Posted by: 4pack | August 4, 2008

Ideal Body Bootcamp…The French “Haute Cuisinie” Fitness Methode

A luxury French bootcamp may sound like a joke but there’s nothing funny about the exercise regime, writes Kieran Falconer

“The usual time for resolutions is January, but having just passed a birthday putting me well on the way to 40, I decided it was time to lose a bit of weight. In fact a lot of weight, and to get fit and eat better and … I just hope the mid-life crisis is more fun. The problem is that I have the self-discipline of a crack addict locked in a crack mine in Colombia with Amy Winehouse, so I need a bit of coercion to fulfil this resolve.

What I found was Camp Biche in south-west France, an exercise borstal with privileges. This really appealed to the flagrant hedonist in me. For, unlike at other more austere health retreats, at Camp Biche you’re allowed to drink the local Cahors wine with meals, the food is excellent, the bed linen is changed daily and Roger & Gallet toiletries caress your tired muscles.

After a convivial Saturday evening of getting to know each other the 6am Sunday start of 300 abdominal crunches certainly changed my life perspective. To coincide with these movements, Libby has devised mantras that include: ‘The universe is perfect exactly as it is now.’ After saying this hundreds of times over the week, I became rather New Age-intolerant, replacing ‘perfect’ with ‘fucked’ depending on my pain levels.

We followed the same routine every day. After the crunches came an hour of hatha yoga, which most of us found so mind-numbing that one morning Christina was found snoring gently in class. Our French teacher, Nadine, seemed to confuse yoga with origami and, dissatisfied with my posture, regularly gave me a good old twisting until I folded. The session ended with her naming every part of your body that should be relaxed, but I could never get to grips with the instruction to ‘relax your nostrils’. I flared them like Kenneth Williams. I shrugged my nose like a rabbit. I failed to relax my nostrils.

A change of clothes and a hurried breakfast of yoghurt, fruit, granola and coffee and we were out of the door at 9am for a four- to five-hour hike in the countryside. This was one of the highlights of the day. The countryside, as Christina commented, is ‘relentlessly beautiful’. It is rolling rather than mountainous (thank God) and we would wend our way through woody glades and fields usually making 10 miles before lunch.

At least an hour was walked in silence. All you could hear was your footfalls, the crickets, barley rustling in the breeze and distant church bells echoing across the valleys. Dogfights of butterflies (blue, white, purple) crowded our path as, accompanied by an orchestra of birds, we ventured through forests and past fields of sunflowers. We came across outrageous explosions of wild flowers that you rarely see in England now. Victoria summed it up by saying: ‘The star of this show is the Lot countryside’.

We arrived back for lunch in varying degrees of exhaustion and so hungry we would eat anything. What we got was truly sublime. I’ve notched up a galaxy of Michelin stars, as my waistline attests, but rarely were any of them as consistently inventive and tasty as the cooking of the resident chef Michael Spitali.

Every day – lunch and dinner – Spitali produced fabulous multi-course meals, with no dish ever being repeated in the seven days. Within the limitations of portion size, fat content, minimal salt and carbohydrate, he produced brilliant dishes where satiation was achieved purely through taste. Among stand-out plates were a cappuccino of marinaded chickpea topped with foam and foie gras, perch served with cracked wheat in a mild curry sauce, carpaccio of scallops under a layer of spiced avocado, melon gazpacho with ginger, and a rich, creamy celeriac soup. Good ice cream and fruit tarts for puds. Yes, puds!

There were, of course, limits on the booze. Lucy expressed amazement at how one bottle could be made to serve four staff and four guests. Perhaps it was because the glasses were the size of tiny thimbles contrasting mockingly with our Great British beefy 250ml vessels. We began to call it Camp Bitch.

After lunch we had an hour or so to digest our food, use the hot tub (a necessity after a few days of crunches) then it was the turn of Nina ‘Killer’ Andersson, a baby-faced personal trainer, to get us sweating again.

Cheerful, Swedish, blonde and evil, Nina believed that my salvation lay in press-ups, more crunches and boxercise. The only thing I was good at was a skipping exercise (not terribly macho to admit, is it?) and the reason for that was because it resembled the dance Morecambe and Wise used to do when singing ‘Bring Me Sunshine’.

One day Nina had us running up and down stairs in the village, observed by an old man drinking wine, smoking and chortling at us. After a few reps, a semi-indignant Victoria said: ‘I’m old enough to be Nina’s mother. I bet she wouldn’t treat her mother like this.’ But by midweek we’d begun to love Nina and to enjoy the pain – this is probably why they call it Stockholm Syndrome.

Nina’s reign of terror was occasionally supplanted by the ministrations of Johanna Baars, a Pilates teacher, who really enthused us in this art. Pilates was universally enjoyed, mostly I think, because, unlike with the yoga, we were perpetually in movement.

By day two or three you hit a wall that only the daily massages (traditional Swedish, Thai or shiatsu) and the hot tub can remedy. But once you’re through this, things get easier, even enjoyable. So much so that on the final day I realised I was going to miss the mandatory morning crunch. That’s not to say I was a saint. Many an evening saw me and the other inmates amble to the local bar, Le Puits de Jour in the village square, and neck a few beers to numb the pain.

This is obviously an expensive kind of boot camp, but if you value lashings of personal attention and excellent food, it compares well with any health farm. I lost eight or nine pounds, lost a notch on my belt and came away sufficiently toned to kick-start gym work with relish.

Two days after getting back I started attending regular Pilates classes. In fact, I became so metrosexual, the Catholic church condemned me.

Camp Biche (020 7617 7253; costs from £2,300 for a seven-night stay including all meals, massages, and transfers. British Airways (0844 493 0787; flies to Toulouse from Gatwick from £98 return.


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