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The Armchair Personal Trainer

Ways to make your life a bit healthier.

Mel Yates, G&G

Pumpkin Smoothies

While pumpkin pies are being gobbled on the other side of the pond, here’s a different way to enjoy Halloween’s left overs. Pumpkins are a source of vitamin A and the seeds are full of magnesium. Both help with energy levels.

To make two smoothies, remove the skin and scoop out the inside of half a pumpkin. Cut into chunks and boil for 25 minutes until soft. Meanwhile, separate the seeds from the stringy flesh and roast for 30 minutes at 160C. Cool the seeds and chunks and then blend with a banana, 250ml of almond milk, ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, a little nutmeg, allspice, ten ice cubes and a squeeze of maple syrup.

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Celebrating Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving this month by packing on the pounds with a turkey dinner at the wrong time of year. It’s wrong, we know, but it’s a story worth sharing.

About 400 years ago, a wooden boat about three buses long set sail from England with its’ bow set for the New World. The Mayflower had around 100 people on board who wanted to be free from the Church of England. A group who became known as the Pilgrims.

They eventually landed in New England and began establishing a village. The first winter was tough and sadly only half of the Mayflower’s passengers survived to see spring. Their luck changed when they were visited by a Native American, called Squanto, who taught them how to grow crops, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants. By November, the Pilgrim’s first corn harvest was a success and to celebrate, they had a feast, now known as America’s first Thanksgiving.

We don’t know if the Pilgrims ate turkey that day. There was a “fowling” trip to get ready for the party but that could have meant hunting for local ducks, swans or turkeys.  Since Lincoln made Thanksgiving a public holiday, we know roasted, stuffed and sometimes fried turkey became the main event. (Search for ‘fry a turkey’ on YouTube to see turkey cooking taken too far.)

Around 45 million turkeys meet their maker on Thanksgiving with one lucky bird being spared by the president. Kennedy started the tradition and over the years the survivors have seen out their days in various places from the not-so-turkey-friendly sounding Frying Pan Park to Disney Land.

Thanksgiving’s trimmings aren’t what you’d expect to find nestled next to slices of turkey. Favourites include mashed potatoes, sweet corn, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. We like that, if roast potatoes, sprouts, pigs in blankets and cranberry sauce all made an appearance then what’s the point in Christmas dinner a month later?

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Twelve banana cupcakes sat sadly in the bin. Our first low sugar baking test hadn’t gone to plan. A mushy stodge was a good description of our first bake. Mary Berry would be ever so disappointed. Starting a business teaches you many things including perseverance, and we needed plenty as we cracked on with our next recipe.

There’s a lot in the press about the scourges of refined sugar – particularly in the drinks industry – but baking seems to have escaped. When was the last time you saw Paul or Mary condemn sugar as they sample the Bake Off’s finest? 

For good reason. Sugar is the baker’s friend. When sugar gets wet it locks in moisture and keeps baking moist. Sugar helps cakes rise. Sugar deepens the colour of baking and adds crunch when needed.

So is it possible to bake without refined sugar without compromising on taste? We invited a few Fiovana drinkers to find out.

Maxime, Sarah and Emma (along with the Fiovana team) tried three bakes; Peanut Butter Granola Bites, a Carrot Cake and Super Seed Chocolate Chip Cookies. We served our bakes at the end of our low alcohol wine tasting so there’s a low chance our results were ever so slightly influenced by four bottles of wine.

 The Winner: Peanut Butter Granola Bites

They disappeared first and had a wonderfully indulgent and sticky texture with the occasional bite of peanut and rice crispy. Because they were not cooked (simply mixed and chilled), we didn’t miss refined sugar’s ability to help bakes rise in the oven. The mix and chill approach also kept them super moist. Top notch.

Close second: Carrot cake

We thought it was going to be tricky to create a nice light cake without refined sugar and to our slight surprise, we got a great result. It didn’t have the crumb typical of a refined sugar cake but it was springy, had bags of flavour and still sweet enough to feel like a delicious treat. The recipe we used suggested adding a frosting (icing for us Brits) but we felt it wasn’t needed.

