How to lose your lockdown pounds in the greatest country for food
At L’Albereta, Lombardy’s shrine to gourmet excess, Mark C O’Flaherty rises to the challenge of losing weight
Some things can’t be done alone. Others can only be achieved in solitude. There was something I desperately needed to achieve recently that was both at once. How to describe this year? Let’s go with challenging. Conundrum-packed. Should you get out of bed? Why do they give out a packet of crisps on a 45-minute flight, inviting everyone to take their masks off simultaneously? Why inflict a 10pm curfew and then close hospitality down entirely, but leave the petri-dish of academia open? And crucially: why did I just eat three peanut butter sandwiches after a giant plate of spaghetti carbonara?
We have all had our own private Room 101s in 2020. Mine came in the form of binge-eating during lockdown 1.0, and then binge-eating some more to celebrate restaurants reopening. Returning to the gym did barely anything to help reshape me. I am of burly Irish stock, bred for agriculture rather than effete literary pursuits. Exercise has little impact on my weight; cardio just tricks my body into thinking it’s the 12th century, the English are invading, and it needs to store all the reserves of fat it can. By the end of summer I was carrying an extra 9lb of not-so-prime beef. I’d had many cakes and eaten them all.
I needed a break from everything. And if I went anywhere with my husband, that was going to mean four meals a day and wine with each course. Sybarites are as sybarites do. I needed to go somewhere solo. It had to be remote and beautiful, where I could stare at the horizon, swim, and read the new Lucian Freud biography. Most importantly, I wanted to be bullied ruthlessly away from empty calories and caffeine. At home, it’s too easy to submit to hunger pangs and start that new regime tomorrow. And tomorrow never comes.
In the middle of a vineyard in Lombardy – a Covid-negative test result and a 50-minute drive from Milan – sits L’Albereta, a late-19th century villa covered in climbing vines that suggests nature has risen up and reclaimed the Renaissance architecture. It’s essentially a fancy Relais & Chateaux hotel with a maze of gold-painted Escher-like staircases, Murano chandeliers, a sculpture park and a brand new Fornasetti-tiled swimming pool.
You could come here for a few nights and stuff your face with chef Franco Pepe’s fried pizza with mortadella, ricotta, pistachio and lemon at La Filiale, and have eggs benedict on the terrace with views out to Lake Iseo. All the kind of stuff you do on holiday in Italy. I, however, did none of this.
As well as all of the above, L’Albereta houses Espace Chenot, a lair of treatment rooms across two floors devoted to Henri Chenot’s supercut of ancient Chinese medical principals, modern spa treatments and woo-woo. As one of the resident “curists”, I took my morning breakfast of berries and barley coffee in the Greeneige Lounge, and my lunch and dinner in Ristorante Benessere.
My experience at the latter reminded me of trips to Russia in the 1980s, where each dining room I visited would be more lavish than the one before, but dinner consisted of variations on a theme of two slices of beetroot and half a boiled egg. There was some distracting theatre around each meal at L’Albereta, with a printed menu and three courses at each sitting. But when you are on 600 calories a day, you can’t expect al forno fireworks.
Actually, it was all pretty good. Punctuating the leafy salads were things I would welcome in the real world: a black rice dish with coconut, and a bowl of orange tapioca were delicious. Ditto a scoop of banana ice cream with soy yogurt and lime.
The Chenot Method is a journey. And there are definitely bumps in the road. Caffeine-deprivation headaches are inevitable, but manageable (I had a secret stash of ibuprofen, but didn’t dip into it). On my first full day of my week at L’Albereta a nutritionist weighed and measured me, and explained my BMI flagged me up as borderline morbidly obese, but I shouldn’t get too upset because I had a lot of muscle.
I mentally gave her a wink and blew on my finger nails. Thanks, nice masked Italian lady. I was, she said, going on the Detox Diet, which is half of the calories of the Biolight Diet. And for 31 hours, after my first two nights in residence, I would fast. This would, surprisingly, be the easiest part of the week.
The first 48 hours was rough – Saturday night’s last hurrah pizza and gallon of wine rippled hangrily through my bloodstream. I had Trainspotting-level cravings. More than anything else, I wanted a cortado.
When the urges subsided I was left feeling mildly, pleasantly, hungry. Bloated has been my default for months. This was the reset. During the full-on fasting period, with just mushroom broth to sustain me, I felt no hunger at all. I was in a perpetual light-headed state, and wondered: What if I just never ate again? How long before things would become really weird?
