Thursday, 17 April 2014

A little pot of, err, sugar

Yesterday afternoon, my hopes were raised of a pleasant mouthful or two of free fodder by a notice in the office tea room saying that there were yogurts in the fridge and anyone could take one.
When I looked, they were gooseberry flavoured – hmmm, gooseberry.
But, my Homer Simpson moment over, I decided – being me – to risk looking a gift horse in the mouth and check the ingredients.
Sure enough, these “low fat” yogurts had a lengthy ingredient list – lengthy for a yogurt with fruit, anyway.
So, what does a Tesco low fat gooseberry yogurt contain?
The following is exactly as listed:
Yogurt (milk) 75%, Gooseberry 8%, Sugar, Glucose-fructose syrup, Gooseberry juice from concentrate (4%) modified maize starch, flavouring, Thickener (pectin), Nettle concentrate, Spinach concentrate, Curcuma concentrate
The last one is related to the spice turmeric.
In other words, as well as the natural sugars occurring in milk and the fruit, it had added sugar, added glucose-fructose syrup and added fruit juice – which, in concentrating fruit, increases the sugar content.
Y’know, just in case you want to train your sweet tooth.
Doubtless the spinach is there for colour, as may well be the case for the nettle too. Thickener is presumably required because the yogurt is left so insipidly thin after the fat is stripped out.
Heaven alone know why the addition of an extra, and somewhat mysterious, “flavouring” is required – doesn’t the gooseberry taste of anything? Or the fruit juice? And that’s without mentioning the nettle and spinach which presumably make some contribution to the overall taste.
And there’s enough sugar in a single, small pot to keep Willy Wonka happy. Of a 125g portion, 17.4% sugars, which is apparently 19% of your daily recommended allowance. In a tiny pot.
On the other hand, that same small pot has just 2.4g of fat – which is 3% of your RDA.
So remind me – this, by virtue of being “low fat”, is a healthy product, right?
Yogurt – healthy.
Fruit – healthy.
Low fat – healthy.
It’s that easy, although this is a perfect illustration of why people are confused.

And it should go without saying that Tesco is hardly the only company marketing in this way – it's a widespread issue.
On the other hand: take some fruit – rhubarb’s in season at this time of year – and cook it down gently with a little sugar and a small amount of water.
Decant into a sterilised container and allow to cool. Pop it in the fridge.
Take some plain, organic, full-fat yogurt with no additives.
Spoon some into a bowl. Add some of your fruit compote.
Consume with pleasure.
Oh, and I declined the offer.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Health stories to make you give up: pt2

A salad of rare quality
The award for the biggest throw-your-hands-up-in-despair moment to come out of last weeks health stories was not membership fees for the NHS or even African sand clogging up our lungs.

It goes instead to University College London for announcing that five a day isn’t enough, and we should all aim for seven a day.

Actually, there’s no scientific evidence that five – or seven – a day is an essential health requirement, although this advice does at least have the benefit of making sense.

The recommendation also says not that the majority of your seven should come from veggies, because fruit contains sugar and even natural sugars should be treated with care.

At which point I find myself musing over whether olives and tomatoes – technically fruits – count as such in this context.

I’m not bad on the old five a day: sometimes I don’t make it and sometimes I get more than that.

Breakfast is the biggest bugbear though.

A helpful – or attempting to be – piece on the BBC website last week was trying to suggest how you could increase your intake of veg, but managed only one practical (sort of) suggestion: adding a handful of spinach to a breakfast omelette.

Now, my understanding on five a day has long been that a portion is something like a whole apple, where it's an obvious whole, or about 80g of a food that doesn’t come as such a convenient handful.

But that’s an awful lot of spinach – or any other leafy food.

The advice also suggests swerving clear of fruit juice and drinks like smoothies, simply because they concentrate a lot of fruit – and therefore sugar – into a single portion.

And also based on my understanding of previous advice, only one portion of any veg counts per day – so no, if you have three portions of mushrooms, you can’t count it as three – and the same goes for pulses.

Variety is part of what makes sense.

To be honest, I ignore the fruit juice one myself – a small glass a day of pure stuff will not be the death of me.

So how else do you get your five – let alone seven?

Weekends are easy. On Sunday, for instance, I had a late but substantial breakfast, with quality bacon and scrambled egg, fried bread – and enough tomato, mushrooms and baked beans to constitute three portions. Plus a glass of fruit juice.

After that, it’s a coast.

Dinner came with carrots and leeks, and there was a little fruit after.