In third place: Super Seed Chocolate Chip Cookies

The only thing that was missing compared to typical sugar-sweetened brownies was more of a crunch. They were a bit too soft when we’re used to more...

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Why it’s worth the swap.


Crap was my first thought as I watched 40 litres of coconut nectar ever-so-slowly spread into a giant golden pancake across our kitchen floor. Perhaps we should have used refined sugar in our drinks; it’s much easier to clean up.

Apart from the sticky mess caused by a faulty container, spilling coconut nectar is an expensive business. Our expanding pancake set us back £192, compared to £17 for an equivalent pile of wasted sugar. But we think nectar’s worth it. Here’s why in case you’ve never heard of it.

Coconut nectar comes from coconut trees, naturally. It’s laborious to make involving tree climbing, tapping (or making a small incision in) the bottom of its flowers and then waiting several hours while collecting the runny honey looking nectar that slowly seeps out. (The flowers are completely fine and quickly recover to be tapped another day). Once collected, it’s slowly heated until the nectar resembles maple syrup, bottled and stored.

It has a few benefits compared to other ways to make things sweet. A squeeze of nectar provides more vitamins and minerals compared to a spoonful of sugar. It is low on something called the glycaemic index which means your body takes longer to make the most of it so you avoid a sugar crash. Angelina Jolie’s friends at the United Nations named coconut nectar the most sustainable sweetener in the world in 2014 due to coconut trees needing only a little water to keep them happy.

If you’re into cooking then you can swap it for normal sugar. It’s roughly the same sweetness and it works particularly well in baking.

If you’d like to give it a whirl then you can find it in supermarkets. Luckily, it’s sold in much more friendly little bottles rather than the extra large containers we use and occasionally spill.

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Like wine? Us too. But what about low alcohol wine? Yes, it might save a few calories and make the morning after a little less painful, but are they any good?

 We invited Fiovana drinkers, Sarah, Emma and Maxime to try a few lower alcohol bottles to find out. Our guineapigs are not wine professionals; they just enjoy it enough to know their Merlots from their Chardonnays. To make things fun we did an alcohol blind test by hiding the percentages on each bottle label to see if they could rank them from bucks fizz to mildly intoxicating.

 Johannisberg Riesling V Kabinett, Johannishof 2014 (Fiovana scores on the door 7/10)

Available from the Wine Society, £11.95 for a bottle. 

Basics first, Riesling is a white grape from the Rhine region of Germany. Their wines are sweet and Sarah described this one as ‘very sweet, like honey’. It’s transparent, with wafts of citrus fruit. Take that lemonade. There were general comments on this one being dry and rich but it was ‘too sweet’ for Emma, and Sarah said she wouldn’t want to share a whole bottle. Alcohol wise it came in at a reasonable 8% compared to your average bottle of white around 12%.

 Alaia Txakoli 2013 DO Getariako Txakolina (Fiovana scores on the door 6/10)

Available from M&S, £10 for a bottle. 

It sounds Greek but this wine is from the Basque region of northern Spain. It’s a vivacious young wine traditionally poured at height into tall glasses. Being British we were a little more conservative, filling our glasses with the bullet proof neck on rim technique. Professional wine critic Olly Smith Sharp has described this wine as “scented and piercing as a diamond drilling to the core of your palate.” But, Emma felt it looked very pale and had little aroma with a sniff of ‘apple and freshly cut grass’. It went particularly well with a slice of nutty Epaisse cheese we had on the side. This wine was on the boozier end of what we tried weighing in at 10.5% on our alcohol scales.

 Gamay, Jacques Depagneux 2013 (Fiovana scores on the door 7/10)

Available from the Wine Society, a very reasonable £5.50 for a bottle

This French red was our only non-white option. (Red grapes need more time to ripen which adds up to...

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