I swam in the outdoor pool all afternoon in the autumnal sun. I slept through breakfast the next day to skip one of the two mealtime voids in my day, and then – almost reluctantly – had a grilled fish supper. As I broke my fast, I was acutely and uncomfortably aware that I’ve never endured genuine hunger before. I eat well, but too much.
Because I’ve always been greedy, this wasn’t my first time doing something like this. I’ve been to austere German clinics before this, to reset my various appetites in an ascetic setting. But I wanted to reboot in Italy this autumn. I wanted to be close to what I can’t resist (pasta, wine, etc), in a place that I equate with total pleasure, but demonstrate an equilibrium previously unseen or experienced.
I wanted to be surrounded by that molto Italian magnolia colour they love to mottle walls with; I wanted bad modern art; fabulous bed linen, and that light that you only get in the north of Italy – like the pale straw colour of a really good, biscuity champagne.
On arriving at L’Albereta you are given a folder to help assemble your therapist’s notes each day and a small tote bag to carry them around in. The bag has the legend “live, laugh, love” on it, so I didn’t use it. It’s down there with “prosecco o’clock” on the spectrum of provincial gift shop atrocities.
I was given a schedule, which consisted largely of morning hydrotherapy treatments followed by a Chenot Energetic Massage. Each day I was submerged in a bath of sequentially programmed water jets, wrapped in mud, and then hosed down from a distance in a long-tiled chamber. The experience had a kind of luxury Midnight Express feel to it. After drying off, I was massaged along my meridian lines: one day the spleen, another the liver, and so forth.
Powered-up glass suction cups were rhythmically moved across my skin, as well as the masseur’s hands. On some days a gentle, strangely enjoyable, electrical current was passed through parts of my limbs. It felt a bit strange but surprisingly good.
I’m deeply cynical about just about everything in life, but in 2020, if someone promises me weight loss and a sense of well-being, I’m all ears. The Chenot Method incorporates certain things I raised an eyebrow at. I am not one to question more than 2,000 years of acupuncture theory, but when I was asked to hold on to a couple of metal batons for a bioresonance “test”, I made a face. Allegedly the scan can pinpoint areas and organs in my body that need attention.
On researching this later, I was delighted to find a similar device for £31 from Wish. I could change the whole NHS for the price of a car! And yet, for all my scepticism, subsequent scans with another device – apparently pinpointing pressure points identified by Dr Reinhold Voll, who created electro-acupuncture in the 1940s – had interesting results.
Without me volunteering any information, my therapist addressed my insomnia, offered detail about my excessive and erratic energy levels, and poor breathing techniques during exercising. “You don’t like to breathe because you are hypersensitive,” she said. “You try to keep your metabolism slow because you don’t like to feel.” All of this was arrestingly accurate, and went beyond the obvious suggestion that I might be suffering with some anxiety right now. Because in 2020, that’s a given.
I still had some issues with the Chenot Method. I hate the term “detox”. It’s a nonsense. Your liver does that. No procedure can do a better job. It’s like the fad for the alkaline diet, which was said by some to change the pH of your blood. If it did, you’d die. Similarly: Remember the cult for Yakult? The commercial probiotics market is worth more than £28 billion a year but there is precisely zero evidence that they do anything. But, but, but… sugar, carbs and alcohol have addictive qualities. They can make you feel like crap when moderation has been tossed out of the window along with all your plans for the year.
So, while I might be unsure about some of the detail in Henri Chenot’s approach to well-being, I can’t fault the results, which skimmed 7lb and 11/2in off me and left my skin feeling so fresh and soft that I couldn’t stop touching myself for days. I’m certainly not living on 600 calories a day any more, but I haven’t had anything with refined carbs or sugar since getting home, and I won’t succumb to the temptation during the dark days that are coming.
It’s an insanity that I could technically order pizza to be delivered this weekend, but it’s illegal to go to the gym. But we live with insanity daily right now. And as I was advised in Lombardy, I’m learning to breathe. And take one day at a time.
L’Albereta Relais & Chateaux, Via Vittorio Emanuele 23, 25030 Erbusco BS, Italy (0039 030 776 0550; albereta.it). A three-day programme excluding accommodation costs from €1,260 (£1,137) and a 14-day programme from €8,000.
Overseas holidays are currently not allowed.