Last year was my sixth year cooking for guests at La Petraia and we welcomed more dairy and wheat free diners than any other year previous. Probably more than all years combined. We also had more vegetarians and vegans. “Paleo” and “GAPS” became new words in our dietary lexicon and food sensitivity levels grew to new heights to include not only dairy and gluten but also grains and legumes. Food intolerance, allergies and disease are very real and must be taken seriously. At La Petraia they are. But cooks who feed a lot of people also understand these issues can be used in support of eating disorders, body image issues, or simply as a means to draw attention. This doesn’t do anyone a favour, especially those who do suffer from allergies and intolerances as illustrated in this recent post on Jezebel. In the restaurant world the debate is percolating. Some chefs claim it’s not their job to customize offerings to suit an ever-increasing array of dietary restrictions. Instead, they argue, it is the diner’s responsibility to choose a restaurant offering menu items that are safe for them to eat.
So what to do facing the start of a new season? Will we see an even greater rise this year in dietary-restricted guests? Petraia is very small. I do most of the cooking myself. Our menus are based almost entirely on our own production. Special diets present serious challenges to these limited resources. But they have also forced me to get creative in the kitchen and are sometimes responsible for brilliant new flavors and recipes we end up adding to our repertoire. Our signature “rice crack” for instance was developed for a guest with celiac disease. The crackers turned out to be best sellers. Not only that, they’re a great way to use up leftover risotto. This success led to the exploration of other rice-based crackers and now we have a few.
When we closed at the end of November 2012 the first thing I did was to take some time to reflect on these issues before announcing our 2013 offerings. Here’s what I came up with.
1. 2013 is a brave new world at Petraia. We’re going to implement a “we do not cater to individual dietary restrictions” policy.
I know this will mean we lose some customers. But we are not a restaurant; we are a working organic farm, using biodynamic principles while developing our own systemic approach to agriculture. We offer tastings of what we produce. The tastings are multiple courses and I believe there is lots for anyone to eat within the arc of a Petraia meal. Naturally, we’ll leave things off a plate, but we will not make special meals. We’ll see how that goes. I hope our guests will continue to be open to what we serve them. Last year, for instance, I frequently noted non-dairy guests were curious to taste our sheep’s milk cheese. More often than not, they were surprised not to have problems digesting it. Sometimes those same dairy free guests would ask if I knew why, in Italy, they had been able to enjoy cheese again with no repercussions. Good question and I didn’t have an answer. Now I’m trying to find out why and it’s led me to explore the debate around A1 and A2 caseins in dairy.
2. Spend the winter doing my own research about these various intolerances, allergies and diseases and even try some of these special diets myself.
As a result I have cut out sugar completely, which is huge because I have a sweet tooth, a mouth full of fillings and a family with a history of diabetes. I also cut way back on dairy, eliminated all grains and legumes and increased my consumption of saturated fats like coconut oil and lard. I limited my intake of carbohydrates and increased the amount of nutrient-dense foods I eat as well as including more raw and fermented foods in my diet. I found all of this surprisingly easy. There was lots to eat and I had few cravings. On the other hand I am almost three months into the experiment and have experienced none of the positive results I understood I was entitled to. I have no fewer aches and pains nor do I have more energy. My weight has neither gone up or gone down. My skin has not improved, neither has my hair. My belly is still the same size. But then none of these things were huge issues for me in the first place and my diet was already pretty good when I started the program. I did have the flu this winter for the first time in 10 years and I got it not once but twice. The first bout laid me low for the better part of a month.
This way of eating will end soon. We reopen next month and I will have to taste everything I cook and everything I serve. The only thing I hope to completely eliminate for myself and our guests is sugar.
Over the winter I have had the good fortune of picking the brain of a respected friend, food activist and holistic nutritionist, Michelle Malmberg, whose depth of knowledge on these issues is enormous. I have spent many hours in my kitchen developing new recipes I hope most people will find safe for their diets and be able to enjoy at Petraia this year. Stay tuned, as I roll them out I will also be posting them on this blog.
I have also been reading a lot and have concluded that pretty much every kind of food you can think of is considered unhealthy by someone. At times I have found this depressing and frustrating. I have wondered who to believe. Perhaps none of us really understand what we should be eating. Probably it will only become clear with the passage of time. The road to the answers will continue to breed confusion, bewilderment, debate and denial. My answer, at least for now, is to go on eating the real food I have been producing at Petraia and when that is not possible to source my food locally and keep it whole. I recognize this is a huge privilege, not everyone can do this. I am grateful.