Saturday, 20 November 2004

Following the Atkins path

I haven't eaten any bread since the middle of June 2004. Five months without bread, pasta, potatoes, rice and pastry. To steal the over-used Victor Meldrew phrase, I can't believe it. To anyone who loves their food as much as I do, that seems an impossibility and one I just didn't try and conjure with before deciding that my weight was out of control and it was time I took myself in hand(fuls). I realise that I have only written one blog since I started, on any subject, and it is probably because any spare time for thought has been spent thinking about producing grub that will satisfy but not expand the waistline any further.
It was the BBC's Diet Trials that started me thinking. I watched aghast as people tried to live with Slimfast, wondering how on earth it was possible to manage a life on non-foodstuffs. I shrugged at Weightwatchers - been there, not done that, and Rosemary Conley was too uninspiring for words. And then there was the much maligned Atkins Diet that intrigued me. We produce a lot of meat and grow a big plot of vegetables. So I got the book and read it. And then I adapted it for me. The main focus is on non-processed foods which in my book of trying so hard to be organic, fitted the bill. Then I was encouraged to eat a good quantity of protein - although the pound of cheese a day (topped by streaky bacon and a ladle of lard if you read the dafter press coverage) is never advocated - how did that myth come into being? For a couple of weeks only I restricted my fruit intake, and permanently (til now anyway) laid off the major carbohydrates. Breakfast was the hardest thing to adapt. I don't want an egg every day - although a mushroom omelette or scrambled eggs with smoked salmon is great a couple of times a week, I can't stomach that daily. So I decided to forget it was breakfast time and ate whatever was healthy and fresh. I might have a bowl of raspberries and blueberries. A mango or half a fresh pineapple. A (big) salad of cos lettuce, real mayo and shavings of parmesan - a kind of Caesar Salad without the croutons.
We bake all our own bread and the hardest thing is smelling the bread as it comes out of the oven. But now I don't eat it, the six loaves last at least twice as long, so the temptation is only there once a month and I have managed to live through that. Pasta, that previous lunchtime staple, has gone the way of bread. I find it easier to stop something completely than create havoc by trying just a little bit. And five months on I am two stone lighter and have about 8 pounds more to lose before attaining my self-imposed first phase goal. When I get there I'll decide if I can take it any further. If my BMI (or you may prefer this one) is anything to go by, for my 5'6" I should be anything from 8st 3 to 11st, a whole 2 st 11lbs variation of possibilities. I would love to be able to create a 'what if?' graphic image of me at either end of that range!
I have read a range of books that have an alliance, however tenuous, to Atkins to see what other tips I might pick up. South Beach was interesting, but I had already found my own way by then, and that's the only trick - finding what works for yourself. Montignac was unreadable and confused, whilst Ruth Watson's Fat Girl Slim was full of useful advice that I continue to refer to, but many recipes added sugar and garlic, both things I try to avoid. Gillian McKeith's programme You are what you eat was unmissable but I haven't taken myself off for any colonic irrigation as yet, although I know friends who love it! (I was mesmerised by this article when it came out in the Guardian in 2002 - one of those pieces you cannot forget and definitely in the category of more information than you really need to know).

I am writing the list below as a reminder that this is the time when it is horribly easy to fall off the wagon. Having gone down at least two dress sizes and feeling closer to "normal", I am in danger of becoming too relaxed. Perhaps if I write this out I will be saved from the ignominy of reverting to my bad ways and pinching not inches but yards. And just as importantly, I want to record my top tips for myself so I don't forget them and can re-use them because if one thing in life is certain, I will have to!
  1. get carbs from vegetables - unlike Atkins, I don't restrict how many tomatoes or carrots I can eat - just cook them healthily and pile up the plate. I also eat parsnips - an Atkins no-no. The only vegetables I avoid are spuds and sweetcorn. Grow swiss chard - you can use it as a pasta substitute - just pile the sauce etc on top of the steamed stalks.
  2. When desperate for a plate of mashed spud, find a celeriac or two, and treat it as a King Edwards - it's delicious and my only problem is that being November I have now eaten all the ones I grew! Swede comes in an ok second best.
  3. Keep the fridge, the freezer and the larder chock full of good things to eat.
  4. Try to keep some parmesan or Gorgonzola to crumble/grate into a salad or to just have a chunk on its own - the powerful flavour is incredibly satifying.
  5. Berries and cherries are great for when a sugar buzz is required, although they need to be eaten within a couple of days or the fur grows.
  6. Roast a chicken frequently - you can always tear off a piece and munch if a slab of toast covered in butter tempts.
  7. Have a great piece of steak, add mushrooms and a salad and pretend chips don't exist. Get the butcher to cut two thin slices of sirloin, so it takes longer to eat than a thicker slab, and some hefty horseradish is a must to accompany it.
  8. Buy whatever I fancy that is on my ok list - loads of tiger prawns, smoked salmon, scallops, fresh fish etc etc. It feels like a constant treat, it tastes yummy and it's just tough if the food bill has gone up.
  9. Eat nuts - not in huge quantities, but in the evening when the after supper munchies attack, have a small handful and feel indulgent
  10. I often need to eat something at 5 o'clock - and if I don't that is when I am most likely to eat something I will regret. So either have a snack or just eat dinner ridiculously early
  11. Organic dark chocolate is a three times a week treat (at least) a couple of (big) squares does the trick
  12. If cooking for others it is very easy to eat a dish using plenty of vegetables and meat and omitting the noodles, rice, spuds etc whilst you serve that element separately for everyone else. Roast dinners are fine - just leave out the roast/baked spuds and cut off the excess fat from the joint once it has cooked.
  13. Eat big meals. Make a big bowl of salad with dressing - not low fat synthetic rubbish but with olive oil or real mayo and slowly eat the lot out of an attractive bowl. Don't go hungry - ever.
  14. Take stuff in the car for long journeys as the petrol station choice is rubbish! Keep a net of baby-bels in the car, plus small bottles of water and put together a bag of fruit and perhaps some cooked chicken before setting out. Keep a fork in the car and make a dressed salad in a tupperware. Chop up a whole pineapple, stick it in a pot with a lid and get the steering wheel sticky if you can't find the fork.
  15. My complete no-no list: bread in any form, including breadcrumbs; spuds; rice; pasta; pastry; sugar; most processed foods; milk; breakfast cereals; any chocolate or sweets apart from organic dark stuff (Green and Blacks is great); eating the same thing day after day
  16. Keeping fingers crossed