That was seven without any strain.

The difficulty is weekdays.

The most I’m likely to get if I breakfast at home is fruit compote (which means some added sugar) in plain (unsweetened) yogurt and a small glass of juice.

These days, breakfast out usually means eggs on toast – the toast might not be top-quality bread, but at least it's mostly my only bread of the day.

Quality eggs on toast
Lunches are easier – if I take my own, which I manage approximately 2/3 of the time, then it’ll be assorted salad and pickled veg, with some source of protein.

But if lunches are bought out, then most of the time I either end up with soup (vegetarian, so a source of at least one portion) or something between lumps of factory bread, which is never going to give you much on the greens front.

It’s worth noting here that mass-produced bread may be the reason for the rise in some intolerances: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people who cannot eat bread in the UK because it makes them feel bloated, but have no such problem on the other side of the Channel. And that’s without mentioning the taste.

However, back to those bought lunches: most salads struggle to be appetising.

Last week saw an exception that proved the rule. Arriving early in Islington for a job, I had time to while away and a need for lunch, so took the opportunity to enjoy the first al fresco meal of the year on a gorgeous spring day, at a café called The Blue Legume (geddit?).

Scanning the menu, I opted for a goat’s cheese salad.

It came in a large bowl that was filled with a veritable mountain of assorted leaves, plus cherry tomatoes, all topped with garlic ‘crouton’ – actually a thick piece of baguette, sliced on the bias – and a roundel of very slightly melted cheese, and with a dressing that included loads of finely-chopped walnut.

The main thing to point out is that the leaves were worth eating – not bland or lifeless or left in a dressing for hours to become simply depressing, as it so often the case. Even the little tomatoes had actual taste – no mean achievement in this country, particularly at this time of year.

The crouton was seriously garlicky, the cheese as pleasing as it should be and the dressing an ideal compliment without overwhelming everything or soaking the leaves.

I like salad, but there’s a reason I still remember one eaten in a café for local office workers near the railway station in Perpignan in spring 2006.

And the reason that I remember it was because it wasn’t a posh café and yet it was one of the first times I realised how good leaves can be – and it had three sorts of cheese and not just the one, rather bland one that you’d be likely to get in the UK if you ordered a cheese salad.

Dinner, as on Sunday, sorts itself out quite efficiently: it's not difficult or time-consuming to peel and slice a carrot and toss a few peas into boiling water out of the freezer – and frozen peas are one of lifes decent conveniences that dont destroy the nutrition.

But given UK food culture in general, it’s not difficult to see why anyone would, on reading this new health advice, just feel like giving up entirely.

Ultimately, all this sort of advice seems counterproductive and will leave people feeling that they face impossible challenges – particularly if they read enough to know that it’s not even grounded in concrete scientific proof.

So what do you do? The easiest thing, it seems to me – and I realise that this too has its logistical complexities – is to eat fresh food, freshly prepared; to eat as little heavily processed food as possible and to eat as big a variety of vegetables as possible.

Eat good-quality protein, cut back on the crap bread, eat three meals a day and don’t snack as a matter of routine.

Dont worry about a couple of sugars in your afternoon cuppa, but avoiding processed foods and loads of fizzy drinks will keep your sugar consumption down – and there seems to be a growing body of evidence that artificial sweeteners arent good for health either. But do drink water – something that you can even get free.

Apart from our food culture, though, there is another elephant in the room. And that is falling incomes and the rising cost of living.

It’s easy to tell people to eat better: to eat this or that or the other. But when the majority of people’s incomes have been falling steadily for 30 years – and more rapidly in recent ones – against a rising cost of living, then something has to give.

And for many, one of the few things that they feel they can control to a degree is food. It’s arguably easier to buy cheaper food than it is to cut lighting or heating beyond a certain point.

It’s no surprise that, in the last few years, average household spending on food has declined further, from a point that was already well below that on the Continent.

If we really want to change how people eat, there are a very great many things that need changing. Hectoring them with constant messages about what they should eat and how many minutes of how many days a week they should do whatever amount of exercise really will only start to make them feel it’s all hopeless anyway.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Health stories to make you want to give up: pt1

The patio at Voluptuous Villas, last week
Last week was a joyous one for the sort of health news that makes you want to throw your hands up in the air, roll your eyes, shout ‘Arghhhhhhh!!!!!’ and just give up the ghost.

After all, what can we do about the pollution?

African sand, coming over here, clogging up our lungs …

And yes, there was indeed sand visible on the patio in humble Hackney.

