Gwyneth should try the pig fat

Observations on Russian remedies

If Gwyneth Paltrow enjoyed her recent "cupping" experience - the alternative health treatment that left round, red bruises on her back - then she should head for Moscow. Every self-respecting Russian family has a cupping kit under the kitchen sink. The spherical bulbs (like shot glasses) are usually stored in a standard Soviet-era cardboard box. The glass cups, or banki, are brandished with relish by babushka every time you so much as cough. I have endured this medieval and humiliating treatment every time I have stayed with a Russian family, with would-be medical experts of all ages fussing around me in a communal flat, laughing uproariously at my naked, deformed back as I winced in pathetic agony.

In Russia, cupping is not a $200 luxury treatment for stress relief. No one does it for fun. No spa treatment this.

It is a cure for flu, chest infections and, if babushka is particularly sadistic, the common cold. It is also wielded as a threat, particularly over children and moaning foreign visitors, to test whether you are "really" ill. Do not trust the alternative practitioners who claim otherwise - cupping is not painless. And rather like agreeing to put your head under a towel and over a steaming bowl of Vicks, if you are willing to submit to banki, then you are allowed to be classed officially as ill.

Once you have been badgered into submission by an insistent Russian host mother who won't take nyet for an answer, you will learn another secret of banki. Administering them is seen as a very special treat indeed. Family members vie with each other for the addictive satisfaction of suctioning the patient's skin into the vacuum of the glass cup. It is, apparently, as enticing to some as sticking a spoon into a squelchy trifle or popping bubblewrap. I wouldn't know, having always played the role of the trifle or the bubblewrap.

The good news for Gwyneth is that there is plenty more alternative medicine where this came from. For a sore throat, Russians also love home-made mustard plasters (sticky bits of paper lavishly coated with Dijon's, or Donetsk's, finest). If that doesn't appeal, she could try rubbing lard on her breastbone. This is said to work even better when taken with a mug of warmed pig fat and milk. Tickly cough? Shove some garlic and raw onion into the toes of your socks and stride forth with confidence. And if you are unfortunate enough to contract something like dysentery - as I once did in St Petersburg - then prepare for Russian friends to force ugol, a fine black powder, down your throat. It went straight through me with no adverse effects and I think it may even have done me some good. Later, I looked it up in the dictionary. It was coal.

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