Sunday, 11 July 2004

Sod choice

When I go to my local pub for supper I want to be sure that there is a wide enough menu to ensure I don't have to stick to steak every time. When I go looking for a new skirt I seriously hope that knee length navy blue A-line is not the only option available unless I am in a reminiscent of school days mood. When nosing in the fishmongers, scallops might be great for Saturday, but I might prefer tuna on Tuesday. Yes, choice can be great. But if I want to buy water, gas or electricity, want to post a letter or parcel, need directory enquiries, will fall over unless my broken leg is fixed or need to be sure that my neighbours children will be well educated, I don't want choice. I want a single sure-fire service of absolute excellence available to me and everyone else. I don't want to compare prices or quality of service from a choice of bum deals; I want one simple customer-focused delivery that will fix my leg to perfection whether I live in the North or the South without me having to dither about which hospital will do a better job. I want clean water, guaranteed not to be cut off if I find myself in penury. I want a bus service that can't be cut because it is a lifeline to just 20 people. I want the best school on my doorstep, because they all have to be best. I don't want choice, I want excellence, and I fear that "choice" will become the wicked issue of the early 21st century. You know that something is seriously wrong when all the opposition party can say in response to the government's new plans for schools is "you stole our idea" like some playground spat, because everyone wants "choice" to be their slogan of the year. Choice when attributed to public service suggests duplication, profiteering, expensive marketing campaigns and cutting of front-line services. I don't want to spend my life chasing the best rate for electricity or filling my bin with insistent exclamations that someone, somewhere can do something better/cheaper/with a wee free gifty if only I would just sign on the dotted line. You can just see it - "we use softer plaster in a wild range of colours to fix your leg more pleasantly, our nurses are easier on the eye, our doctors have a fab bedside manner and you only have to travel 500 miles to get it".

Tuesday, 11 May 2004

Has time stood still in the West End?

Sunday 9th May 2004, The Observer, headline "West End seeks the sound of black music". A piece from the 1950s? The 1980s perhaps? Or, embarrassingly, if the West End is really that far behind regional theatre across the country the early 1990s? No, it was in last Sunday's paper, and here we are in 2004. As the author of the report Vanessa Thorpe puts it "Black artists are at the cutting edge of the music industry in Britain, but the West End has yet to play host to a show which celebrates their music" and she quotes Brigid Larmour of ACT Productions "It is quite shocking that this hasn't happened yet. It would be very sad if racism is playing any part in that".
Considering the major work with Black artists in London at the Hackney Empire (calling itself Britain's leading black theatre) and the Theatre Royal Stratford East (whose musical theatre initiative to develop new contemporary musicals that represent the eclecticism of multicultural London is now in its third year), the Arts Council's BRIT (Black Regional Initiative in Theatre), Eclipse and decibel initiatives, the work of prominent regional theatres such as Nottingham Playhouse ("we make bold and thrilling theatre. It is world-class, made in Nottingham and as diverse as our community") and ... well just try googling "black theatre uk" and you'll get over 800,000 choices to pursue, how could we have reached 2004 and still be headlining what I would now expect to be mainstream, beyond specific comment other than in reviews and well, just part of the cultural happenings of everyday folk?
If we look at the scene a year from now will it be fundamentally different? When our communities in London and elsewhere are increasingly diverse, when Birmingham will be the first majority black city in the near future, can we still be wondering if black artists will be adequately represented and their work promoted as anything other than a one-off, a fashion statement, a special season or access initiative?
Theatre Royal Stratford East's mission statement says that it will "lead in the development of shows which reflect both specific ethnic identity and multiculturalism", so dealing in its own way (if unintentionally) with the comments that received so much attention made recently by Commission for Racial Equality head Trevor Phillips. In answering his call for integration and an end to multiculturalism, black artists responded in every way imaginable - it seems that after all there is no one way to define our identities or the process for getting to be part of a world we admire rather than fear or despise. Perhaps we should wait for the day that the Royal can draw a line through its bold clear mission because it no longer needs to draw specific attention to something that has become so basic, fundamental, part of the furniture, and where an artist doesn't have to be defined by their colour because their work gets the profile it deserves. Then we will finally have a theatre sector to be proud of, and where racism plays no part.