Of course, the real story shouldn’t be about Saharan sand taking a vacation in northern Europe – it’s not a unique occurrence – but about the fact that it adds to a home-grown pollution problem that is rarely talked about in the mainstream media.

And if there’s an underlying pollution issue, one wonders what on earth our politicians have been doing about it. Well, the answer is next to sod all, since none of them seem to want to deal with traffic fumes – a major culprit – or have any idea how to actually reduce the amount of traffic on our roads.

The EU is taking action against the UK (and more than a dozen more) over its failure to tackle the issue of pollution – a problem that has been exacerbated by the increasing switch to diesel, which produces a lot of nitrogen dioxide.

This is anecdotal, but when I get off the bus in the morning, on Euston Road, the stink from the fumes can be deeply unpleasant – and it would be difficult not to conclude that it cannot be healthy.

The general layer of perpetual grime that exists in the capital – and elsewhere to a lesser extent – doesn’t detract from that impression either.

It’s a situation that will improve as more low-emissions vehicles take their place, but it’s not going to happen overnight, and most experts think that a range of measures are required, including improving public transport.

It raises that old philosophical question of freedoms: there’s plenty of sentiment in the UK for the ‘right’ to drive a car, but one wonders whether the same people would really conclude, were the question put to them, whether their freedom to drive a car trumped the freedom to breathe safely and easily of the population as a whole?

Obviously, serious political will would be necessary – as in many other areas of life, including tackling emission from poorly-built or insulated housing – and it’s difficult to see where that would come from in terms of the mainstream political parties in the UK, whether they are ideologically supportive of the supra-national corporatocracy, too scared to take it on or devoid of any idea about how to do that.

Anyone imagine this is healthy?
Of the smaller parties, UKIP wants to strip away employment rights and regulation on the grounds that they’re ‘red tape’ and damage businesses, so you cannot really see them being prepared to take or support decisive action on pollution, which would almost certainly require taking on big business interests as well as potentially limiting the ‘freedom’ for everyone to drive a car.

Which leaves the Greens, who have ceased to be a single-issue party and seem to be coming up with policy ideas that actually dare to step away from the obsession with failed neo-liberalism.

The reality with the supra-national corporatocracy, though, means that it’s going to pretty much need the continent to come together as one and say: ‘enough is enough: the world isn’t run primarily for your profits’.

On the UK front, perhaps we will learn more come election – and manifesto – time.

In the meantime, while you’re mulling the health implications of pollution, you might want to remember the call, also last week, from Lord Warner, who advised Tony Blair’s government on health ‘reform’, for people to pay a £10 a month ‘membership’ fee for using the NHS.

This is a little bit of a reminder that we haven’t reached the current situation of the blatant privatisation of the NHS from a standing start: Blair’s government continued with and expanded policies in that direction.

It was and remains an ideology of privatisation. There was no business case for the sell-off of NHS Logistics under Blair, just as there is no business case for the present governments plan to re-privatise East Coast Trains after two failed private contracts and a successful – in terms of finances and customer satisfaction – re-nationalisation of the service.

A certain sour taste was triggered by seeing some of the same media outlets that have been quiet about privatisation now up in arms over the NHS ‘membership’ fee idea.

But one doesn’t have to be a hardened cynic to see that this was floating an idea that may well re-occur in a slightly different way. A fiver a month, anyone? Expect it to crop up sometime.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Small pleasures, from good eggs to good books

Della Street and Perry Mason
It’s doubtful that there is any better way to start a working day than a leisurely breakfast with a good book by your side.

If it means getting up a tad earlier and rushing a bit more, the more relaxed minutes that follow make it worth while.

And Albertini, a small, local café just off Euston Road – so just away from the worst of the traffic fumes and noise – is the perfect spot for such indulgence.

Even the simplest foods can be got wrong. On Tuesday, with an appointment elsewhere early in the morning, breakfast was taken in an old-fashioned greasy spoon, where the eggs and baked beans did the job of providing fuel, but nothing more.

But whoever is on duty at Albertini in a morning, be it Albert or Tini, they make a mean fried egg on toast, and it’s one of life’s small pleasures to sit and eat, taking care to avoid any of the rich, golden yolk dripping onto the plate.

And then there’s the coffee: a good old-fashioned, plain white mug – none of that overpriced, absurdly-named stuff so beloved of the endless chains that have invaded these shores in the wake of Friends.

There are no baristas at Albertini, but there is always good coffee, at a decent price.

