Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Lighter food for lighter, brighter days

Fresh and light and satisfying
With the improving weather – thank goodness we’re actually having a spring this year! – comes the desire to eat differently; lighter.

And it’s also the perfect time to try a few new things.

There have even been days, with real sun streaming down, when it was the perfect opportunity to pull out the salad spinner and rinse off some organic lettuce and winter purslane, and serve a huge plate of both, drizzled with virgin oil and a thinner balsamico, and topped with cheese.

Blue cheese suits such a dish perfectly, but in La Bouche earlier recently, I’d tried one that was new to me.

Beenliegh is an unpressed, soft blue from Devon, made from organic, unpasturised ewe’s milk. It’s creamy and moist, and beautifully fresh and subtle.

Get the right ingredients sourced and food doesn’t have to be complex to be very good.

A number of evenings recently have seen a dinner that was, if not a direct recreation, then was certainly inspired by a Jamie Oliver salmon dish that I’ve recently discovered.

He takes halved waxy potatoes and quartered fennel bulbs and boils them for six minutes, before draining and drying over the steam.

Salmon with fennel, sweet potato and herbs
Then they go in an oven-proof dish with olive oil, parsley, mint and garlic for something like half an hour, before the salmon – with more of the herby-garlicky mix on it – is placed on top and it goes back in the oven for a further 15 minutes.

It’s a lovely, easy dish, but I think a couple of tweaks help.

Set your oven to 180˚C (fan) and prep the fennel as above, not cutting off the base so that the pieces hold together. Retain the fronds.

Finely chop your mint, flat leaf parsley and garlic, and mix with plenty of olive oil.

Jamie’s version sprinkles the herbs and garlic over everything and then tops with oil, but I think that my way does two things: allows you to coat the ingredients more thoroughly and also reduces the chances of the garlic getting a tad burned.

So, pop in your fennel pieces and mix, and then add some sweet potato that has been peeled and cut into large chunks, instead of potato.

Gently stir around to coat everything. Season with good quality celery salt (my addition) and pop in the oven.

Lovely wild garlic
After 30 minutes, place your salmon fillets on top of the vegetables, scooping some of the oily, herby, garlicky mix on to the top.

And back it all goes for another 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

Serve with a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some black pepper, and topped with the chopped fennel fronds.

The advantage of swapping the potato for sweet potato is that the latter is a vegetable rather than a starchy carb, so it makes the dish a two-portion one rather than having just a single portion.

Mind, if you use lashing of garlic and herbs, those add up too.

Anyway, it’s easy. And tasty – and healthy.

A couple of stalls on Broadway Market also had wild garlic last week, so I grabbed a good handful of that while the opportunity was there.

The English asparagus is here
Later, the leaves were shredded and blitzed together with some spring onions, chives, garlic, pine nuts, a little salt and a teaspoon of sugar, with enough olive oil to give you a good pesto consistency.

You could add parmesan, but I don’t, since The Other Half doesn’t like cheese.

And an ideal way to use some of this lovely stuff – which keeps well in the fridge in a jar – is to cook some pasta, drain and return to the pan, adding some of the pesto with a little double cream and re-warming gently.

You wont need to use a lot of the pesto – it packs a serious punch.

Serve with fresh asparagus and peas and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper, and if you want, more parmesan.

A perfect, fresh and seasonal dish for a midweek supper.

And on a final note – and a slightly different one: this is worth reading about the cost of asparagus from Peru.

Ignore the slightly puritanical tone of  lust for this luxury vegetable etc, but the point remains that there are severe environmental issues created by a global market for a cheap, seasonal vegetable, sent half way around the world to fill – or create – consumer demand outside our own season.

Monday, 21 April 2014

The new butcher of Broadway Market

A brand new butcher
Broadway Market has seen a change or two over recent weeks. Henry Tidiman’s has finally closed after a year of seeing reduced hours.

Hopefully, Henry can now enjoy a long and relaxing retirement.

But just as I was lamenting the loss of a butcher on the street – the premises will, from what I’ve heard, be turned into another eatery of some variety – something unexpected happened.

Another butcher opened, on almost the opposite side of the street.

The shop has been through various incarnations since the street started to revive, but it had, many, many years ago, been a butcher.

It’s quite possible that it had even been the shop that Henry’s father had run, giving us a rather pleasing sense of synchronicity.

