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Spa Cooking Coming of Age : Healthful Cuisine Moves Into the Mainstream

September 25, 1986|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

The word spa has a colorful history.

Almost 2,000 years ago the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, recorded in his Historia Naturalis that Roman soldiers noticed the health and restorative powers of the waters in a place called Spa in Northern Gaul (Belgium today), according to "A Masterpiece Called Belgium" by Arthur Frommer (1984). At its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Belgian resort hosted the crown heads of Europe, who dined sparingly to restore vim and vigor for the ordeals of home rule.

The French essayist, Montaigne, declared the waters in Spa miraculous, and Czar Peter the Great, whose constant bouts of indigestion drove him for relief to Spa in 1717, was pronounced restored after treatment with the water . (The waters of Spa, by the way, will be arriving in bottle form in the United States soon to compete with its better-known rivals from France and Italy, according to Belgian commercial attache Willy G. M. Robijn at the Belgian consulate in Los Angeles.)

Not Restricted to Europe

In France and Belgium, spa food is called gastronomie dietetique. But spa cooking is no longer restricted to the Continent, or to resorts, for that matter. Spa cooking has filtered into the mainstream coast to coast here within the last few years.

One can merely speculate on the reasons for the energetic growth of eateries featuring spa food lately.

There seems to be greater interest in fitness and health, increased knowledge of what it takes to control and maintain weight in a world faced with runaway terminal diseases associated with diet.

Studies now show that Americans are eating increased amounts of more healthful foods, such as fruits, vegetables and grains, as well as less meat as recommended by the health experts. A 1985 Gallup Poll indicates that 6.2 million Americans are veering toward meatless eating, according to a Newsweek report.

French Lessons, New Chefs

Attention paid to aestheticism with healthful eating is due to lessons taught not only by the French culinary movements of the last 10 years-- nouvelle cuisine and cuisine minceur, both emphasizing beautiful presentation and healthful eating--but to the influx of professionally trained European and Oriental chefs in the United States within the last decade.

The trend toward healthful eating had a sluggish start 25 years ago when European sources established spas fashioned after European resorts throughout the United States. "Fat farms," as they fatuously were called in pages of slick fashion magazines, retained an exclusivity for most of those years.

"The better hotels were more likely to serve spa food 10 years ago, especially in climates conducive to outdoor living," said Hans Pluntke, director of food and beverage at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which features a special fitness menu filled with simple, but healthful sandwiches and entrees.

Many restaurants and hotels have followed suit, and their numbers are on the rise.

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