Monday, 12 April 2004

Pen to pantry

Some months ago a friend 's purchase of some fancy young poultry had proved unlucky - most of the birds turned out to be cockerels and fought each other and then attacked the hands that fed them so sealing their fate. Knowing that we would be putting them in the pot, the glossy picturesque trio were handed over. One was made into fabulous Jewish penicillin - chicken soup - with strips of the boiling fowl, slices of the stuffed neck (using a dumpling suet mixture) and baby carrots cooked in the soup served as the main course. The second paid homage to the first, being prepared the same way and the third was eaten last night. Stuffed with chestnut, chive and celery stuffing, put in an open cast iron casserole with half a pint of giblet stock and a glass of white wine, covered with strips of our own streaky bacon it pot roasted its way to deliciousness. We served it to friends on Easter Sunday with parsnip and carrot mash, red cabbage, and rosemary roast potatoes. Mmmm mmm mmm. The carrot, parsnip, cockerel thing being so fab, I used the carcase to make chicken stock and threw in more of the same root veggies (I had dug up all our remaining parsnips that afternoon and instead of finding the half dozen or so I expected, two dozen big uns emerged and needed using), some cumin, coriander and celery salt. That'll provide us with soup for at least three days.
Now the vegetable garden has been cleared, mucked and rotovated, we have planted potatoes - organic Charlottes for earlies and Valour for main - carrots, chard and parsnips, and the stuff in the greenhouse is desperate to go out as soon as frost dangers seem to have passed. This is the first time I have lifted old parsnips and planted new over the same weekend, but in the spirit of rotation, they have a new position in the plot, where the muck is lightest. As always, I've had to put electric rabbit fencing round the plot to stop both rabbits and our own geese and ducks from chomping on the emerging shoots. As soon as the broad beans and brassicas go in they will need netting too to save them from pigeon deforestation. I swear that the birds sit on the telegraph lines just waiting for me to plant out the tender young things, so the netting has to be done immediately the plants are put in the ground.

Friday, 9 April 2004

It's lambing time - 2004

The most demanding time on the smallholding is greeted with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. We put the ram in with the ewes at the beginning of November so that we lamb nice and late in the Spring at the beginning of April, so avoiding freezing February nights in the lambing shed. The ewes get wider and wider during March til some of them look like dining tables on spindly legs. You know the moment you have been waiting for is imminent when their nipples are the size of organ stops and lying down uncomfortably is their only activity between eagerly consumed feeds. Once you have your first few lambs, you spend your time peering nervously at the remaining expectant mothers, knowing that they are going to get started the moment you are needed elsewhere, and will probably need your unavailable help. This year we have had an unusual amount of singles and that makes for bigger lambs which in turn means the ewe is more likely to need a human latex-covered hand. The best moments are at 5.30 in the morning doing the first round of the day, and a pair of beautifully presented lambs are suckling eagerly at their attentive mother having needed no help from you at all. A quick dose of iodine on their navels to prevent infection, a bucket of congratulatory feed and one of water for the ewe (they drain that first post-birth bucket like a fugitive from the desert) and they are back outside. Each year we wonder at their behaviour, but why is it that the mums-to-be all cluster together and that the new mums set up creche in a separate cluster, welcoming each new mum as the ewes moves inexorably from one status to the other? After about a week, the lambs start to play together and leave the ewes for longer periods to congregate like kids in the school yard, playing chase at ever increasing speeds along the fenceline, proving that lambs do indeed have legs made of springs, by displays of vertical take-off. All this is very cliched and will be familiar to anyone with sheep, but each year it is a fresh miracle, and the sight of lambs continues to stop cars along the lane and gives folks time to grin on the way to and from work.

Friday, 30 January 2004

A world of grey

The column inches will turn into column miles - that's the one thing we can be sure of. What is disturbing me into "having a blog" is that the world of grey in which I live seems to have been aristocratically Huttonized into a universe of black and white. The government is all shiny, new and wondrous. The BBC is murky, guilty and heads will roll. Whether wittingly or not Lord Hutton seems to have undermined his inquiry by having taken such a strangely monochrome approach to what must be an incredibly complicated and difficult series of events. If the BBC made mistakes, and I bet they have, what possible benefit can be had from sacrificing Greg Dyke? Surely a leader needs to lead in good times and bad, take it on the chin, deal with it and when appropriate refute allegations where they are unfounded or unfair. That the BBC Governors found it necessary for Dyke to fall on his sword says more about their cowardice and inability to be independent than it does about any culpability. If apologies need to be made, then make them and move on. Anyone who saw Tony Blair on the news last night (January 2004) glinting from underneath his newly polished halo could have been forgiven for retching over their TV dinners.