Anyway, Hill & Szrok, master butcher, is now with us – and most welcome.

By day, it is a traditional butcher – very traditional, as the design reveals. Tom Richardson Hill is most certainly a butcher who combines a serious commitment to traditional butchery with an understanding of what a modern clientele in an area such as ours needs.

In the evening, an hour after closing, Alex Szrok takes over and operates it as a cookshop, taking a fresh look at that aspect of our culinary heritage.

There are a couple of important things worth noting. The shop will open to 6pm – pretty much essential these days for any new, independent food outlet that wants to catch people on their way home from work and offer a real alternative to supermarkets.

It helps to allow a Paris-style of shopping for food: being able to buy fresh, from independents, after work.

Since Broadway Market now has a fishmonger with a similar approach – Fin & Founder – and two organic greengrocers that open late (plus a range of very good Turkish general grocers) and La Bouche, which doesn’t close early, I can travel home and still shop for that evening’s meal.

The next thing to note is that Hill & Szrok is an organic butcher.

Forget the plastic
The area has changed – it doesn’t matter if some think that’s good and some think it’s bad – but it’s simply a fact that we’ve become the next stop on the eastwards-moving trendification of London’s East End.

That causes issues – not least in terms of the prices of housing in the area – but also in terms of prices on Broadway Market.

However, it’s also important to be realistic.

Broadway Market was all but dead little more than a decade ago.

The myriad shops that Henry described to me had, apart from his own, been consigned to history – in part because local people had decided that shopping at a big box Tesco was what they wanted.

Anything opening now has to ride the wave of the revival of interest in food.

However it’s characterised by some, that isn’t just ‘foodieism’, but reflects a number of trends – particularly among more middle-class people who can afford not to have to shop as cheaply as possible.

Lovely burgers
Last year’s horse meat farce is one such reason – people care increasingly about provenance for a very good reason. They’re also increasingly concerned about GM, about the use of antibiotics and hormones in their meat, about the sustainability of fish and about seasonality.

What’s happening on Broadway Market merely reflects that.

There is, as I’ve mentioned previously and touched on a few paragraphs ago, a question of money.

The UK has long seen households spend a lower percentage of their income on food than households on the Continent. And in the last few years, that gap has widened further.

While there are myriad issues with a wide cultural attitude of seeing food as fuel, and nursing a deep-seated suspicion of anyone who spends ‘too much’ time and money on it, it remains almost certainly the case that the recent further decline is down to stagnating and declining wages.

We know that incomes for everyone apart from those at the very top have fallen steadily for the last 30-odd years, while the cost of living has risen – not least in areas that are not even counted for the sake of inflation figures, such as housing and domestic fuel bills.

This is what I call a butcher
But since the 2008 crash – and even more so since 2010 – that decline has increased for many. The rise of foodbanks is an indicator of that.

And when many of our fellow citizens are having to make choices about whether to pay the gas bill or to cut back on what they spend on food, then this is not the best time to finger wag about how they should all eat better.

Mind, even with all the ‘added value’ at Hill & Szrok, it’s not as pricy as I expected.

But let’s go back to our new butcher: we’ve had a few things from there now – I admit to an almost giddy delight in being handed a package that is not bagged in plastic with a sticky red tie at the top, but wrapped carefully in proper paper, tied neatly and then handed to me in a simple paper bag.

When you walk in, there’s usually some serious butchery going on in the centre of the shop, often involving some huge pieces of meat – Tom also ages his own beef. This is the antithesis of the supermarket, with its pristinely-packed cuts sweating under plastic.

Beautiful pork
And Tom does not believe in all the nonsense about low fat being vital for continued good health either.

Oh my goodness – proper layers of creamy fat on meat, the like of which you suspected you’d never again see in a UK butcher.

A week ago, it was time for a piece of pork. I don’t often cook pork, because I’m terrified of that entire business of drying it out too much, but this was far too tempting.

It was a 2kg piece of boned, rolled leg – not done as a perfect tube, but, Tom explained to me, more like a bloomer in shape, because there are three types of muscle in that cut and, unless you butcher it the way he does, it will not cook evenly.

So, the oven was heated to its maximum and the meat brought out of the fridge to come to room temperature before having good salt rubbed into the scored skin.

