So here we are in lockdown, some of us carrying the ghosts of the banana loaf baking craze – a little extra padding, a lingering queasiness, a touch of self-loathing at having indulged in pies and puddings, bubbly and beers, braais and fries, as if there were no tomorrow.
“People often know what they should be doing but lead such busy lives they’re not sure how to do it,” says Juliet Stephenson, chef at Brookdale Health Hydro at Nottingham Road in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Juliet has been motivating people to change their eating habits since she arrived at Brookdale in 2010. “The key is simplicity and going back to basics.”
She doesn’t mean nibbling on a lettuce leaf or pursuing a one-size-fits-all regime. “It’s about moderation. Fasting isn’t the way to detox. Eating the right foods is.” What are those right foods? “Fresh, home-cooked, natural, fibre-rich and mostly plant foods,” Juliet says, adding that guests are pleasantly surprised at how delicious and satisfying Brookdale’s meals are.
“Quality not quantity is our guideline. Our food is nutrient-dense, unlike on-the-go items like snack bars that are energy-dense and low in nutrients.”
Juliet works closely with dietician Caryn Davies, who also joined the Brookdale family in 2010. Together they create imaginative dishes that Juliet describes as low carb, low fat, Mediterranean-style food. And while three things are excluded – caffeine (gulp!), alcohol, and red meat (although the latter is included in recipe books) – there are no blanket rules or restrictive diets. Says Caryn, “Our guests are inspired by a different way of life and realistic alternatives that are both healthy and delicious.”
Breakfast that morning is a good example of those healthy, delicious alternatives. There’s smoked salmon, avocado, pumpkin seed pesto, cottage cheese and fresh fruit. No coffee. Mid-morning brings a glass of kombucha that’s alive with probiotics. “We’re big on gut health,” Caryn explains. “You’re only as healthy as your gut.”
Great, but I’ll do anything for a cup of good coffee right now. No chance. “Caffeine raises adrenalin levels. A lot of people aren’t aware of the symptoms of caffeine intake – nausea, flushing, shakiness, racing heart, and insomnia.” I can’t say I’ve noticed that in myself but as Caryn explains, some people are genetically equipped to metabolise adrenalin quickly whereas others aren’t.
I like to think I’m in the fast category but, to know for sure, I could avail myself of a DNA-analysis service offered at Brookdale. “It tests for 36 gene variants to pinpoint sensitivities and guide people on what foods to avoid,” explains Caryn, who is accredited to DNAlysis, the company that pioneered this testing in South Africa.
There’s not one food (other than the trout – I’m a vegetarian) at lunch-time I’d want to avoid. Everything is so gorgeous it’s like looking at a beautiful garden, a fitting simile because plant-based dishes play a starring role in all Juliet’s recipes. What’s more, many of those plants are freshly harvested from Brookdale’s veggie garden.
Keeper of that garden is Ostern Chafuka. He’s carrying an armful of magnificent greens when I meet him. What is his secret for growing such exceptional veggies? “Sun, ozonated borehole water, no chemicals, and lots of love,” he says.
So there before us on the table is a love-infused feast so colourful it could have been made from rainbows. Ginger turmeric soup, trout fillets with spinach basil pesto, roasted pear salad, and quinoa salad bursting with micro-greens and sprouts. “They contain digestive enzymes which help with gut health,” says Juliet.
Creamy mango lollies make a mockery of sugar-laden ice cream, and the fig and pistachio truffles are as good as the best chocolate. It’s almost hard to believe these desserts contain no sugar. “By eating simply you learn to appreciate natural flavours,” says Juliet. “So when you reduce your sugar intake, you start to appreciate the natural sweetness in foods.”
Not that the occasional chocolate is a sin.
“If you follow the 80/20 rule – 80 per cent healthy food – you’re on the right track,” says Wendy Somers-Cox who, with her husband Tony, founded Brookdale in 1992. “We bought the property in 1989,” says Tony. “The buildings were abandoned and the land covered in bluegum and wattle.”
Two-and-a-half years later, after much hard toil, Wendy and Tony opened their haven of peace. Set in beautiful surroundings, it’s the answer to the stresses and toxins of the outside world. “People don’t come here for weight loss, but to get off the treadmill for a while and to detox,” Tony says. Manager and co-director, Marilyn Cox agrees, adding, “We’re the real thing. Relaxed, homely, and with a holistic approach.” As we speak, guests in white dressing gowns stroll serenely past on their way to that health-restoring lunch on the deck above the brook bubbling through the dale.
It’s all so heavenly and healthy, a phrase echoed in the title of Brookdale’s two recipe books: Heavenly and Healthy Foods, and Heavenly and Healthy Flavours. “The books were a response to guests asking for inspiration for when they went back home,” says Juliet. “We’re working on a third that will focus on lifestyle and will be a useful resource during festive times.”
Excellent news for those who don’t want the ghost of Christmas Past haunting us again next year.