Ingredients for a healthy life on Île de Ré

... eat more fish!

By Mary Fifield (CardioKit Project Manager)

Our little family have already enjoyed a couple of fabulous holidays at La Rochelle, a town of the French Atlantic coast, renowned for its prestigious historical architecture and vibrant port. On our last summertime visit, we took a short bus ride over the modern bridge which connects Île de Ré to the mainland. It was idyllic, like stepping into a stylish film set.

Houses are limited in number, must be whitewashed, and their green shutters may be painted in any of 20 listed shades of green (not unlike here in Bradford on Avon where Farrow and Ball painted doors are almost mandatory!). Also, Île de Ré might have been designed for the bicycle, with 100km of cycle paths over mainly flat scenic terrain to explore at your leisure. We promised to return sometime soon and in 2017 we travelled to sun-kissed La Flotte, taking this lovely old gentleman along too.

We all found the island breathtakingly magical – I can only describe the light saturation to stepping into a filter for editing photos on Instagram, especially in the evening when everything transforms beneath a warm, rosy and romantic glow – both refreshing and energising! I adore the donkeys in pyjamas myself, but Île de Ré is also known for pine forests, vineyards, salt marshes, (salt is the island’s “white gold”), oyster farms, fig trees, fields of sunflowers, ferns and tall hollyhocks … let’s talk about food first though.

This summer we were based at La Flotte harbour, a destination a reputed to be one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’ and if you visited you’d have to agree it was in with a good shot. Our apartment was just around the corner from the 200-year old picturesque paved and half-covered market which also boasts ‘best on the island’ status, pure serendipity for a CardioKit Project Manager.

My formative years were spent abroad influenced by the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ and in my experience, the key is to keep food simple. When ingredients are premium quality they need little to recommend them – just look at my first basket of shopping from that market.

Cardiologist’s Kitchen advice does not replicate the Mediterranean Diet but differences depend on how accurately it is reported.  Check out this definition, ‘the Mediterranean diet is shorthand for eating more fish than meat, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans) and olive oil, while making some smart choices with your dairy‘, and compare it to the way the British Heart Foundation describes it, ‘rich in fruit and vegetables, oily fish, such as sardines, and wholegrain cereals, with modest amounts of meat and low-fat dairy. One of the better-known aspects is the use of monounsaturated fats such as olive oil instead of saturated fats such as butter.’

Confused? Cardiologist’s Kitchen advice is more in line with the first definition as our ‘Cooking Cardiologist’ doesn’t recommend low-fat options, nor are they part of the Med Diet as far as I am aware. For this innovation just deliciousness and a sound evidence base for an ingredient or combination of ingredients’ potential to improve cardiovascular health, matches Dr Khavandi’s CardioKit criteria. Click on this link to find all his advice listed on our new website page

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Scroll down to find many pictures I took of fresh produce there, we’re focussing on fishy ingredients here.

My first market visit compared to discovering somewhere as engaging and colourful as Borough Market in London – showcasing phenomenal choice and quality wares. Maybe it’s worth exploring what I didn’t buy and why. Options which in equal measure intrigued but terrified me, were the crates upon crates of craggy old oysters.

At regular intervals along the roads of Île de Ré you’ll find cabanes where families serve up oysters they have cultivated, a totally simple and cheap meal. Shellfish contain Omega-3 fats and are a heart-healthy option. Eating shellfish also counts towards the two portions of fish a week, that the Food Standards Agency recommends the general population should be eating as a minimum.

What would you expect to find in a vending machine? Try naming five healthy options you might see, … or try two, … one then? Would it surprise you to hear that on Île de Ré, French oyster farmers have started to sell fresh live oysters from automatically dispensing vending machines? They can be now purchased 24/7, just perfect for when you get that oyster craving in the early hours. If oysters are not your thing, (not mine obviously), keep reading for my favourite shellfish recipes.

An abundance of options were available and the evidence for eating fish is pretty compelling. The regular consumption of fish and particularly oily fish has been consistently associated with marked improved health and specifically cardiovascular protection .