It was given 20 minutes at the high temperature and then 20 minutes per 450g at 160˚C (fan), before being rested for 15 minutes.

Real gravy, reheating. Eat your heart out, Knorr
Gravy was made not from some pre-bought pot, but by first sweating shallot, carrot and celery, then adding dry cider and chopped apple, and simmering gently to reduce.

When the meat came out of the oven, the roasting dish was deglazed with that cidery mix, before having the fat separated off (my Lidl fat separator has proved a great bargain) and decanted into a small, copper pan, where it was reheated and then thickened carefully with beurre manié. Good enough to keep what was left over and reheat during the week.

Indeed, the pork did us a number of meals: how old-fashioned – buying a joint for the weekend and having plenty left for the days that follow.

And the pork itself was wonderful.

A wonderful leg of lamb
We’ve also had some of Tom’s burgers. Dense and lightly spiced, they produce actual blood when grilled – in other words, these are the real deal.

And a piece of boned, rolled lamb was excellent too.

This Easter weekend, being a traditionalist, it was back there for a leg of lamb. Longwood has had so little fat on its lamb in recent weeks I wanted to make sure I got some with a decent coat.

It was 2.1kg, so was started at 190˚C (fan) for half an hour, before being given a further 30 minutes per 450g. So three hours in total, give or take a minute or so, and followed with 15 minutes resting.

Served with English asparagus and the first Jersey Royals of the year – you know winter is really behind us when these appear – with a lovely jus from the meat juices, it was an absolute, melt-in-the-mouth joy.

Broadway Market has a new butcher – and it is most welcome. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Matisse: colour, light and form to soothe the soul

The Mermaid and Parakeet (1952-54)
It might have been officially organised; it might not. In room five, hung to reflect the studio at Vence, sprawled or kneeling or seated on the wooden floor below the frames was arrayed a group of small girls, dressed in pink princess attire, studiously drawing and crayoning away, working to reproduce what was in front of them.

If ever you wanted to illustrate the point that ‘no, your five-year-old could not do that’, this seemed the perfect way.

Matisse: The cut-outs opened just three days ago at the Tate Modern to almost universal critical acclaim – I say “almost,” because Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard could not resist the sort of characteristic sneer that makes the reader feel they’ve just bitten into a lemon.

Not that Sewell was alone in his carping. Positive reviews in both the Guardian and Telegraph were followed, online, by post after post trumpeting the view that a tot could do the same. It was like the old fuzzy felt toys, someone asserted, while another proclaimed the works as being akin only to the halved potato prints of primary school.

The Horse, the Rider and the Clown (1943)
Mind, they’re in good company, since Matisse was on Hitler’s list of ‘degenerate’ artists.

One poster – revealing that depressing, dismally British distrust of anything that could be remotely construed as ‘intellectual’ – berated another poster who had admitted – shock horror – to having actually read a book about art.

‘Can’t you judge a painting without reading about it?’ came the sneering question.

You can enjoy a Beethoven sonata without reading about it, but that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to learn – and more to then appreciate – if you have the inclination to explore further.

The cut-outs are a very good illustration of why having some background knowledge is helpful – although I’m equally sure that many who visit the exhibition will enjoy it regardless while, of course, some with knowledge might well dislike it.

But there are a number of things to bear in mind.

To begin with, something that appears simple and effortless does mean it was, and simplicity itself does not equate with childishness.

Composition on a Green Ground (1947)
Technically, I challenge any of the naysayers to take a piece of paper – any paper will do – and cut the sort of shapes from it that Matisse did as he “carved into colour”. To say that I’d struggle would be an understatement. And yet, with scissors that look like dressmaking shears, he cut into paper with extraordinary speed and confidence, as film reveals.

The shapes he cut, from gouache-painted paper, were often curvaceous, sensual and flowing: there is nothing clumsy about them.

And then there are the eventual compositions – sometimes pasted onto more paper, sometimes pinned – which have a rhythmic, harmonious quality. There is nothing haphazard about the placing.

After an initially crowded few rooms, the throng thinned out and we were able to sit on a bench and get lost in the vast, wall-filling Mermaid and the Parakeet (1952-54), which is a perfect illustration of what I mean.

Matisse also created a wonderful sense of movement in many of these works. The Other Half pointed out, when I mentioned this, that yes, well the room we were in at the time did feature works related to dance.

