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Celebrity Health - Tonia Buxton

Greece is the word!

TV chef Tonia Buxton is the consultant chef at The Real Greek restaurants and the presenter of My Greek Kitchen and My Cypriot Kitchen on the Discovery Channel. The 48-year-old mum-of-four has just launched her latest book, The Real Greek Cook Book.

Image of Tonia Buxton courtesy of Vanessa Courtier.

Q: Tell us about the benefits of following a Greek diet.

Tonia: This is the diet that my parents and grandparents followed – the indigenous Greek diet. It’s all about going back to nature and eating from the land. There have been lots of studies carried out into the reasons why rates of heart disease are so low in Greece. One of the main reasons is that Greeks consume lots of olive oil. They cook with it and they drizzle it over their food. Olive oil is the elixir of life.

Q: Is it a very seasonal diet?

Tonia: Yes. In Greece, people eat what they grow. At the moment we have a glut of tomatoes so everything we eat has tomatoes in it. At the early part of the summer there’s an abundance of fruit and at the end of the summer it’s the wine and grape harvest, so we will make lots of desserts with grapes. Then, in October, that’s when the oil harvest comes. In the winter you eat all the things that have been cured in olive oil, like dried tomatoes, dried grapes and cooked aubergines. Nothing goes to waste.

Q: Do you tend to avoid frying food?

Tonia: We do fry, but we do lots of sautéing. We cook mainly with olive oil but you don’t want to turn the heat up too high because then it loses its health benefits and becomes acidic, which is not so good for you. We do a lot of baking too. We’ll bake vegetables in the oven with a tomato sauce on top. The main thing is everything is cooked from scratch.

Q: Do you think in the UK there is too much reliance on processed foods?

Tonia: Yes, I think we have gone so far from the way that we should be eating naturally, it’s astounding. I think the problem is that there is so much misinformation. I was in my local supermarket recently and a young woman came up to me who had seen me on Good Morning Britain. She had all these fruit yogurts for her children and she said: “Which one should I get?” and all of them were toxically full of sugar. I said: “Why don’t you buy plain Greek yogurt, full fat, preferably organic, and if you want to sweeten it for your child chop some fruit in it.” Some of these yogurts have got the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar in them!

Q: It goes back to cooking from scratch again, doesn’t it?

Tonia: Yes! Instead of buying marinated chicken breasts, make your own marinade from salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice, ginger and garlic. By doing that, you eliminate six or seven e-numbers and all the dextrose and other rubbish that goes into buying something that’s already made for you. When people come up to me and ask me: “What do I do?” I say strip it right back and use basic ingredients to make the simplest thing. Once you make a big batch of simple tomato sauce you can then make bolognese sauce, or pour it over grilled vegetables or baked vegetables and then put it in the oven. It’s about making simple steps.

Q: Where did your passion for cooking come from?

Tonia: Both my parents worked very hard and I was the eldest and I was the only daughter, so it was my job to cook. So, I started under duress and then I realised I really liked it and I was really good at it. When I went to university I realised that if you could cook you could get loads of friends. We would do little dinner parties and my friends would serve beans on toast and I couldn’t eat that; I’d been used to a lovely fresh Greek diet that my mum used to cook. So I started cooking simple things like chicken with onions, tomatoes, salt, olive oil and oregano, baked in the oven, and people would be like: “Oh my God, this is delicious!” So from that I really started to enjoy the buzz of making up my own recipes.

Q: How did your TV career develop?

Tonia: Initially I was a school teacher and I started getting interested in nutrition. I did a few nutrition courses, and from there I wrote a pregnancy book about a good diet to eat when you’re having a baby. I got onto a channel called Channel Health, and from there I managed to get onto a Good Food Live TV series. I really wanted to follow my passion. I felt that people didn’t know much about Greek food, and that’s why I came up with the idea of My Greek Kitchen.

Q: Have you passed your love of cooking on to your own children?

Tonia: Yes. My girls are 20 and 17 and they are really good cooks. They have got great palates and they often cook. The boys, who are 11 and eight, they do a lot more baking with me and it’s a case of “Let’s see how much mess I can make in the kitchen!” The girls are not scared to cook and I think that’s what it is. I got them to understand basic principles and ingredients. I just think that the heritage of grandmother to daughter to granddaughter, just handing it down, we don’t really do it much in Britain. It’s a shame.

Q: Do you eat together as a family?

Tonia: We’re all busy with our lives, but we try to make sure that we have dinner together. I think that is the other thing about Greek food that is really interesting. Greeks never eat alone; they always have company. It’s all about filoxenia – a word that translates literally as “friendship to strangers”. That’s got a lot to do with why a lot of the Greeks are so happy and healthy. They don’t eat on the move. Lunch is a long thing – it can go on for three hours!

Q: Do you think that’s why we have a lot of digestive problems in the UK: because everyone eats on the move or at their desks?

Tonia: Absolutely. A lot of the time we are in a rush and we are like dogs chasing our tails; we are not getting anywhere. You just need to take time to slow down, take a deep breath, enjoy your meal with friends and then you will be more productive in the long run.

Q: Do you take any vitamins?

Tonia: I do try to get my nutrients through good food. However, I recently found out that my vitamin D level was quite low. I’m so obsessed with not getting cancer that I’ve got SPF 50 on all the time. I bought this spray recently to spray in my mouth once a day to bring the vitamin D out as it’s a difficult one to get through food – you need exposure to sunshine to get the right intake.

Q: Do you exercise regularly?

Tonia: Yes, I do quite a lot of exercise. It’s much easier when it’s light outside so I might go for a brisk walk or a run or I might go to the gym before I take the boys to school. I think exercise is really important. It keeps you happy and I also think it helps you sleep. If you think about my Greek ancestors, they just walked everywhere. Their lives were not sedentary; they were constantly active.

Q: Do you like to take a holistic approach to your health and wellbeing?

Tonia: Yes, I’ve always tried to do things as holistically as possible. When I had a tummy ache or indigestion my grandmother would get some nettles and boil them up and give me nettle tea because it helps your digestive system. If you’re feeling like you have a bit of an acidic tummy then you boil up fresh peppermint leaves which is very soothing on the stomach. It’s all about prevention for me. I make sure that I have lots of cinnamon in my food because it regulates your blood sugar levels. I use turmeric in our food as well because it is anti-inflammatory. I think food is medicine and medicine is food.

The Real Greek Cook Book with Tonia Buxton is priced at £20 and published by Blink Publishing.

Image © Vanessa Courtier.

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