Once the eggs are consumed, I pull the mug closer and return to whatever my current reading matter is.

It’s all been fiction of late – simply because my non-fiction reading, volume one of John Richardson’s behemoth of a three-volume Life of Picasso (with a fourth volume in the offing) may be brilliant, but it is also far too big and too heavy to lug around in a day-to-day bag.

And as so often, crime fiction is what I turn to when I want something a little lighter to read, but which still doesn’t actually insult the little grey cells.

So here is a brief look at a few recent reads – although that doesn’t mean they’re new books.

Earl Stanley Gardener’s the Case of the Stuttering Bishop is really the odd one out in this batch – it’ll become clear why quite quickly – so I’ll start with that.

There’s not really much to say about the Perry Mason books except that they’re fun in a fairly predictable way, but without the writing itself being too ‘pulpy’.

When I lodged in Bloomsbury some years ago, my landlady had most of them, in lovely old editions, on narrow shelves in the flat’s littlest room. I developed a fondness for them then and it was nice to return to one now.

They remain snappy and twisty, with a strong set of central characters – even though the descriptions are largely irrelevant, because I can’t see Mason as anyone other than the late Raymond Burr and Della Street as anyone other than Barbara Hale, while William Katt (Hale’s son), who played Paul Drake in the later TV reincarnation, looks nothing like the Drake of the written page.

But no matter, it was good fun.

Arturo Peréz-Reverte is the Spanish author who has given us, among many other works, The Club Dumas, which was subsequently adapted into The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp.

The Flanders Panel starts with the discovery of a hidden clue in an old work of art, hinting at foul deeds.

In a 15th-century Flemish painting, two noblemen are pictured playing chess. Yet two years before it was painted, one of them had been murdered.

Five centuries later, in Madrid, picture restorer Julia is preparing the work for auction and uncovers a hidden inscription in Latin that points to the crime: Quis necavit equitem? Who killed the knight?

But this isn’t just a medieval mystery, because it becomes clear that, even after five centuries, the game isn’t up.

Combining art and chess, Peréz-Reverte spins a tale that possesses a genuinely creepy quality. And he writes so convincingly that you do find yourself wondering if the painting and the painter really existed.

Thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying, and with a conclusion that surprises – well, it surprised me.

Montalbano and Catarella
Having discovered that another Spanish writer, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, influenced Andrea Camilleri to the extent that the latter named his own protagonist after him, I decided to chase down some of the books that are available in translation.

Murder in the Central Committee possibly isn’t the best of the Pepe Carvalho series to begin with, since it uproots the private detective from his usual Barcelona setting and sends him to Madrid to solve an apparent closed-room killing.

In a Spain still recovering from the Franco years, the murder of the general secretary of the country’s communist party causes unrest.

Can Carvalho, drafted in as a former member of the party because he understands its workings, solve the case?

Rather over-wordy on occasion – particularly when he’s illustrating that he does actually know the politics – it’s still an interesting read with a quirky central character, and while Montalbán isn’t in the business of rubbishing communism, he’s good on the way people will argue over the finest imaginable points of what could be described as political theology.

I look forward to reading one of the Carvalho books that’s set in Barcelona.

But this moves us nicely to Camilleri and The Voice of the Violin, the fourth of his series of novels about Sicilian police inspector, Montalbano.

Here, our hero is faced with the murder of a woman that has all the hallmarks of having been the result of a burglary – or was it a rape?

Camilleri can, extraordinarily, create stories of tragedy and horror, highlighting corruption and venality and many another human failing, yet all with a sense of humour underlying the deep cynicism.

Salvo Montalbano is a wonderful protagonist – unorthodox, flawed but humane, and there’s a delightful cast of other regular characters too. In this novel in particular, the well-meaning but woefully inept policeman Catarella offers comic delight, as well as providing a way to comment on ‘modern’ approaches to policing.

And if Montalbano was named in homage to Montalbán, then another common factor is the love of food of both author’s central figures.

Mind, just as with Perry Mason, I can now no longer read about Montalbano without seeing Luca Zingaretti in my minds eye. Theyre wonderful adaptations, but it leaves you with the question of whether seeing them impinges on the altogether more individual experience of reading the stories.

It’s not as though, however, these a 'bad' performances or examples of casting. And Angelo RussoCatarella actually helps read the character's muddled language.

Finally, a new discovery from Italy.

Gianrico Carofiglio is a former anti-Mafia prosecutor-turned author from Bari, and Involuntary Witness serves as his introduction to lawyer Guido Guerrieri, who now features in three further novels.