But there is movement here in a way that doesn’t exist in Degas’s beautiful paintings of the ballet.

Such movement is not unique to Matisse’s latest period. You can find it in the earlier (1932) vast pieces he worked on in paint for US collector Dr Albert C Barnes and in Dance (II), an oil on canvas from 1910.

Woman with Amphora  (1953)
Even in Toboggan (1943, for Jazz), the figure falling off is doing so in a sensual way, yet one that has movement too.

These works radiate energy.

And not just energy, but life.

Matisse was an old man when he created them. Often in pain after a botched but still life-saving operation for stomach cancer, much of the final years of his life were spent in bed or in a wheelchair.

But he didn’t stop. Though he could no longer paint, he developed into an art form in its own right what had begun as a way of testing composition for paintings.

It was “a race with death”, says biographer Hilary Spurling, but for all his sense of impending mortality, and for all the frustration his infirmity caused him, there is nothing here that suggests an artist sinking into despair.

Quite the opposite. And as death neared, the scale of the works increased.

It’s surprising to see The Snail (1953), a vast, abstracted square that perfectly shows that reproduction doesn’t always do a work justice. Reduced to a small copy, it loses its power.

There are within these works, recollections of a trip, 40 years previously, to Tahiti, and of an earlier one to North Africa. But the exoticism is utterly different to that in the works of Gauguin.

Blue Nude II (1952)
We can see two versions of Woman with Amphora (both 1953), one a ‘negative’ of the other: blue on white and white on blue. They reside in Washington and Paris, meaning that this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view them side by side.

The Blue Nudes, seen in the UK for the first time, are iconic. And the same can be said of The Fall of Icarus, which, along with less-familiar maquettes, was created for the seminal book, Jazz, which is displayed in both original and printed versions.

Matisse himself was never fully satisfied with the printing process: no matter how good it was, it didn’t reveal the layers of works he created, and seeing each maquette against each printed page you understand what he meant.

Having grown up in an area of northern France that specialised in textiles, Matisse had always loved fabric, collected scraps throughout his adult life and often reflected that fascination in his paintings.

And at this stage in his career, we find a fusion, a seamless blending, between ‘fine art’ (whatever that means) and graphic design.

Two of book covers are worth particular mention – one was for the 1952 book, The Decisive Moment, a collection of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who photographed his fellow artist more than once, and the second was for a 1949 title, Les Fauves, by Georges Duthuit. It was as though Matisse had come full circle.

The Fall of Icarus (1943)
Not only was he often in physical discomfort in his later years, but there was an emotional toll too.

His wife had left him; one son was in New York and another in the Resistance along with his daughter, who was incredibly lucky to survive torture by the Gestapo at the end of the war.

In the plate for Jazz, Monsieur Loyal, we surely see a silhouette of de Gaulle and with it, a rare political statement from the artist.

Picasso regarded his long-time rival as “a magician” when it came to colour.

Ah yes: colour. A passion for colour imbued by the revelation of the dazzling light of the south in a son of the north, so like van Gogh before him.

And the vibrancy of these works is astonishing. Surely, you find yourself asking, that colour should not sit well with that one? But they do.

There is a luminosity too.

Christmas Eve (1952)
Some works were intended as maquettes for carpets or friezes and stained glass, including the windows at the chapel at Vence, which he designed and oversaw the building of – he even designed the chausables – as a way of thanking a nun who had nursed him. It had church leaders squirming at his approach.

Matisse himself was a non-believer, having thrown off the oppressive, dark religion of his youth, but it’s hard not to see something spiritual in these works: a light that burns ever brighter as he moved toward the inevitable.

The final room pairs one maquette with the stained glass window that was subsequently produced. Christmas Eve (1952) contains little in the way of obvious religious iconography, but it radiates something that goes beyond simple colour or form or, as some might patronisingly describe it, ‘decoration’.

A life struggling to put onto canvas or paper what he saw and felt was almost over. But in these final works it is undoubtedly the case that Matisse created something extraordinary and very special: something continues to glow like a star.

And no: your five-year-old really couldn’t do the same.

Henri Matisse: The cut-outs is at the Tate Modern in London until 7 September and then, from October, at the Museum of Modern Art in new York.

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.