclude me seeing the famed Hermitage museum, so I went on a voyage of discovery. I had been told that breakfast at an off-the-beaten track hotel, the Valeria, was worth the trip. During the car ride, there were songs performed by a heartbreakingly beautiful voice, a soprano on the radio. I learned her name was Valeria Stenkina. My breakfast was acceptable, and I wandered around the Pulkovskaya district and came across an art gallery with paintings by Valeria Larina. And how fitting that I kept seeing this name given that “Valeria” means to be healthy and strong, themes germane to my life’s work as a surgeon.
Ian Fleming wrote about Bond in From Russia with Love: “But I am greedy for life. I do too much of everything all the time. Suddenly one day my heart will fail. The Iron Crab will get me as it got my father. But I am not afraid of The Crab. At least I shall have died from an honourable disease. Perhaps they will put on my tombstone: This Man Died from Living Too Much.” Rather than that fate, don’t be greedy, be valiant, be brave, be strong – eat well but ignore the line from the theme song that states “my running around is through.” Running is good for you; eating and drinking are pleasures that should be enjoyed in moderation. There are just two things that should not be constrained by moderation. Flying is one…
You can email Jonathan at [email protected] with suggested topics for future articles or any questions which he will endeavour to answer. You can also listen to Jonathan's weekly podcasts on medical matters at the EMG Health Podcast available on iTunes, other podcast platforms and https://www.emg-health.com/omnipresent/podcasts/emg-health-podcast