Guerrieri’s wife is leaving him, he’s hitting an early mid-life crisis and depression that’s only exacerbated by making a living that often involves defending the less-than-innocent.

Then he finds himself defending a Senegalese immigrant who is accused of murdering a nine-year-old boy.

Not only does he have his own demons to contend with, the lawyer faces small-town racism and a judicial system that is going to make any defence difficult.

If all that sounds incredibly heavy going, it’s to Carofiglio’s enormous credit that it simply flies past, leavened as it is with a great deal of dark, self-deprecating humour.

A great onslaught on the idea of Italian machismo, Carofiglio has produced a powerful novel about redemption.

It’s absolutely superb – just don’t read the final pages anywhere in public, whether on a bus or over a plate of eggs on toast in a café anywhere.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

We’re not yet the 51st state

A proper Mothering Sunday gift
If you wanted a brief illustration of much of what is wrong in the world today, it came on Sunday morning via Twitter.

It was early morning on Mothering Sunday and @IntelUK had decided to promote a tweet – ie spend money ensuring it becomes an online version of unsolicited junk mail – to say: “Make sure mum has everything she needs to relax this Mother’s Day #inteltablets”.

Now, when you’re going to have a bit of a rant, you might as well go the whole hog. In which case …

It was not “Mother’s Day”. That is a US invention that began early in the 20th century and is not linked to the many celebrations of mothers and motherhood that have occurred, around the rest of the world, for thousands of years.

Those have included the likes of the Greek cult of Cybele, the Roman festival of Hilaria – and the Christian world’s Mothering Sunday, which initially started out as being about returning to your ‘Mother Church’ – the main one in the area that you came from – for a service on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

As such, it became a rare day when domestic servants were given time off to attend their own mother churches – usually with their families and mothers – making this one of the few times in a year when families could be together.

According to tradition, children or young people in service would, as they made their way to join their families at church, pick flowers on the way and give them to their mothers.

Although it was still celebrated in many churches, the decline in widespread religiosity saw Constance Penswick-Smith create the Mothering Sunday Movement in the 1920s, inspired by the efforts of Anna Jarvis to create Mother’s Day in the US.

And American and Canadian troops, billeted here during WWII, made people aware of their own version, while in the 1950s, businesses saw an opportunity for flogging people stuff to mark the day.

Of course, in keeping with a country in which we now have school ‘proms’ (squirms at the mere thought) and students ‘graduate’ from school, and where Halloween has been developed into an ever bigger event (by those same businesses), one might conclude, with a shrug, that the Americanisation of the country is so far advanced that we might as well simply give in.

The really depressing thing, though, is how quickly so many Brits have given in to what has, largely, been a growth of interest that’s been orchestrated for commercial gain.

For goodness sake – what happened to leaving school on the last day with your shirt covered in autographs from your classmates?

Oh, that’s right: it didn’t provide an ‘opportunity’ for parents to spend loads in an effort to make sure that their son or daughter looks better than Mr and Mrs Jones’s offpring and arrives in a swankier car than Mr and Mrs Patel’s children.

Halloween? All about flogging cards and costumes and sweets and goodness knows what else for ‘trick or treating’. Mischief Night didn’t have the same cost implications – or the same profit potential.

And now, in order to show your mother that you care, Intel thinks you should buy her a tablet.

Right. My 84-year-old mother, who struggles with the DVD player, would really appreciate that sign of daughterly affection.

‘It’s a tablet, Mother.’

‘What do you mean, a tablet? I doesn’t remotely look like something anyone could swallow.’

‘It’s like a handbag-sized computer.’

‘So why is it called a tablet – and why do I want a computer of any size?’

‘It’ll make your life easier.”


This is, after all, a parent who, on those occasions that I have to re-run through using the DVD player, doesn’t know what I mean when I use words such as ‘menu’ and ‘curser’.

But Intel wanted me, presumably, to set my eyes on their early-morning tweet and leap from my bed with a ‘Eureka!’.

I’d have to phone my mother to say I’d be late to get around there to actually spend some time with her, and instead race to a shop.

A shop that’s open, of course, meaning that the staff themselves won’t be spending any quality Mothering Sunday time with their own families.

Once arrived in such a wonderful atmosphere, I will buy something that would be utterly redundant for her.

Because the only way in which you can show your mother that you care about her is to lash out money on a gadget.

And that, folks, is what Mothering Sunday is really all about; and that, in a nutshell, is a bloody good illustration of what’s wrong in the world today.