People who eat oily fish at least once a week can reduce their risk of heart attack and sudden death significantly. This has been related to the rich marine Omega-3 fat content of oily fish. Consequently, we now recommend at least 2 portions of oily fish per week and this is even more important if you have established cardiovascular diseases or risk factors.

Observed health benefits were subsequently translated to the production, sale and marketing of ‘fish oil’ supplements targeting cardiovascular health. It is estimated that 40% of the UK population regularly take a supplement to be ‘healthy’. Although the evidence to support eating oily fish is good, the evidence to support taking Omega-3 supplements remains inconsistent. Our advice is to avoid supplements and concentrate your efforts and finances on eating fish if possible.

This would account for the 17 recipes to date including fish as their main ingredient in the COOK pages of the Cardiologist’s Kitchen website. Take a look here

You don’t have to go to France to find your fishy ingredients either – patients who receive CardioKit packs from their GPs will find we’ve given them discount vouchers for Harts Natural Seafoods who we recommend, and of course, you can order from the Cardiologist’s Kitchen online SHOP or buy from wherever you like so long as you eat fish regularly to protect your heart health. Most of us aren’t eating as much as the recommended guidelines, two portions at least. A portion is around 140g (4.9oz).

On the CardioKit website there is even a tinned sardines recipe/article. Read what Dr Ali Khavandi says, ‘Tinned sardines are a great source of Omega-3 fats, convenient and inexpensive. Introduce these into your diet and they will help you get 2 portions of oily fish per week despite a busy life. They are also pretty versatile and can be used in multiple, quick meal options. We would definitely recommend the Waitrose Sardine Piccanti (if you can find it on the shelf of your local supermarket) and would otherwise direct you towards sardines packaged in olive oil or tomato instead of sunflower oil or brine’.

In the picture are Sardines La Belle-Iloise, which offer ‘high quality preserved fishes, prepared by hand, respecting traditional preserved recipes’. When I found shops in France wholly dedicated to tinned sardines, their shelves floor to ceiling jam-packed with the product, I decided to do arrange a taste test.

So, in line with our advice to keep active and exercise, we took a two mile stroll along the oceanside from La Flotte to Saint Martin de Ré and our nearest sardine shop. We spent a long time choosing and eventually opted for ‘sardines et au citron a l’huile d’Olive’. I purchased a tin of four, for the CardioKit Team tasting.

At the airport I was warned that each sardine tin contains 15g more than one traveller may carry in their luggage! It wasn’t an option to open each 115g can and eat a couple of sardines before sharing them out between four of us, so I was asked to hand them over. I retrieved this empty tin and begrudgingly deleted the words ‘sardine smuggler’ from my CV.

Anyway, back to Île de Ré, where it was Moules Marinières, the quintessential French holiday dish, which grabbed my attention over the week and inspired me to ask Sam to create two brand new Cardiologist’s Kitchen options – Moules Marinières and Moules a la crème to be enjoyed with a green leafy salad or lemon-soaked samphire.

You will know our CardioKit criteria by now – delicious and heart healthy. Having eaten my fair share of mussels on holiday, (this was one of many meals, my favourite as enjoyed next to the beach), I can vouch for their superb taste and full-bodied flavour. In addition, they are satisfying and have the most impressive nutritional profile of all shellfish.

Farmed mussels are environmentally benign, and some research suggests their cultivation may have an overall beneficial effect on the marine ecosystem. In the UK you can buy 1kg for less than £4 and 1kg will feed 2 people. You could even find them on the menu at The Bunch of Grapes, where CardioKit patients receive an impressive 50% discount!

Well, this was my summer break – not switched off from my day job whatsoever, but Île de Ré with all those heart-healthy ingredients and bicycles was just too ‘CardioKit’ for that!

If you have an opportunity to visit, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Now it’s time to mention the island’s most popular attractions: the Poitou donkeys. They are a unique breed with particularly large heads, ears and legs with long, furry hair like loose dreadlocks, and wearing their distinctive striped pyjamas.

These incredibly cute donkeys were used to work in the salt farms where they wore cotton leggings to protect their legs from mosquitos, but now they are to be found posing for photos with fans like me and giving short rides in Saint Martin de Ré.

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